PIQUA — Edison State Community College President Dr. Doreen Larson encouraged everyone at the YWCA’s 12th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration to be concerned with “injustice and discrimination,” no matter their race.
“Our skin color should not hold us back from acting on issues of injustice and discrimination,” Larson said on Monday.
Larson’s speech, titled “The Color of a Life Jacket Means Nothing to a Person Drowning,” began by touching on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asking audience members why they thought of King as an American hero.
“I don’t think I would be able to do the things I’m able to do today without his example, his leadership, and his dedication to changing the way America works,” Piqua Mayor Kris Lee said. “We were dead set on a course until he got involved and did his protests and marches.”
Larry Hamilton of Piqua said King “dealt with the difficult issues of his time,” naming militarism, racism, and economic justice.
Larson’s speech also asked the question of, “How do white people fit into Dr. King’s dream?” She used the example of someone else she considered a hero, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the U.S., to discuss how everyone should be concerned with issues of racial injustice and use their positions in life to help everyone.
Like King, Carter was from Georgia, and Carter was a supporter of civil rights and integration. Larson specifically touched on Carter’s ties with King and how Carter helped advocate for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be a national holiday until it was signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.
Larson referenced an essay written by Claire Borgerding titled “Life Jackets for Us All” that community members read to the attendees later during the event, and Larson said she based her speech off of Borgerding’s essay. Borgerding, a Minster High School graduate and Edison State Community College student, wrote about grappling with feeling guilty for her privilege in life, which she referred to as a “life jacket.” Larson also referred to equal opportunities, equal pay, and equal justice as “life jackets for all.”
“Color becomes much less important to us as the stakes get higher,” Larson said. “For instance, a drowning person is certainly not going to question the color of the life jacket thrown to them. Likewise, the color of the hand that pulls someone back on board is not important. Martin Luther King said … ‘I look to the day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”
Larson discussed how, in the past, she was elected the chair of a national commission on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Larson said she was first invited to take part on this national commission due to her advocacy for adults with disabilities to get access to higher education, but the group’s main goal was helping the promotion of people of color into positions of higher administration in academia due to a lack of representation in those areas. She said, after being elected the chairperson of that commission for the third time, she asked why the commission continued to elect her, a white woman, to advocate on behalf of people of color.
“I said to them, most of whom were people of color, ‘Why do you keep re-electing a white chair of this group?’ I was uncomfortable, often, advocating for the group. I felt ignorant. I felt like a poser trying to advocate for something I did not understand,” Larson said. “The answer from that committee was I was able to get things done. I had connections. I had power … Indeed, we were getting things done. We were changing ways that people were promoted. We were changing ways people were hired. We were changing how people were getting into jobs. I could see that the needle was moving.”
Larson later said people who are white should not use the excuse of, “I really can’t understand the African-American experience,” as an “out” to avoid dealing with issues of racial injustice. Larson encouraged everyone to “make a difference.”
Larson referenced Borgerding’s essay again, saying, “Claire writes in her essay, you’ll hear later, about having a sense of guilt over her life jacket. We don’t need to feel guilty, but we need to replace that guilt with a sense of gratitude. We understand that the best way to show our gratitude is to use our gifts, to value them, to make them worth more than they were when they (first) came in our hands. We don’t need to feel guilty about power, but we need use it in a very responsible way.”
Larson ended her speech with a call to action, encouraging attendees to consider how they can make a difference. Larson used the example of, if someone is involved in health and wellness, to “make sure health and wellness is provided to everyone.”
Also during the YWCA’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, Piqua Catholic School students Josh Richard and Daria Lee each performed patriotic songs, “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful,” respectively. The event closed with a group singing of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”