Carnegie Mellon University
January 19, 2015

Diversity and Social Justice

Artwork by Jarel Grant (A'17)
Artwork by Jarel Grant (A'17)

While Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often a touch point to contemplate diversity and social justice, conversations on those topics are ongoing at CMU.

"I feel like we have too much commentary and not enough conversation," said Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English.

"King once said, 'The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education,'" Daniels said.

Joe William Trotter Jr. is the Giant Eagle Professor of History and Social Justice and director of the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE), which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next academic year. He teaches courses on African-American and U.S. social history.

"Despite the ascendancy of Barack Obama as the nation's first president of African descent, the recent explosion of street protests, mostly nonviolent and peaceful, against police killings of unarmed black men underscores the persistence of racial and class conflict into the 21st century," Trotter said. "Trying to make sense of these contradictory social currents in contemporary U.S. and African-American history is a major reason why we should continue conversations about King's legacy and the status of class and race in American society, culture and politics beyond one day."

M. Shernell Smith, assistant director in the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, said that Student Affairs is working to help facilitate ongoing discussions about diversity and social justice through global, national and local perspectives.

"As we framed this year's Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it was very important that we moved beyond the concepts of civil rights from just a local or national perspective. The non-violence movement was predicated by the immeasurable influence that Mahatma Gandhi had on Dr. King," Smith said. "Dr. King stated that 'If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable.' He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk."

To spur conversation, students are partnering with Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti (HAS) to present a series of events in remembrance of the 2010 earthquake.

Siriana Abboud (DC'16) is a HAS intern and is helping organize the activities. She quoted King as saying, "Everything that is done in the world is done by hope."

"Haiti and its people embody this belief every day when they say to one another, 'Dèyè mòn gen mòn,' or Beyond mountains, there are mountains," Abboud said. "As you solve one problem, another may appear, but you keep working to solve it. To Haiti, the earthquake was one more mountain that brought along many more, but they continue to work together to climb it."

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), will deliver this year's keynote address as part of CMU's Simon Initiative Distinguished Lecture Series on Monday, Jan. 26.

Hrabowski and his colleagues have received national acclaim for dramatically improving learning outcomes and persistence in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields for many underrepresented minority students at UMBC.

UMBC, part of the University System of Maryland, has been a key partner of CMU's Open Learning Initiative (OLI) for more than five years. UMBC offers OLI courses in statistics, biology, psychology and computing, and its faculty work with CMU researchers to develop and improve courses and conduct research on technology-enhanced learning. 

"By creating scientifically based learning resources that work to support all students, the program supports equality in education," said Norman Bier, director of OLI and Core Collaborations at CMU.

"This mission takes direct aim at the current dual challenges of access and attainment in higher education, aligning with Dr. King's call for universal education and opportunity," Bier said.

Artistic endeavors provide a way to help the community participate and react to the world around them. In a new effort, Maya Kaisth (A'17) and Jarel Grant (A'17) are curating "BLACKOUT," an exhibit at The Frame Gallery on works related to issues of race and social justice.

"BLACKOUT is about the artists and their experiences, as well as their commentary on current events happening in our country," Kaisth said. "We are really striving to create change."

Grant said that as an artist he strives to offer insight into issues.

"I feel like it's important to be aware and knowledgeable about matters happening both in the past and currently," he said.

A longstanding tradition of CMU is the MLK Day Writing Awards, which have been championed by Daniels since 1999.

"The writing awards help create conversation through narrative," Daniels said. "We can learn a great deal from listening to each other's stories."

Daniels said the stories that are part of the writing awards and others like them need to be shared "on street corners and bus stops, in schools and places of worship, to anyone who will listen."

Smith said that King, too, was a master orator and storyteller.
"He was able to use the words of his sermons and speeches, and ultimately the media to translate his 'story' about the vast landscape of the civil rights movement for the entire world," Smith said. "The social movements of today are deeply rooted in the vision of Dr. King and the countless named and unnamed social activists of his time."

Another place where stories are being shared is the "I, Too, Am Carnegie Mellon" discussion.

"I want to educate as many people as I can on some of the concerns and misconceptions of black students at CMU," said organizer Millard McElwee (E'15). "Dr. King once stated, 'Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.' Hopefully with this discussion, some people can acknowledge and work on hidden biases."

Beginning this year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed as a university holiday. Classes are canceled and offices are closed Jan. 19 to increase opportunities for students, faculty and staff to participate in commemorative activities at the university and around the region.

Related Links

Schedule of Events for 2015

President's Letter To Campus

Carnegie Mellon Celebrates MLK Jr.'s Life and Legacy Throughout January and February

The Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards

CMU in Haiti