Fairfield University kicked off their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration on Monday, Jan. 31 to welcome a docket full of events highlighting the importance of racial justice. 

Throughout the week, activists within the Fairfield community were honored, and a particular emphasis was placed on Dr. King’s legacy through celebratory and educational opportunities. The theme of this year’s celebration was “2022: Fighting for Justice and Liberation at Home and Abroad”. 

The 2022 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Steering Committee was co-chaired by Associate Professor of History Sunil Purushotham, Ph.D., and Director of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Pejay Lucky. 

Other committee members included Fairfield University faculty and staff members Jocelyn Boryczka, Ph.D., Rachelle Brunn-Bevel, Ph.D., Rony Delva, Elizabeth Hohl, Ph.D., Kris Sealey, Ph.D., Debnam Chappell, Ph.D., Feleicia Jeter, Sharon Daly, Luisa Vargas and Lori N. Jones.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Reception on Wednesday, Feb. 2 preceded the Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation and honored both the Fairfield University/Connecticut Post Essay Contest Winners and the Community Leader Vision Award recipients.

Delivering the opening remarks was Purushotham, who stated the committee’s aim was to “Situate Dr. King’s commitment of racial justice to our Jesuit mission of the University.” Welcoming words were given by President Mark R. Nemec, Ph. D. which echoed that sentiment. 

Nemec spent much of his time behind the podium discussing how King’s values fit seamlessly into the context of this academic institution and Fairfield’s dedication to inquiry. 

“At Fairfield University, our faith is intertwined with our pursuit of truth.” he said. “Our hope stems from truth, and our pursuit of truth through inquiry.”

After that, the Fairfield University/Connecticut Post Essay Contest winners were announced. For over 15 years, the two have worked in tandem to facilitate this contest open to middle school students from Bridgeport, Conn. The first, second and third prize winners as well as an honorable mention were presented a certificate by President Nemec to commemorate the accomplishment.

Participants were asked to describe in detail their personal experiences of discrimination, bigotry or prejudice, or their personal observation of discrimination, bigotry or prejudice. In addition, they were tasked with coming up with two or more strategies that they would use to overcome these challenges. 

In first place was Jaedyn Pinkney, a seventh grade student from John Winthrop School. What made his submission stand out to judges was his emphasis on peaceful strategies to combat bigotry, like communicating with those who have different attitudes on racism, and attempting to understand one’s prejudices and where they stem from. 

Earning second place honors was Thea Jade Barbieto, and in third place was Nathalia Marques. The eighth graders attend the Multicultural Magnet School and John Winthrop School respectively. Honorable mention went to Wayne Lewis Jr., another eighth grade student from John Winthrop School. 

“I believe we can engage one another respectfully,” said Lewis in an excerpt from his essay, “It is possible to achieve equality and equity.”

According to the University’s official website, the MLK Celebration Committee aimed to, “recognize individuals (faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students) whose record of personal and institutional achievement in areas of leadership and service reflect a strong commitment to advancing the ideals and values of Martin Luther King through courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility, and service.” 

Senior student Mahfouz Soumare was honored with the undergraduate award. Soumare came to the United States from the Ivory Coast to flee the civil war at the age of 15, and has used his story as fuel to make change. 

He is a Magis Scholar at Fairfield University, double majoring in International Studies and Economics. In addition, he is a member of Model UN, a Division I athlete on the men’s soccer team and an entrepreneur. 

 “When I moved to [the] U.S I was introduced to people who made history and are part of the United State history like Dr. King. I became inspired by what they stood up for,” Soumare stated. 

Nat Bush is currently a graduate student in the 2022 cohort, working to receive his Master of Social Work, with the plan of becoming a licensed clinical social worker. 

Bush was nominated and won the Vision Award for his extensive efforts in working to achieve gender equity. 

Most notably, Bush worked to create Rainbow Road, which is a day treatment program for LGBTQ+ clients with eating disorders at Walden Behavioral Care, an eating disorder treatment center in Guilford, Conn. It provides LGBTQ+ members with the opportunity to be treated by LGBTQ+ clinicians. He exemplifies Dr. King’s ideals of serving one’s community.

Professor of English Sonya Huber, Ph.D. was awarded the Vision Award for her relentless strides towards making a difference at Fairfield University and beyond. Throughout her career, she has worked to address issues such as ableism, redlining and healthcare disparities. Her most current work, entitled “What Divides Us?” highlights inequities in Fairfield County, specifically, and outlines the need for change.

Nakia Letang is the associate director for Multicultural Admission, and another Vision awardee. As the first point of contact for students considering Fairfield, Letang is known for her welcoming disposition, and dedication to making Fairfield University a safe and welcoming place for all. 

“Those who work with Nakia are inspired by her patience, endurance, collaborative nature and clarity of purpose,” said Director for the Center of Social Impact, Melissa Quan, Ed. D. in a video by the University made to announce Letang as a 2022 award recipient. 

“I recognize that I am fortunate to work in a lot of spaces and with a lot of great people that support me in this work, and allow me to pursue this work,” said Letang. “ I don’t take any credit on my own for the things I’m being honored for. It really is to the credit of a lot of amazing people that I’ve had the chance to work with for so many years.”

Finally, mailroom associate Kenneth Smith received the MLK Lifetime Service Award, in recognition of his service at Fairfield University and beyond. 

“Ken is the ultimate example and model of Dr. King’s legacy,” said fellow awardee Nakia Letang. She continued, praising Smith for his tireless work as a force of unity and community through his love for Fairfield and racial and social justice. 

“I’m glad that in the role that I play, that I’ve been able to be an assistance and a help and be part of this special arrangement,” said Smith. “I’m humbled that they thought of me but I’m also glad that I was able to be involved and be such an assistance to all here at the University.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration events offered a space where Fairfield University faculty, staff, students and friends can be recognized and revered for their hard work and devotion towards equality, living as Dr. King did, as people for and with others.

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