MLK’s legacy inspires action and sparks conversation at Clemson
On the day dedicated to his memory, there is no better time to pause and reflect on what we have learned from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Though it may be impossible to adequately describe the scope of change effected by his leadership, his legacy has made a permanent impression on the people who are now on Clemson’s campus.
Speaking out against injustice — or in support of a cause — can come in many different forms: demonstrations, gatherings, debates. But no matter the outcome, advocacy often begins with observations from students who are deeply involved in the Clemson community and equally invested in improving the Clemson experience.
One of these students is senior political science major Destinee Wilson.
“There were a lot of things that I wanted to see changed or improved,” Wilson said. “Instead of complaining about it, I decided to get involved and be an active part of that change.”
Seven semesters later, Wilson has served as the president of the University’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the National Panhellenic Council and has spent two years as an undergraduate student senator.
“Although I was just one of 64 senators, I made decisions keeping in mind all the people I was there to represent, whether that be women, minorities or students from a small in-state town,” Destinee said. “I’d think, ‘If I were a student coming up, what would I want Clemson to look like?’”
If King’s legacy lives on through the efforts of Clemson’s own student advocates, the tangible effects of his influence can be traced to the heart of campus, across the brick-paved main floor of the Student Union, behind a door marked “Gantt Multicultural Center.”
The center is new, but its mission echoes sentiments rooted in Dr. King’s dream.
“We are here to make sure that we are supporting the diversity goals of the University. We are here to help our community interact across differences. And we are here to advocate for the needs of underrepresented and underserved populations,” said Altheia Richardson, the center’s executive director.
The space, and the staff members within it, serve as a starting point for students to find their voice if they feel that systems, policies, programs or incidents on campus are running contrary to the University’s mission.
Last year, Wilson marched to Sikes Hall with members of the Concerned Students Coalition and, together, they presented a list of concerns to Clemson administration and faculty. That list included a push for greater representation of faculty and students of color, respect and recognition of Clemson history and dialogue about changing the names of certain buildings on campus.
According to fellow coalition member and senior psychology major Ian Bateman, the group formed a natural bond after voicing similar concerns and believed that bringing these topics to administration would keep the momentum from their conversations moving.
“The best way to advocate — not always the easiest — is to get everybody’s perspective. A lot of the concerns and grievances don’t just stand from an African-American perspective,” Bateman said. “Being an advocate means you have to advocate for everyone — not just yourself.”
Bateman’s passion for advocacy stems from his desire to give back to his community. Through his service as president of the Clemson Black Student Union, social chair of Clemson’s Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and a resident assistant for incoming freshmen, he’s been an unwavering voice and an accessible resource for countless students.
Although they were never extremely close, Bateman went through elementary, middle and high school with a student who later came out as transgender. When Bateman received the news that this student committed suicide, he was left with questions that could never be answered. But, from this tragedy, he gained a new perspective.
“From then on, the idea of being an advocate or an ally really resonated with me,” Bateman said. “A lot of people have been allies for me — they don’t look like me, but they have been by my side in the same fight. I hope that in forming the coalition, I have been an ally for other students as well.”
While race is often an issue at the forefront of diversity initiatives, advocacy isn’t limited to one cause. Electrical engineering Ph.D. student Guneet Bedi speaks for the needs of a different minority on campus — graduate students, who make up just 21 percent of the entire student body.
“My ultimate goal is to work toward providing graduate students an enhanced Clemson experience,” Bedi said. “This is only possible if we have an inclusive environment where students feel that their voices are heard and that they are an integral part of the Clemson Family.”
Although passion fuels Bedi, Bateman and Wilson’s unique methods of advocacy, they agree that the key to sustainable change is open — and frequent — conversation.
“We’re at a university with a predominately white campus,” said Richardson. “Any time you have populations in an extreme minority, it is important to bring groups together for communication and respect and dialogue.”
As a Peer Dialogue Facilitator through the Gantt Multicultural Center, accounting major Allison McCants embraces her role in engaging younger Clemson students in conversations that aren’t always comfortable.
“Many people don’t want to express their opinions because they don’t want to offend anyone, but we need to get everyone involved in conversation,” she said. “To be impactful, we have to have everyone caring about the issue — and to have everyone caring about the issue, we have to educate around the issue.”
Psychology major Darien Smith works with McCants as a Peer Dialogue Facilitator and is equally passionate about education through open conversation.
“When I transferred in, I noticed how everyone related really well to each other in conversations about football, but it was difficult for students to engage in more serious conversations without getting into heated debates,” Smith said. “Working with freshman students, I have the opportunity to start these conversations earlier so they can bridge that gap between differences.”
To jumpstart this growth, Smith encourages students to ask questions, to start conversations and to practice empathy during their time at Clemson.
“I think the purpose of higher education is to challenge you and push you outside your comfort zone to help you grow — in a safe way,” he said. “College is sort of an experimental lab where you can speak up for yourself and experience intense conversations about tough topics with relatively little risk to your wellbeing.”
As all five of these student advocates prepare for graduation, they prepare to bring their experience, their leadership and their knowledge to employers, graduate schools and communities across the globe, widening the reach of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
“His hope was for everyone to get along and coexist together, but we can take away an even larger message,” McCants said. “If you come from a lower socioeconomic class or single parent home, you may think that there are things you can’t do. MLK taught us that we don’t always have to think practically — we should dream.”
For more information about Clemson’s 2016 MLK Celebration and to see a full schedule of events, visit http://www.clemson.edu/mlk/.