Better Together

The following address was given by University of Puget Sound President Isiaah Crawford at the city of Tacoma's 31st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration on Jan. 21, 2019.

Good afternoon. Let me begin by thanking Jenna, for that very gracious introduction; Mayor Woodards, for her leadership and kind invitation to speak today; and the Events and Recognition Committee for planning such a wonderful opportunity to come together and celebrate as a community.

It’s so important to have this time together as a community—the urgency of the present moment is palpable. The current shutdown of the federal government has had a tremendous impact on how we honor the legacy of Dr. King today. The historic Ebenezer church in Atlanta… the Selma-to-Montgomery March interpretive center in Selma… the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site… the National Museum of African American History and Culture... All of these were closed leading up to this weekend.

But we—we are here. We cannot be shut down. We are South Sound Proud. We are together. And we’re better together.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would be 90 years young today—just about the same age as my beloved and intrepid Aunt Nellie, who traveled from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She was in the audience to see and hear MLK Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. 

This was not an easy journey for her to make. We were not a family of means. It was her hunger to make a difference that propelled her to make this journey, and the celebration of this holiday holds a great deal of personal meaning for me as a result.

Her stories of that experience are among my very earliest memories, and remain an example of what courage, determination, and especially love can do. She and the other strong women in my family who reared me taught me to overcome obstacles that were before us, to not let others define who we are and the values we hold, and to pursue every right and opportunity available to us.

Civil rights. Social justice. Service to community. Martin Luther King Jr. elevated my aunt’s consciousness, who in turn elevated my own. Our histories and oral traditions, the passing down of hope, determination, and wisdom from one generation to the next—these are essential in giving us the courage and conviction to build on the work of those who have gone before us. Work that we are all called to do.

That work is about more than just words. Martin Luther King means so much to us today not just because of his words but because of his actions: the dignity with which he led the struggle. As Michelle Obama famously said, “when they go low, we go high.” In the face of all sorts of invective, our forebears held their heads high. They spoke passionately. They dressed impeccably. They brought humanity and humility to their work. They respected the human spirit and they appealed to our better angels, all while remaining riveted and resolute in the pursuit of social justice.

Today, so many decades after the Rev. Dr.’s assassination, we feel acutely that there is more work to do here in 2019 than there should be. But the victories are many and we must not lose sight of them. They include victories and legacies of leadership, especially here in the great city of Tacoma, and they are numerous: Mayor Woodards. Mayor Strickland. Mayor Moss. Dolores Silas. Vanna Sing.* Victories of representation in our government, our classrooms, our churches, and in our dreams come to life.

University of Puget Sound is my own dream come true. It was just a few Januarys ago that I learned I was a finalist for the role of president, in which I have now been proud to serve for the past two-plus years. In addition to a lovely welcome from the university community, I was deeply humbled by a warm embrace into the 2-5-3.

Thank you for that. This community, our community, is exceptional. My spouse, Kent, and I knew we were blessed to become part of the City of Destiny from the moment my colleagues at the University of Puget Sound invited me to join them. Months before my appointment began in 2016, Tacoma welcomed us in a manner that took our breath away. We received handwritten letters and cards from members of our community, welcoming us to the South Sound and providing us with recommendations for restaurants, coffee shops, places to worship, dry cleaners, gyms, dentists, barber shops, and “adult watering holes.” We felt like we had found our place… our home… and a community where we could be our true selves and do the work we have been called to do.    

For me, that work is about education. I have devoted my life to the pursuit of education and to making education available for others. I believe it is the key to a truly fully functioning democratic society, in which all voices come forward, and all persons and points of view are respected.

As we all know, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was an educated man—a spiritual leader and a scholar. He used his education for leadership and to serve others, and I have been inspired to do the same in my work over the years. I am so very proud to be here with all of you and part of our collective effort to create opportunities, especially for our young people, to help them see and embrace their inherent dignity and value, to search for truth and understanding, and to serve the needs of others. 

And I’m proud to be among the hundreds of partners across our community working to help support our young people. Can we take just a moment to applaud the excellent work being done in our Tacoma Public Schools under the leadership of Superintendent Carla Santorno, and the tremendous gains that have been made in high school graduation and college readiness?

