The EMU Ballroom was filled with white tablecloths and elegant silver place settings as people from all creeds occupied the seats in the room. The crowd of people roared with claps and cheers as Vice President of the Division of Equity and Inclusion Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh took the stage and thanked the crowd for attending.
The Division of Equity and Inclusion hosted a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon and award ceremony on Jan. 15 — this would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday. The luncheon was free and available to anyone who RSVP’d ahead of time.
Alex-Assensoh, along with her DEI colleagues, hosted the event in an effort to celebrate the work that Dr. King accomplished, as well as the honorees who have followed suit on the UO campus by displaying unity and standing against racial injustice.
All of the awardees are university employees nominated by students, fellow staff or groups on campus — some were nominated more than once.
Five categories of awards were given for different types of equity and inclusion work: the Social Justice award; the Love, Authenticity, Courage and Empathy award; the Ideal Institutionalization award; the Institutional Transformation award and the Outstanding Diversity Practitioner award.
Communication specialist for the DEI Tova Stabin felt the award ceremony was an important form of confirmation for the people who are making equity and inclusion possible around campus.
“It is important to give that affirmation — especially in a world that doesn’t,” Stabin said.
Suzanne Hanlon is an associate program director of student activities and one of the recipients of the Institutional Transformation Award.
Hanlon’s nominator for the award said “Suzanne uses her platform to empower students. I have had more than one student tell me that she helped them understand their strengths, believe in themselves and provide constant encouragement.”
The awards were followed by a moving speech from CNN Political Analyst and former South Carolina State Legislator Bakari T. Sellers. Sellers reminded the crowd of all the civil rights work Dr. King did and asked them to reflect on how far they have come as a society since Dr. King’s death.
Sellers told those in attendance that they must love their neighbor and dream big, just as Dr. King did.
“We have to again teach young people how to dream because you can’t tell a poor black kid he can be a doctor if he has never seen a black doctor,” Sellers said. “You can’t tell a poor black kid he can be a dentist if he has never seen a black dentist.”
Mindy Schmidling, a UO employee, attended the event after her boss encouraged staff to go and even gave them time off during the work day to do so.
She brought her partner, Tiree Jackson, because she wanted to learn more about the experiences and influential figures of his community as an African-American.
“It definitely made me teary-eyed just thinking about the hardships that people of color have to go through versus what I haven’t had to go through,” Schmidling said.
Despite feelings of sadness, after Sellers’ speech and hearing about the work done by the honorees, the couple was inspired.
Jackson said he is excited “to continue to love and continue to fight.” He added that Sellers’ speech “brought light back into the tunnel.”
President Michael Schill spoke to the crowd and echoed Sellers’ message.
“We cannot realize our mission if we do not strive to create an inclusive environment in which every student, every faculty member and every staff member has the opportunity to flourish and reach their full potential,” Schill said.