Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
January 18, 2010
As always, we owe a great deal to Dr. Monts and his staff, as well as Dr. John Matlock, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, and the Martin Luther King Committee for bringing us this important Symposium.
Please join me in thanking them for their leadership in building such a thoughtful series of events, including bringing the accomplished journalist, Gwen Ifill, to our campus.
“Be a catalyst for change.”
These are the words of Shirley Chisholm that have shaped this year’s Symposium. “Be a catalyst for change.”
I have been thinking about her mandate quite a bit in recent days, particularly as our campus pauses to reflect on the life of former University President Robben Fleming, who passed away a week ago today.
Robben Fleming possessed an extraordinary personality, one particularly well suited for an era when conflict, tension and unrest were the norms on college campuses. He was calm in the face of chaos and he listened to many, many passionate voices.
Most important, he moved our University forward in ways that continue to benefit students, faculty and staff.
This year, 2010, marks the 40th anniversary of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. CAAS has devoted the last four decades to exploring Africa and the African diaspora in the context of our world, through interdisciplinary courses, community outreach, and academic exchange programs.
CAAS came about because of U-M students and faculty, and because of President Fleming. In 1970, students and faculty rightfully protested the poor representation of African-Americans on this campus. In fact, they stood on the steps of this building and threatened to shut down the University unless changes were made.
President Fleming listened, and responded. And among his many reactions to this campus crisis was to move forward and make real the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.
With 40 years to its name, CAAS has educated thousands of students and prepared countless scholars to carry on and expand the knowledge they gained here.
To see that outgrowth, one can look some 40 miles from here, in downtown Detroit.
One of the offerings of CAAS has been an undergraduate course in urban and community studies, cross-listed with the Residential College. Three years ago, based on their positive experiences in that course, several students came forward with an exciting proposal. The University, they said, should offer an intense academic program that places students in Detroit.
Not for a day, not for a weekend, but for an entire semester. Just as U-M students study abroad to gain knowledge, they also should travel to Detroit to live in and learn about Michigan’s largest city and what it means to the future of urban life.
Now in its second year, the Semester in Detroit program involves nearly two dozen Michigan students. They are engaged in a unique curriculum and, equally important, engaged in community organizations throughout Detroit.
They are learning about urban planning, history, sustainability, race and geography. They are taking those classroom lessons and applying them in schools, neighborhood centers, businesses and soup kitchens. And they are staying in Detroit long after the semester ends.
They are learning about themselves and their capacity to make a difference and be a catalyst. They are changing the community as much as the community is changing them. As one student says, “This kind of experiential learning helps you see your place in the world.”
Change happens when people listen to others and act upon their concerns, as President Fleming did in helping to establish CAAS.
Change unfolds through teaching and scholarship, as demonstrated by CAAS faculty and professors throughout our University who are committed to broadening our understanding of the world with their knowledge and insight.
And change occurs when people come forward to make a difference through thought and action, as we are seeing with students who study and live in Detroit – students inspired by today’s faculty and by a program with roots in a soft-spoken academic leader from a past generation.
This is what it means to be a catalyst and to initiate change, to make a difference with your ideas and your actions. The ramifications can be boundless, and the benefits lasting.
Reverend King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”
As individuals and as a university, we must always find answers to that question.