Martin Luther King Jr. celebration keynote speaker promotes inclusion through effort

Diversity and inclusivity are easy goals for a university to set, inclusion educator Aminata Cairo said during her keynote address Wednesday, Jan. 23, as part of the weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Western Carolina University.

Aminata Cairo

The courage, commitment and hard work required for achieving those goals is another matter, Cairo, a lecturer at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, told an audience nearing 130 people at the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.

“It is nice to talk about diversity but when it comes to the story being told, you have to act,” she said. “But theory has to lead to action and you have to understand it starts with you.”

The emcee for the event, E’Quince Smith, president of Nu Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, said in his introduction that Cairo is a 2013 recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from Southern Illinois University and she was born and raised in The Netherlands to Surinamese parents and educated in the U.S. In her applied anthropological work with students and community organizations, Smith said she has continually strived to promote inclusion at both the academic and community levels. As an international woman of color, Cairo has experienced firsthand the challenges of diversion and inclusion, he said.

The presentation was more than just a lecture on contemporary issues of social justice. An audience singalong to a native Suriname song, an animated story adapted from an Afghanistan folktale and personal insights into family and laughter punctuated the evening. Cairo also delivered a frequent reminder that some situations call for taking a deep breath and staying calm, saying “Day by day, I walk in faith that all will be well.”

Participants walk across campus during the annual MLK Jr. Unity March on Jan. 21.

Using a musical analogy, which she called “a blues aesthetic,” Cairo said that in both blues and jazz there comes a point where you have to improvise, creating “earthquake music ― where you shake things up.”

She dedicated her speech to Lyman T. Johnson, who challenged segregation at the University of Kentucky in 1949. Johnson was admitted as a graduate student but not allowed to enter classrooms, so he sat outside, listening to lectures through the window, she said. He achieved a 4.0 GPA, but even more so, he paved the way for her and people like her to attend colleges that previously people of color could not attend.

“So, remember the shoulders that we stand on,” Cairo said. “See who we are as a community. And whether it’s Martin Luther King, Lyman Johnson or your mama who’s praying for you, recognize the shoulders you stand upon, lifting you up. Because there is work to be done.”

She also outlined themes for building community and shared her prescribed plans to identify goals, obstacles for achieving success and methods for action. Students should use their vision, passion and energy, make mistakes and learn from them, and draw strength from supportive faculty, staff and community, she said.

“I want to go back to that idea of inspiration, tapping into whatever or whoever it is that inspires us and carries us and pushes us forward, and know it is not enough to be inspired. You have to act,” she said. “You have to think, you have to plan, you have to act.

WCU’s Inspirational Choir launches into traditional gospel songs.

“You will be inspired and something will come,” Cairo said. “Something will come.”

Titled “Re-Defining Us in All of Our Richness,” the presentation with a question-and-answer session, was a DegreePlus event for students and tied to this academic year’s campus theme of “Defining America.” The event opened with the WCU Inspirational Choir singing traditional hymns.

Tamilia Wright, a WCU student from Burlington who attended the event, said she was interested in hearing an international perspective on issues being experienced on campus. “We need more diversity. We see it being encouraged, and we need to be able to look around and see it happen,” Wright said.