Cal Poly’s Black Academic Excellence Center and ASI Events held the fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. event, “Honoring MLK With Dr. Yusef Salaam,” on Zoom Wednesday night. 

The event featured a lineup of student speakers and special guest speaker, Yusef Salaam, one of the falsely convicted and exonerated members of “The Central Park Five.”

Salaam was one of the individuals that was wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a white woman in the “Central Park Jogger” case. All five members of “The Central Park Five” served their full sentences before they were exonerated. Salaam was only 15-years-old when he was sent to prison. 

“I was honestly surprised that Cal Poly was able to attract someone of Dr. Yusef Salaam’s caliber given our incredibly contentious history of blatant racism,” biological sciences senior Tara Faraji said. 

Faraji said she felt that bringing these revolutionaries of color to campus “gives marginalized students a voice and puts [students’] tuition money to good use.”

One of the “most powerful” parts of Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy for Salaam was finding purpose as an individual. Speaking on behalf of what The Central Park Five experienced, he notes that America is still actively trying to pursue “an American nightmare” of the past. 

“It is that past that keeps creeping up and rearing its ugly head in the form of the chance of state’s rights that want to own people once again,” Salaam said. 

The virtual event was hosted by Jevon Edwards, a practicum graduate student of the Center for Leadership and chair of the MLK Legacy Award Committee, who introduced speakers for the event. Edwards began by asking Salaam about his views on criminal justice reform. 

“I think that for true reform to happen, it is about going back to the drawing board and reimagining what could be,” Salaam said. “As the youngest nation in the world, we have great examples around the world of what prison looks like.”

The next question touched on the overarching reason as to why Cal Poly was hosting this event in the first place: the importance of community.

“In the face of what seemingly feels like the perpetual injustice and violence – particularly on the black community – how do you draw courage to keep up the fight each day since and despite that fateful night in 1989?” Edwards asked.

Salaam responded with a sentiment for King. He explained that everyone has a purpose as MLK’s legacy states. It would be “going against our own human nature” to think that one’s life is a mistake, he said. 

Jamie Patton, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion, was invited to the screen. 

In his five-minute speech, he spoke about what he did on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to honor the life of King. Patton said he did something that he doesn’t normally do — he went on a long walk. After a while, he said he began to think about the marches in the 1960s and those that happened this past year.

“For me, it was wild listening and finding the parallels of Dr. King’s 1965 speech,” Patton said. “Our God is marching on. We must continue the March.”

After Patton spoke, Edwards introduced Cal Poly Alumn Amman Asfaw, an electrical engineering graduate of 2020. He read aloud a letter inspired by King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He spoke of King’s legacy and how he tries to apply that to his own life. 

“The same way one regularly exfoliates their skin to cure blemishes, we must also consistently exfoliate our predominantly white institutions to cure all permutations of prejudice,” Asfaw said. 

Architecture senior Chloe Wardwick was also a speaker for the event. She shared a letter she wrote to King as if he was there to attend. 

“Young Black leaders like myself are driven by your words, ‘social progress never moves in on the wheels of inevitability,’” Wardwick said. “‘It comes to the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.’”

Student Diversity and Belonging Director Beya Makekau, the co-organizer of the event said this is an event that elevates the way in which King’s legacy is alive and well in both our community and in our nation. 

“I think it’s important for students to see themselves in the programs and the events we are bringing and really to create culturally enriched opportunities for them to engage and be in community with each other,” Makekau said. 

When planning the event, Makekau said developing a virtual event that kept people engaged was a challenge they wanted to prioritize. She added that this year’s event was easier to plan logistically, and the virtual setting provided unique perks like students watching the event with their family and more people being able to attend. 

Makekau said that 280 people attended this year’s event, while last year just less than 200 people attended. 

“Seeing people’s faces nodding and smiling with each other and to physically feel a sense of community is something I certainly missed,” Makekau said.

The webinar came to a close as Makekau introduced the 2021 Martin Luther Kind Jr. Legacy Award. Edwards revealed Associate Dean of Students Dr. Blanca Martinez-Navarro as the winner of this award. Martinez-Navarro was cheered on by attendees in the chatbox.

“I am truly humbled and very grateful to be honored in such an amazing way,” Martinez-Navarro said. 

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