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Teach-In Highlights AU’s Focus on Civil Rights, Race During MLK Week

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Scores of students at tables attend a portion of the teach-in.
Photo by Bridget Anshus, AU Photo Collective.

Teaching Inclusion

During her freshman year, Marie Pagan marched through downtown Washington, D.C., in response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin; now, in her senior year, she’s marched on campus for the events in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City—unfortunate bookends to her college career.

Pagan helped organize the December demonstration, and her efforts recently carried into January’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week, when she assisted in planning AU’s Teach-In for Justice, focusing on civil rights in the 21st century.

Along with other student organizers, the School of Public Affairs senior wanted to continue the momentum around these pressing issues.

“We didn’t want it to stop there,” she said of the December protest, called “The Darkening.” “We thought the teach-in would be a great education opportunity to bring more knowledge to students.”

More than 200 students attended the Saturday, Jan. 24, event, which ran from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The day opened with a welcome by Provost Scott Bass and an original, dramatic performance by Professor Caleen Jennings before faculty and staff led breakout discussions that covered topics from white privilege to organizing for social change.

Below, watch Caleen Jennings's dramatic performance on film.

Students shared their personal experiences through the #AU6word story project. “It was an opportunity for students to be really candid,” Pagan explained. “That day there were open conversations about race that I’ve never experienced before here at AU.”

A daughter to Puerto Rican and Colombian immigrants, Pagan’s six-word story read, “Soy latina y negra. Soy latinegra.”

“It was a watershed moment for our responsiveness to social movements and social action,” said staff co-planner Calvin Haney, who serves as associate director for leadership in the University Center & Student Activities. “This could be a benchmark for how we address those co-curricular education moments that we need to help the students with.”

To further on-campus discussions around race and diversity, the university will offer continued programming and events throughout the semester.

Dedicated Week

The teach-in, however, was not the only standout event during AU’s MLK week. An annual tradition organized by the Center for Community Engagement & Service (CCES) dating back more than two decades, the MLK Day of Service saw 228 students serve at nine sites around the city. Some students packed cold weather kits for homeless veterans in the District, and this year, National Security Advisor and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice joined beside them in their work.

The Kay Spiritual Life Center continued its focus on social justice issues with its annual Poynter Lecture with Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, as well as two Table Talk discussions.

Rev. Mark Schaefer spoke on MLK’s spiritual influences in a lunchtime lecture attracted students, staff, faculty, and alumni from as far back as the Civil Rights era. The second presentation focused on race and class in D.C., with faculty members speaking alongside special guest Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau.

“As a university rooted in the Methodist tradition, the Kay Center strives to make plain the intersection between faith and action,” said Kay’s assistant director, Christine Gettings. “We hope that events like [these] help our students see the connections between the deep values, ideas, and aspirations of a community and its response to calls to action.”

Similarly, the School of International Service held a workshop open to the entire university community on building skills to improve understanding across race and ethnicity. Attendees at the packed event ran through scenarios, discussing micro-aggressions that may appear in the classroom.

“It was a great mix of students, staff, and faculty,” said SIS freshman Rachel Bernard. “It was interesting to hear the different perspectives. There’s always room to grow, no matter how far you’ve come.”

In the company of so many different events, Haney saw the teach-in as a natural complement to capturing King’s approach to social justice.

“It honored the political activist spirit of MLK,” he explained. “Where [the MLK Day of Service] focused on the service component of his vision, I think the teach-in really brought attention to the political activist nature of King’s legacy.”

Next Steps

King’s legacy as well as the legacies of other Civil Rights leaders shaped Pagan’s academic path. Coming to AU to become a TV journalist, she soon felt pulled in a different direction after taking classes on civil rights history. She felt, in many ways, that she connected with the leaders she studied.

“I could really see myself as a part of these struggles and what people have been going through,” the Virginia native said. “I’m very aware of how great an opportunity it is for me to attend AU, because I know that not everyone from back home has that opportunity.”

Though now an RA in AU’s social justice living-learning community and a member of Student Government’s Women’s Initiative, Pagan plans to eventually become a civil rights attorney or policy analyst, just as soon as she finishes Teach for America.

And while she’s seen so many negatives in the events that have bookended her time at AU, she’s taking the experiences—good and bad—with her into the life that follows graduation.

“My college experience will definitely be framed by what’s going on now,” she explained. “I feel like I have the support of the university… Getting to know the different resources on campus and getting to know different people and their passion for the same issues has been really inspiring.”