Honoring Dr. King's Legacy: Learning & Taking Action on MLK Day Virtually

Photo courtesy of Bryan Langdoc

This year marks DePauw’s first year honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy virtually due to COVID-19. It is also the first year at DePauw that there are no classes due to changes made by President Lori White. President White encouraged students and faculty to “think of today as a ‘day on’ and not a ‘day off,’” via Instagram.

The Hartman Center at DePauw organized Zoom webinars throughout the day to encourage students to learn and take action. These webinars included a discussion regarding art and activism and a letter-writing campaign to advocate for women who are incarcerated.

“Art & Activism” with Scott Woods

The webinar “Art & Activism” began with 100 participants tuning in to Emmy-award winning writer, poet and activist Scott Woods’ talk about how art can be used for advocacy and how, sometimes, it is not enough.

Joseph Harris, coordinator for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, introduced the webinar. He said that, historically, art has been intertwined with activism as a way of raising awareness and educating others: anti-war songs in the ‘60s peace movements, graffiti teaching linguistics, Banksy’s urban art, the poems of Langston Hughes, political cartoons, etc.

“Art redeems and reclaims spaces and repurposes them,” Harris said, utilizing the depictions of civil rights activist John Lewis and “BLM” superimposed on the statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee in Virginia as an example.

In a final introduction before Woods took the stage, Harris said, “Artists have used their talents to tug at the spirits of people since people had spirits.”

Woods, who is also the founder of Streetlight Guild, a performing arts non-profit, highlighted the issues and complexities with art and the concepts of “representation” and “diversity.”

The activist explained how art has been historically white, male and elitist across disciplines.

“We’re only now, in the last 50 years, beginning to grapple with breaking that up and getting to something that’s more reflective of reality,” Woods said.

Woods describes that while representation has increased in recent years, intervention is still essential to achieve the equity underrepresented groups need.

“We live in a ‘for the culture’ time, where audiences and viewers are willing to overlook a project’s lack of craftsmanship so long as it appears diverse,” Woods stated.

The problem with work that is only representative and not as high in quality or empowerment, according to Woods, is that it does not age well. “History is not kind to such work in light of more exceptional work [that occurs] at the same time,” Woods said.

According to Woods, diversity doesn’t necessarily mean anything is equitable, which is the real goal for those who are underrepresented.

“Diversity, as it has traditionally been applied, only allows for [tokenism]. It doesn’t consider equity or agency; it’s only a number,” Woods added.

Woods used the analogy of a workspace to further this, explaining how adding a couple Black people or members of the LGBT+ community does not change the workspace. “The problems persist, and it’s because diversity is not empowering.”

“‘Representation’ is slowly starting to become the new ‘diversity,’ which was the new ‘tokenism,’” Woods said.

Woods ended his discussion by describing the relationship with art and activism in his city, Columbus, Ohio. During the summer of 2020, Columbus had protests like many major cities, and art was utilized to inform. Grant-funding was provided for specific sets of work honoring the Black Lives Matter movement.

Then, December happened, with two fatal police shootings of innocent Black men, Casey Goodson Jr. and Andre Hill.

“There’s no grant-funding to address [this] reality,” Woods said. “Things... haven’t changed and maybe art didn’t sell what we hoped it was selling.”

According to Woods, representation was not enough to prevent these events.

“Something like that happens and you realize [representation]’s not the goal-- that’s not the endgame,” Woods finished.

“Women Who Are Incarcerated” with Christina Kovats

A few hours after that webinar, the letter-writing campaign advocating for women who are incarcerated began. Christina Kovats, a woman who had experienced incarceration while being pregnant, was the main speaker for this event in which 38 participants joined to take action.

Since 1970, the incarcerated population has grown exponentially by 700%, women being the fastest growing prison population.

This campaign was inspired by Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written when MLK was arrested in Alabama for peacefully protesting.

Dr. King stated in the letter, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” as inspiration for advocating for others. The campaign participants were encouraged to, this time, advocate for women who are incarcerated.

The end goal of the campaign was for each participant to write two letters/emails-- one to Wendy McNamara, chairperson of Courts & Criminal Code Committee, and one to each participants’ local representative-- to hear House Bill 1349.

The bill requires the Department of Corrections to provide free and unlimited access to toilet paper, tampons, and pads to women who are incarcerated; administer medications for MAT Medication-Assisted Treatment for pregnant women; comply with specified requirements concerning the use of shackles and restraints on pregnant and postpartum women and require correctional officers to stay outside delivery rooms.

Currently, there is no law restricting the use of shackles on pregnant women who are incarcerated. The shackles increase fall risks for these women.

Additionally, pads and tampons are not supplied by many facilities, or the facilities only have a limited amount. Women usually have to purchase these menstrual and healthcare products themselves, while making only 10 cents an hour doing prison labor.

Legislators vote on hundreds of bills annually. By emphasizing one of them through these letters, according to Kovats, a huge difference could be made in advancing prison reform.

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just, any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” stated Dr. King in his Letter.

For women to not have access to pads and tampons during their periods-- “that’s the definition of an unjust practice and law,” Kovats said.