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Baker Report: A Journey of 1,000 Miles

January 14, 2016
NIU President Doug Baker and Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden participate in October's Unity Walk.

NIU President Doug Baker and Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden participate in October’s Unity Walk.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of vision, courage and cautious optimism.

“We have come a long, long way,” he told an audience Feb. 10, 1966, inside Illinois Wesleyan University’s Fred Young Fieldhouse, “but we have a long, long way to go.”

Visiting Chicago that August to encourage desegregation of its neighborhoods, he deemed the recent progress as “the first step in a thousand-mile journey.”

Fifty years later, his prescient words continue to resound as our country still struggles to achieve racial harmony on city streets and college campuses.

But with the road appearing endless, and the walk unfinished, it might seem natural to dismiss Dr. King’s hope as misplaced.

I will not make that mistake. I am surrounded by amazing people and programs at NIU that buoy my confidence for the future, just like Dr. King saw reasons to believe in better tomorrows.

The NIU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics is the proud recipient of the 2016 NCAA and Minority Opportunities Athletics Association Award for Diversity and Inclusion.

Vernese Edghill-Walden joined NIU last summer as our first chief diversity officer, fulfilling the enthusiastic recommendation of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force that advocated for such a position.

This past summer, NIU also became the national headquarters for the Association for Black Culture Centers (ABCC), a national organization focused on African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American centers, as well as multiculture centers and related offices.

Martin Luther King Jr.Last fall, we adopted a new definition of “affirmative consent” that aims to protect the civil rights of all concerning sexual activity.

Or maybe it’s what’s on the horizon.

Not only are we launching a Presidential Commission on Interfaith Initiatives but we also are working with the Association of American Colleges and Universities Equity Academy to secure grant funding to close gaps in retention and graduation rates for students from underserved populations.

Topping my list, though, is our Huskie family.

Staff at our Center for Black Studies reach out to young African-American scholars before they even arrive here to offer and provide the kind of mentorship that leads to success. The center’s “umbrella” roots students in academic excellence, promotes social justice and instills lifelong values of community service here and at home.

And, as they do each January, the center’s students, faculty and staff invite the university community to participate next week in the MLK Celebration Week, appropriately titled “The Fight for Social Justice: ‘A 1,000-Mile Journey.’ ”

MLK Oratorical Competition 2015

MLK Oratorical Competition 2015

Participants will reflect on the current state of race relations as well as what we as a university community can do to help advance and realize Dr. King’s famous dream.

  • Leaders from various faith organizations will gather Monday, Jan. 18, at the DeKalb Public Library for an 11 a.m. panel discussion on Dr. King’s visions of peace and inclusion.
  • The Martin Luther King Memorial March steps off at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Stevenson Towers before heading to the MLK Memorial Commons.
  • After the march, all are invited inside to the Duke Ellington Ballroom at 7 p.m. for the “Justice or Else” think tank to assess the state of social justice and activism 20 years after the Million Man March.
  • Students will recite and perform Dr. King’s words, as well as their original works, in the ballroom at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21.
  • The week concludes in the ballroom with the Presidential Breakfast & Awards Ceremony, scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 22, and featuring keynote speaker Dorothy Wright Tillman

During these events, I hope we can embrace Dr. King’s positive spirit. Our difficult times demand not only a thoughtful examination of his goals and their purpose but a pledge and determination to continue his mission.

As educators, we must consider last week’s report that only a third of African-American adults hold at least two-year degrees as a call to action. That’s not enough. We can do better.

As members of a diverse university community, we must serve as good role models.

And, as human beings, we must find, enact and live out the answers that move us far beyond “a long, long way to go.”