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Expressions of King’s Legacy has done more than bring powerful, recognized speakers to RIT’s Henrietta campus. It launched a 35-year conversation on diversity and race relations that has brought defining changes to the university and the community.
“RIT has long recognized the remarkable influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and our Expressions programs have been important in helping to start conversations that to some may be difficult to begin, but are necessary,” said Keith Jenkins, interim vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion. “Our campus has opened its doors and welcomed individuals from Greater Rochester to our programs because we are all part of this community, and what happens within it affects us all.”
The community event, about to mark its 35th year, is one of the longest running programs in Rochester commemorating King. Over the years, it has evolved from a small gathering to a day-long series of events that draws more than 2,500 people to hear a speaker, experience music and dance, and to talk about the issues of the day. And in its wake, RIT has developed a range of programs, enough that in 2016, RIT was recognized as a Diversity Champion by INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday was signed into federal law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. Celebrated on the third Monday in January, it wasn’t until 2000 that all U.S. states formally observed the holiday.
RIT began its recognition of King in the 1982-83 academic year with the Conference on Racism sponsored by the Commission for Promoting Pluralism, both forerunners of current Expressions celebrations and RIT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, respectively. Then, as now, events and diversity initiatives were intertwined and intended to encourage inclusion and equity on campus, whether through faculty and staff hires, student recruitment or through the broader acknowledgment of diverse ideas.
Over the 35 years, RIT has hosted distinguished speakers: psychiatrist and educator Alvin Poussaint, poet Nikki Giovanni, broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien, philosopher Cornel West and human rights activist Nontombi Naomi Tutu, the daughter of South African bishop and apartheid opponent Desmond Tutu. Each presenter incorporated King’s hopeful vision of equality, giving it context in today’s world.
In addition to the speaking engagement, each guest was asked to participate in classes with students or community activities. During talk show host and political commentator Tavis Smiley’s keynote address in 2014, he touched on the Civil Rights Era and riots taking place across the country. Later the same day, he moderated a panel of regional leaders who lived through that racial unrest in Rochester in 1964.
Tributes to King’s speeches, original plays, music, dance and poetry are also part of programs. Featured groups included RIT’s Gospel Singers and Alexis Harris, Lakeishia Brown, Michelle Sason, members of RIT’s Mental Graffiti, an RIT student slam poetry and spoken word group. The renowned Three Mo’ Tenors’ (2013) serenaded participants, and Garth Fagan Dance and Alvin Ailey II companies performed. Both dance companies also gave master classes to student-dancers.
Campus programs were always thought-provoking, and having men and women who were by King’s side during the Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960s, such as U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, who spoke at the 2016 Expressions event, brought history to life for some RIT students who were not yet born. These same students are challenging the status quo today in support of #BlackLivesMatter initiatives. They have organized multi-denominational vigils to remember lives lost in international events in Paris, Yemen and Syria, and have reached out to local law enforcement to discuss community-police relations. These are reminiscent of, and influenced by, King’s methods of non-violent social change.
Expressions, the signature program for RIT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, has always been more than educational programming, Jenkins explained. The office helped anchor the philosophy RIT would embrace about how diverse people and ideas could positively improve campus climate and society.
Even after Expressions and the Martin Luther King holiday pass, RIT continues conversations about diversity through programs such as Partnerships in Pluralism, where pairs of faculty and staff discuss their different cultural backgrounds to help diminish stereotypes. In 1991-92, the Minett Professorship was established, and since that time more than 25 influential, multicultural professionals from Rochester have come to campus leading classes and projects, but also mentoring students and becoming role models. The annual Isaac L. Jordan Sr. Faculty and Staff Pluralism Awards have become a recognized tribute to those who have made commitments to inclusive practices on and off campus.
These are only a few of the initiatives interwoven in the fabric of RIT. Progress has been made, but many acknowledge that there are still challenges ahead. RIT will continue to do its part to raise awareness of the value of diversity on campus and within Rochester inspiring important dialogues regarding race and equity.
Expressions of King’s Legacy takes place at noon on Thursday, Jan. 26, in RIT’s Gordon Field House and Activities Center.
The Office for Diversity and Inclusion will announce its keynote speaker for the event later in December as civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander canceled for the 2017 event due to illness.
Musical guests for the noon program will be the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a renowned ensemble dating back to 1871, based at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. The student-singers broke racial barriers in the U.S. and abroad, entertaining presidents and European royalty throughout the years. In 2008, the group received the prestigious National Medal of Arts, presented by President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush during a ceremony at the White House.
The ensemble will give a separate performance the same evening, at 7 p.m. at the Third Presbyterian Church located at 4 Meigs St.
All events are free and open to the general public. Registrations are recommended for the afternoon session, and can be done online at rit.edu/diversity/rsvp.
To see a recap of Expressions of King’s Legacy over the last 35 years, go to bit.ly/ExpressionsLegacy.