From a panel featuring local business owners of color to a series of outreach activities for students, Lawrence University put the focus on community as it celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 16.

It was all part of an expanded MLK Day program that will continue with weekly teach-in sessions between now and Feb. 1, all open to the public.

I think these discussions are so important on and around MLK Day but also leading into Black History Month because MLK's legacy is an expansive one that includes discussions and struggles over jobs and justice, education, cross-racial and ethnic solidarity, cross-religion and spirituality, and about structural and material change in the lives of the working poor in society,” said Jesús Smith, assistant professor of ethnic studies and one of the key organizers of the MLK Day events. “As an institution we need to educate the public about these issues, and we have so many great scholars and performers here at Lawrence, or who have been at Lawrence, who can do this work.”

Meanwhile, President Laurie A. Carter represented Lawrence and its students in presenting the keynote speech at the annual MLK Day celebration at the State Capitol rotunda in Madison, aired live on Wisconsin Public Radio and the PBS Wisconsin website. It carried the theme, “Let Justice Rule.”

“When I accepted the presidency at Lawrence University, I did so with the understanding that I was joining a community that believes in the power of education as the great equalizer, that is committed to being a place where everyone can thrive,” Carter said in her speech. “Each day we strive to be the beloved community that Dr. King envisioned.”

Expanded programming


Cainan Davenport, co-owner of Taperz Barber Shop, speaks during the Transformational Leaders of Color Breakfast: There is No Gain without Struggle, held in Warch Campus Center as part of the MLK Day celebration. Jesus Smith looks on.
Cainan Davenport, co-owner of Taperz Barber Shop, shares a moment with Jesus Smith during the Transformational Leaders of Color Breakfast: There is No Gain without Struggle, held in Warch Campus Center. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Smith and Garrett Singer, special assistant to the president, led the planning for Lawrence’s expanded MLK Day offerings, with input coming from across campus.

One notable addition to the lineup was a breakfast featuring four Fox Cities business owners of color. The panel included Marcus Grignon, owner of Indigenous Think Tank LLC; Cainan Davenport, co-owner of Taperz Barber Shop; Connie Amaris Vargas, co-owner of Barlash Aesthetica; and Alyssa Jones, owner of Alyssa & Anna, among other local business ventures. All four are leaders in the community.

“I just wanted to share with the students that you can achieve anything,” Davenport said. “No matter how big or how small.”

Smith called their stories inspiring, each of them building on the legacy of King.

“All of this sends the message that antiracism, justice, and equity are no longer symbolic code words for a day but significant and meaningful aspects of a powerful Black leader's legacy embedded in the structure of our institution,” Smith said. “Lawrence said they were going to be an antiracist institution and that we are going to connect with the larger community more, and these are the solid steps to doing so.”

Lawrence also partnered with a bevy of community groups in the presenting of the 32nd annual Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, held virtually. The community celebration, organized by Lawrence, the City of Appleton, United Way Fox Cities, Appleton Area School District, Boys and Girls Club Fox Valley, People of Progression, and Covey, featured Henry Sanders, CEO and publisher of Madison 365, as the keynote speaker.

In his speech, "What is Your Life's Blueprint?" Sanders encouraged viewers to build their life's purpose around the ideals of King.

"I encourage you to have a deeper faith in humanity and to look at ways you can allow love to motivate your actions and your reactions," he said.

See more photos from Lawrence's day of celebrating MLK

On and off campus, students took part in outreach projects that ranged from painting hopeful messages on small rocks for a senior housing complex, to creating dog toys to donate to a local animal rescue, to helping to restock the shelves at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry.

Jonathan Hogan, a senior German studies major, applauded the prepping of meals for Pillars, a homeless shelter in Appleton.

"A large part of political activism and social justice is more than just volunteering,” Hogan said. “I think it's getting out in the community and sometimes assuming controversial politics to make change, but I think at the core of intense political action, kind of what King would've advocated for, is a sense of community, kind of bonding amongst people that you identify with and share values with."

Emily Pikka, a sophomore gender studies major, called the day of service a great connection with the community Lawrence calls home.

“It’s a nice way to reach out to the community and give back, especially here,” Pikka said. “The community does so much for the school.”

President Carter’s speech


President Laurie Carter speaks at the podium as Gov. Evers and others applaud.
President Laurie A. Carter speaks during a statewide MLK celebration in the State Capitol rotunda on Jan. 16. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Schott '97)

In her speech at the Capitol rotunda, Carter told of how deeply affected she was when she visited her grandfather’s birthplace of Macon, Georgia, when she was 16.

“We visited the farm where his father, my great grandfather—a sharecropper—tended land,” she said. “We also visited the three-room shotgun house where he lived as a child before the family migrated to New Jersey. This experience was the first and only time that my grandfather shared stories of growing up in the South. It was chilling to hear that he had lived through such difficult times. And that trip changed me.”

Video: See President Laurie A. Carter speak at Capitol rotunda

That experience as a teenager, Carter said, helped her understand the significance of access to education in meeting the ideals set forth by King. It has been at the foundation of her journey through higher education leadership.

“That trip to Macon, Georgia, prepared me for sacrifice, struggle, and even suffering,” Carter said. “While I knew that my life was not going to be easy, I also knew it would not be nearly as difficult as those who came before me. I am grateful for Dr. King and others who paved the way. Had they gotten weary in well doing, I would not be standing here today. I embraced and continue to embrace the struggle and sense of responsibility I learned on that trip so that my son and the young people whose lives are entrusted to me will have a life closer to Dr. King’s dream than my own.”

Teach-in series

The celebration of King continues at Lawrence with the Justice, Peace, & Righteousness Teach-In Series, presented by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The remaining sessions run from Jan. 18 through Feb. 1. The presentations include:

  • Dr. Sigma Colón, Black and Brown Solidarity: MLK to Wakanda Forever: 7 p.m. Jan. 18, Main Hall 201. The talk will explore cross-racial alliances from King’s Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice to more recent economic arguments about the “solidarity dividends” to be gained through coalition building. Colon is an assistant professor of environmental and ethnic studies at Lawrence.
  • John Holiday and Company, The John Holiday & MLK Experience: 7 p.m. Jan. 25, Warch Campus Center. Countertenor and voice professor John Holiday will present a recital of classical vocal works and songs performed by his studio as well as performances inspired by the words, life, and times of King.
  • Dr. Stephanie P. Jones, Where Do We Go from Here? Ending Curriculum Violence and Antiblackness in Schools: 7 p.m. Feb. 1, Warch Campus Cinema. This will be Lawrence’s second annual “Community Conversation.” The lecture will cover the historical context and definitions of racialized trauma and curriculum violence in the classroom. It aims to help students and educators rethink, recognize, and dismantle these acts in their classrooms, curriculum, and pedagogies. Jones is an assistant professor of education at Grinnell College and is the founder of Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools.

The teach-in series is free and open to the public.

Deanna Kolell contributed to this story.