On Sept. 30, 2021, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee sent out a community-wide email, which stated that “each January, Bates College observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.” The email explained that it is a day “typically organized by Bates faculty, staff, students, and administrators, but sometimes also local community members” to “offer a rich diversity of formats and ideas.” The end of the email declared the theme to be “Decolonization and Liberation.”
Further information was given in a Bates Today announcement that all workshops were to be held virtually.
In recognition of the theme, the college acknowledged that decolonization “is not a single concept or practice, but rather represents a constellation of complementary — and occasionally conflicting — visions for liberation.” Thus, this year’s observance would not consist of a single speaker but would instead become a keynote panel composed of “Maine-based thinkers, practitioners, and activists whose work challenges us to imagine new possibilities for the community.”
Opening remarks were heard from: President of Bates College Clayton Spencer; student speakers Aaliyah Moore ‘24 and Sam Jean-Francois ‘23, each of whom are members of the MLK Jr. Day Planning Committee; Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and MLK Jr. Day Planning Committee Co-Chair Tyler Harper; and Assistant Professor of Theater and MLK Jr. Day Planning Committee Co-Chair Clifford Odle.
The keynote panelists included: Hamza Abdi, Pious Ali, Jordia Benjamin, Maria Girouard and Julia Sleeper-Whiting ’08.
Abdi is an assistant director of volunteer programs and community partnerships at Bates’ Harward Center for Community Partnerships. Abdi’s work and leadership at the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine has led him to facilitate “community discussions on cultural diversity and inclusion, racism, and discrimination.”
Ali is a city counselor in Portland, Maine, as well as the founding director of Portland Empowered. His work and achievements as the “first African-born Muslim American elected to public office in Maine” has enabled him to create a career of “community engagement” and “meaningful dialogues across barriers of culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and faith.”
Benjamin is the deputy director of Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland, Maine. “Specifically, she guides and refines the organization’s artist residency program.” She demonstrates her “commitment to equity, inclusion, empowerment, and advocacy for communities of color” in her career with the “arts sector and a background in museum education.”
Girouard is an executive director of Wabanaki REACH. She is highly regarded as a “longstanding community organizer and an environmental and social-justice activist” who dedicates her “advocacy work on preserving the rights and cultural heritage of the Penobscot Nation” in Maine.
Sleeper-Whiting ‘08 is the “co-founder and executive director of Tree Street Youth Center.” The organization is “grounded in radical accessibility and relationships rooted in equity and care, and dedicated to centering the voices of youth.”
Further information about each panelist can be found here.
Following Clayton’s words about thanking the MLK Jr. Day Planning Committee as well as the faculty and staff, Bates members and co-chairs that helped pull together an “intense community wide activities to examine contemporary issues,” two students spoke.
Moore recalled how she was “raised on the principle of celebrating MLK Day by acknowledging the pain of my ancestors’ past and the beauty of the changing present.” Moore then stated that, to her, MLK Jr. Day is “a day of empowerment, and it is a day of looking forward, rededicating and recommitting ourselves to the future we seek to build together.” Moore also acknowledged the unsettling feeling regarding this year’s theme, but that it’s also “a raw and hard conversation that needs to be had.”
Moore ended her speech with a goal she hoped that the observance achieved: “You walk away with the understanding of the importance of MLK Day and that you learn what we mean when we say decolonization and liberation.”
Sam Jean-Francois ‘23 began his speech with a quote by Adrienne Rich, which was followed by his own poetic statement: “I am tired of finding new ways to stand before all of you and say that I am drowning; I am sinking under the weight of being Black at Bates, Black in Maine, and Black in America, I’m tired.”
Jean-Francois continued by saying that “decolonization is meant to be unsettling” and “that in calling for decolonization, we are calling for the eradication of everything we define as normal; making way for an existence that is impactful.” He offered a final thought by challenging everyone to “work with me not just today, but every day so that one day, I will no longer have to say I’m tired.”