Bloomington MLK Day celebration: “Universities and colleges must see the community as an equal partner in the education enterprise, not just a partner.”

Bloomington’s annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday took place as scheduled on Monday night at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

Delivering the keynote address was Eddie Cole, who is associate professor of higher education and history at UCLA. Cole earned his doctorate at Indiana University.

Cole was able to observe some changes in Bloomington’s physical landscape since the time when he was a student here: “From me coming back to Bloomington having graduated almost 10 years ago, it is shocking to see the high rise apartments and things that weren’t here just a decade ago. They look very nice. I can only imagine how much they cost!”

Cole put his observation into the context of his research: “But we can think about the cost of living for the average resident of Bloomington. What does [Indiana University’s] growth mean to the community?”

That question is connected to one of Cole’s challenges of action: “We have to have pro-active community engagement between institutions in our local communities.” Cole continued, “Universities and colleges must see the community as an equal partner in the education enterprise, not just a partner.” Cole added, “It is easy to have partnerships, it is easy to have meetings.”

Cole posed the question: “Do you see the community as an equal partner within the education enterprise? Does the community even have a say in your university’s strategic goals and objectives?”

Cole’s research is the subject of his book, “The Campus Color Line.”

On Monday night, Indiana University president Pamela Whitten introduced Vasti Torres, executive associate dean in the IU School of Education, who then introduced Cole as the keynote speaker.

In his remarks, Bloomington’s deputy mayor, Don Griffin, highlighted the local history that continues to be made in the form of “firsts” for the area’s Black residents.

Last year, Griffin was appointed Bloomington’s first Black deputy mayor—203 years after the city’s founding.

Griffin also presented this year’s Legacy Award, to Jeanetta Nelms. Griffin introduced Nelms as “a quiet humanitarian who gives much of her time, talent and treasure to make our community better.” Helms graduated from the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, which is a historically Black university. Nelms was the first director of the 21st Century Scholars Program at Indiana University—an initiative that began in the 1990s that creates pathways to higher education for lower-income students as early as 7th grade.

Closing remarks were given by Yusuf Nur, who described himself as a “B-townie, who happens to be a Muslim.”

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic meant that The IU African American Choral Ensemble performed via pre-recorded videos projected on the theater screen. Attendees of Monday’s event had to present proof of vaccination or a negative test. Every other row of the seating was cordoned off to ensure distance among those in the audience.

An excerpt of Griffin’s remarks is included below.

Jan. 17, 2022: Excerpt of remarks by deputy mayor Don Griffin

There are lots of ways to frame history—world history, local history, personal history, and others. Our own Indiana University teaches dozens of ways to frame and talk about history. I might suggest that too often, when we think of history, we think of events that happened long ago, involving people long since departed—history as something we read about, that was made by other people in another time, and another place.

But looking at history in this way, we risk not acknowledging and celebrating the history that is being made right here in our midst, by people we know, living and working among us. I stand before you as a living example of that history. In 2021, just last year, I became the first Black deputy Mayor for the city of Bloomington.

This might be a good time to remind you that the city celebrated its bicentennial in 2018. It took 203 years to have a person of African American descent hold one of the two highest offices in the city. Think about that: 203 years.

Most of us here were alive in 1991, 22 short years ago. That is the year that our first Black city councilman, Paul Swain, was elected in office. Now, we have our first Black woman ever elected to citywide office—city clerk Nicole Bolden. It is also worth noting that Ms. Bolden is also the first and only Black LGBTQ+ woman elected to public office in the state of Indiana.

Councilmember Jim Sims just completed his service as Bloomington’s first Black city council president just a month ago. In fact, all of our Black elected officials in Monroe County, including circuit court judge Valeri Haughton, county clerk Nicole Browne, circuit court judge Geoff Bradley, and county councilperson Jennifer Crossley, are first in their own rights.

Each of these elected officials is a living example of history being made in our time, in this place. They and each of us are in the midst of what will become our shared history.

[In his remarks, Griffin described the upcoming name change of Jordan Avenue to Eagleson Avenue. David Starr Jordan, was president of Indiana University in the late 1800s, and a proponent of eugenics, which advocates for the improvement of the human species through selective mating. Last year, the name of the street was changed to Eagleson Avenue, effective Feb. 1, 2022. The name change honors four-generations of the Eagleson family in Bloomington, starting with Halson Vashon Eagleson, who was born a slave in 1851.]

This street name change signals not a rewriting of history, but a writing of history. So we see that making history is a real-time business. It’s up to us to craft that history, that story, that legacy, for ourselves in our community right now, tonight. Now more than ever, our children in the world are watching us.

Thanks to instantaneous communications at our fingertips, anything we do, any history we make, constructive or destructive, can circle the globe in mere moments. What do we want that history to say about us? About how we live? How we took care of each other? How we uplifted each other?

We celebrate Dr. King’s birthday as a day on, not a day off. Those Black officeholders, that street name change—those achievements didn’t happen while those folks were home watching Netflix. They happened when people joined with others and took positive action to create change. They made real the change they wanted to see by taking action and working together—many days on and I would imagine very few days off.

Photos: 2022 MLK Day Celebration, Bloomington, Indiana

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