Of course, college is not the only path to making a difference. The key, no matter who and where we are, is being aware and awake to the current moment and its possibilities. I spoke earlier of how the “I Have a Dream” speech changed my life. But we know that these four words—I Have a Dream—were not even in the original draft of the remarks. When MLK took to the stage to deliver them, they were not on the piece of paper in front of him. It was the luminous Ms. Mahalia Jackson who exhorted him to “tell them about the dream,” which he certainly did.   

It was an improvisation, in the moment. It is so very important to be open to those moments; to be the people we need to be and deliver the messages we need to deliver, and to be open to those we seek to teach, to inform, and to educate as we become the fully just and equitable society we are destined to become.

There is so much good work happening in our own community that there are too many people and organizations to name in my few moments here on stage: the Race and Pedagogy Institute and community partners, our black student unions, the Black Collective, the Tacoma branch of the NAACP, the Rainbow Center, Centro Latino, Tacoma Urban League, Tacoma Community House, Temple Beth El, and so many other churches, organizations, partnerships, and grassroots efforts.

What is so special about each of these organizations is that their work is done in collaboration and partnership to lift others up. We work not for ourselves alone, but for others who deal with the insidiousness of racism… persons of all religious faiths, women, immigrants, refugees. I am proud to be part of a community that so actively cares for our residents who come to us from all walks of life and all corners of the globe.

A little over a year ago I had the honor of being invited by the Rev. Dr. Leslie Braxton—a Puget Sound graduate of the Class of 1983—to speak at a Future Leaders Scholarship Dinner. Dr. Braxton, as you may know, is senior pastor at the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, and I have long appreciated a message I saw on the church’s website: “God is always willing to start over.”

So are we. Progress can be slow. Sometimes it feels like we are slipping backwards, but progress is not the work of a single generation. We are called to build on the good work, the hard work, of the past. We are inspired by that work. We are grateful for that work. It calls on us to pursue with vigor and resilience any number of issues threatening our society today. That includes the work of eradicating bigotry, homophobia, racism, and sexism; advancing the civil and human rights of our nation’s immigrants—for we ARE a nation of immigrants; reforming our incarceration policies; addressing homelessness; caring for our environment; and fighting for access to the highest quality education and opportunity for every single person.

Advancing equity and inclusion is and must be central to everything we do. It has to be. For our educational institutions to teach students how to engage new ideas and perspectives, our students need to encounter the lived realities of persons who have different ideas, perspectives, and experiences to share. Our entire community is enriched by the many contributions made by those who are first-generation Americans; by those who think and learn differently; by those who are exploring the intersections of their various identities; and those who have been underrepresented on our college campuses in the past, and who, despite dramatic shifts in the demographics of our country, remain underrepresented today.

So where do we go from here? We build on the past AND we continue on from where we are. We must not tire. As Dr. King encouraged us, “We must believe that the arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.” We carry on in the face of what is before us. We all have important responsibilities to the communities in which we are based. Everyone has a role to play; everyone is vital. No one is disposable; no one is ancillary.

To the young people in the room today I say: Do not let others define you. Only you can build your resilience, develop your sense of self, and find your purpose. You have the agency to do that. And you have a room full of people here to support you. And other rooms full of people, I know, in your homes or in your communities. And in your schools and in your churches. Stand on our shoulders. Let us help you reach higher. Let us challenge you to become your best and fullest self, in service to others. 

The world needs all of us. We need citizens who can further our democracy, who can fulfill the promise of America. We need the benefit of your wisdom and of your calling, whether it’s in academia or the helping professions; whether it’s in research or social work; the arts or public service; the boardroom or the classroom. There is something in this world that you and only you are called on to do and be, no matter how old you are, no matter what skills you have to offer. And with the support of this great community here in the South Sound, we’re going to help you get there. We’re all going to get there, and we’re going to be a better community for it.

In Dr. King’s last sermon before his death, he included a passage in which he indicated how he wished to be remembered on the day of his funeral. He stated, “I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

On this day we celebrate Dr. King’s birth and we commemorate his death. But his story lives on in each of us, and in what we are called to do, together, to carry on his legacy. We are better together. And our march continues until the arc of the universe is in full alignment with justice.

Thank you, all, for the journey we share, for the privilege of speaking with you, and for your support of the cause of civil rights and social justice upon which our society and our nation depends. 


* Dolores Silas is the 2019 MLK Lifetime Service Award recipient, and Vanna Sing is the 2019 MLK Emerging Leader Community Service Award recipient. Jenna Hanchard of KING 5 served as emcee.