This open letter was first recited as a speech on Jan. 20, 2021 at Cal Poly’s virtual, annual MLK event to an audience of a few hundred SLO community members.

Amman Fasil Asfaw is an electrical engineering graduate student. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.

Dear Future Torchbearers,

I’d like to open with a quick mental activity. Take a few moments to mentally list the most famous oral speeches of all-time that pop into your head. Let’s see if you can list three. Go.

… 

In 1948, Martin Luther King Jr. enrolled in the Crozer Theological Seminary. In his second term he matriculated into a Public Speaking class where he received a seemingly measly C+ grade. He then took a subsequent Public Speaking I class in his third term and earned an even lower C grade. Yes, you heard that right. THE Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earned C’s in his post-graduate public speaking courses. Isn’t it remarkable that this very same person is also the orator of one of the speeches you thought of in your head? Do this activity with any person, any day of the year and most folks will recall King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

I say this not only to challenge our archaic metrics of academic success, but also to exemplify King’s ability to transcend institutional judgement — and how we should all strive to transcend the traditional “evaluations” of our nation’s institutions as well. 

I reflect to you today as a fellow Black student in his fifth and final academic year at Cal Poly. I am now ready to pass the torch. My attempts at leadership and voluntary service here in SLO span a range of realms. I need not list my past roles though because I realize all position titles are a superficial limitation and expectation of one’s impact. 

My first reflection? I am weary of titles. You are not your title and your title is not who you are.

If you are the Social Media Chair for an org, why can’t you take on building a new club website? 

If you are a Faculty member, why can’t you also act as a parental figure to students?? 

If you are an Administrator, why can’t you partake in nonviolent direct actions??? 

On the topic of nonviolent direct actions, I think there is still a massive misunderstanding. So I reiterate the words from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963): “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”

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. However, as MLK Jr. preached, we cannot confront our normal and healthy boils without creative, constructive, and nonviolent tension.    

This good and necessary tension is the same tension spoken of by Victor Glover. When speaking to Cal Poly’s National Society of Black Engineers live from the International Space Station, our astronaut asserted that the source of our physical muscle growth is the tension we place in our muscles from lifting weights. He said emotional and spiritual growth work the same way; through tension.     

So, my second reflection? Create uncomfortable, inclusive spaces which promote the growth of humanity.

The possibilities of this are endless. You could boycott your Black Academic Excellence Center until you get a bigger one. You could protest your campus’ annual commencement until tuition costs are lowered. Shoot, if all else fails, you could even sit on the road in front of a stopped car with a sign that reads: “THE CAUCASITY IN AMERIKKKA IS ASTRONOMICAL.” 

I warn you though. Being the owner of such an uncomfortable space may come with a hefty initial down payment. But fear not, because as with most all equity investments, this one will eventually accrue in value via the growth of humanity.  

So, my third reflection? Despite the vagaries of life, our trajectory is up. Progress shall prevail.

When you are nearing success in igniting the growth of your community, a select few will attempt to tarnish your name. This is a sign you are of value. Protect and burgeon that value as if you are the last torch left in a pitch black cave. 

Your fellow torchbearer,

Amman Fasil Asfaw

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