Leaders in the Fort Smith community gathered together Monday, Jan. 20, to honor the legacy and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith and Martin Luther King Jr., Community Association’s annual breakfast and panel discussion.
Extolling the importance of activating and empowering the River Valley toward change, the panelists centered discussion around the theme “Courage and Purpose: When Defining Moments Call for Courageous and Purposeful Actions.”
The panelists - Charolette Tidwell, founder of Antioch for Youth and Family; Mireya Reith, executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition; Marcus Thompson, president of Believe in Fort Smith; Emily Treadaway, county coordinator of The Call in Crawford and Sebastian Counties; and the Rev. Sonna B. Key, founder of Police and Community Engagement (PACE) – spoke to hundreds of guests in the Reynolds Room of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center on the UAFS campus. Daniel Maher, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, moderated the panel.
Dr. Williams Yamkam, associate professor of political science, chair of the university’s chapter of the American Democracy Project and coordinator of the event, welcomed the crowd, encouraging all to engage, educate and empower in the name of a brighter future.
Dr. Terisa Riley, UAFS chancellor, offered a campus greeting, extending her excitement to see so many attendees, including many students of UAFS. “Education and the ability to use critical thinking to see and think about every side of any political issue is exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked us to do. He said education is not just about function, it is about morality and building people of character. And to do so meant that people of character would think critically of every issue.”
Dr. Riley also thanked Dr. Yamkam for his dedication to empowering students every day, as well as all the faculty and administrators at UAFS, who inspire students to succeed. “Our students can learn together, grow together, and be empowered to change this world for the better, to transform it so that this is a constant legacy we leave,” she said.
As the panelists discussed the immense needs of the region, from the foster care crisis in Sebastian County to food insecurity among the elderly, and from the needs of dreamers and Latinx voters to the need for engaged mentors and leaders, the conversation turned always to hope for the future and a dedication to do the work necessary to meet those needs.
“We have much work to get done,” said Tidwell. “And to get it done, we need to empty our pocketbooks, go to work collectively and bring us back to a community that raised me with purpose, courage, and passion, not scared of nothing. Because when we’re on the road to truth, truth is truth. And we don’t have to hate each other. We just have to join each other.”
“We’re looking to be part of the process that we want to change,” added Reith, “The idea of the scarcity frame is so embedded in everything … that everything is a zero-sum game, that there are winners and losers, we have to unlearn that. The reality is that this world can offer us abundance if we are willing to not see each other in competition.”
The Rev. Key passionately described meaningful conversations happening openly, but also those deeper conversations that occur only in the privacy of confidence and trust. “If you haven’t received an invitation, it’s because you haven’t done the work,” she explained. “So when you hear people say ‘All they talk about is racism,’ that’s because you’re on the front porch. And in order to get the invitation to the back porch, you have to do the work of engaging with and believing in and working alongside people of color.”
“Do something that causes someone to want to change,” added Thompson, expressing the profound impact of mentors who showed him the call to serve and service in action.
“To really make a change, you have to donate yourself,” agreed Treadaway. “You have to invest in somebody else’s life. You have to get out there yourself and invest and build relationships, even when it’s messy.”
In conclusion, the panelists encouraged the crowd to read all the works of Dr. King to get rid of hate and illuminate the idea that there is no greater task than loving each other, to engage, educate and activate. Even further, they implored, band together, and organize to change the structures and systems that prevent equality.
Combined, the panelists serve high-need areas across the state and reach out to hundreds of thousands of Arkansans through their services each year.
Following the panel discussion, Fort Smith Mayor George McGill reminded the crowd of the upcoming census and the critical need to conduct the census accurately. “It is critical to our state. We’ve been called undercounted, hard to count, but this year let’s make sure that we count every person in Arkansas. Every child. Every student. We need every dollar that is owed to us.” Financially, he continued, each person who goes uncounted by the census could lead to a loss of up to $40,000 in funding.
The breakfast marks the ninth year UAFS has collaborated with the MLK Community Association to honor and celebrate Dr. King.
Upcoming celebratory events on the UAFS campus include:
Wednesday, Jan. 22
A public lecture on a selection of courageous and purposeful moments in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s public life by Billy Higgins, associate professor of history, will take place at noon at the fireplace of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center.
Thursday, Jan. 23
A public presentation on the courage and purpose behind a significant foster care effort in Arkansas by The Call in Arkansas will take place from 12:30-1:45 p.m. at the fireplace of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center.
Friday, Jan. 24
A presentation on the courage and purpose behind Antioch for Youth and Family by founder Charolette Tidwell will take place at noon at the fireplace of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center.
Friday, Jan. 17 – Friday, Jan. 24
A collection of books and selected writings about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be on display at the UAFS Boreham Library.
Collection bins from the River Valley Regional Food Bank will be at the UAFS Boreham Library as well as the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center as part of a collaborative peanut butter drive. Donations of peanut butter may be placed in the bins, providing a shelf-stable source of much-needed protein for families in need.