Feb. 1, 2019

Batten's Own Community MLK Celebration

This week, the Batten School hosted two events as part of UVA’s Community MLK Celebration series to commemorate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The week kicked off with a Batten Hour panel discussion on racial equality at UVA featuring Batten students Ryan Alexander (BA ’20), Chloe Cohen (MPP ‘20), Catalina Perez (BA ‘20), and Brian Zuluaga (BA ’20) as well as UVA third-year and Latinx Student Alliance (LSA) President Kayla Dunn, and UVA third-year and Black Student Alliance (BSA) President Keiara Price. Later in the week, April Ryan, one of the few African-American women to become a White House correspondent, gave a talk at The Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville.

The underlying theme of the Community Celebration was “Women in the Movement.” While the Civil Rights movement would not have been possible without Dr. King, it would also not have been possible without the support of women. The women who participated in the movement not only  marched with Dr. King, risked incarceration (and their lives), but they also were in charge of the planning and organization of a movement that changed history and still reverberates today.

Like the women recognized in Ryan’s keynote remarks, Batten’s own are getting organized and challenging the status quo so they, too, can have a platform and a space to be heard.

During Batten Hour, Cohen and Perez moderated a panel that kicked off with a discussion about two new Batten organizations aimed inciting change: Courageous Conversations in Policy (CCP) and Batten Latinx Network (BLN). Both organizations launched this year and emerged from a desire to create a community where a diverse group of individuals could come together to discuss issues freely and do so without hesitation or even intimidation.

During the panel discussion, a theme emerged—one that addressed the pitfalls of being a minority both at Batten, but also at UVA and America at large. What steps could be taken to ease the sense of feeling like an outsider? The founders CCP and BLN acknowledged that their organizations grew out of frustration but also out of strong desire to create a community of support and inclusion with the hope that this would attract a more diverse student body to the Batten community.

“When I arrived at UVA—before I even knew about Batten—I was in search of a community,” said Brian Zuluaga, founder of BLN who first joined LSA as a first year navigating the choppy waters of collegiate life as a Latinx out-of-state student. “It took some time to find a community and also find Batten. For me and what pushed me to found BLN was my willingness to provide Latinx students—much like my former self—to have a chance to get to know Batten—and feel comfortable in that process. I want them to see that there’s home for them here.”

A similar sentiment existed for Alexander, one of the co-founders of CCP. He acknowledged the warmth and welcome he received from Patti Edson, Batten’s former director of undergraduate admissions, but also pointed out, how he was the only African-American present at some of the initial Batten info sessions and how that immediately can make one feel out of place, or worse have to act a certain way.

“It’s hard to feel okay to say some things especially when you come from such a different place with such a different background,” said Alexander. “It’s just hard.”

This desire for common ground and a space to discuss the realities—however stark and difficult—of racial inclusion at UVA was championed by the UVA networks, Latinx Student Alliance (LSA) and Black Student Alliance (BSA), whose representatives joined the panel for the second part of the discussion.

A vibrant discussion on racial equality—what’s missing and what can be done to ensure a future of inclusion and respect unfolded. The audience was captivated and engaged, signaling that Batten can be a place where students of all backgrounds can come together and discuss issues—however uncomfortable—something that would make Dr. King and all the women involved in the movement proud.

Two days following the Batten Hour, April Ryan took to the stage of the Paramount to discuss women in the movement and Dr. King’s legacy.

“They always say behind a great man is a good woman,” said Ryan. “A good woman? How about a great woman—an exceptional woman!”

Dr. King was a great man whose legacy lives on today reminding American citizens that his dream—even in the darkest moments of history is still possible. This current political climate being no exception. But behind that great man, was a movement and part of that movement were women—many women, in fact. These women not only marched, risked imprisonment which many endured, but also opened their doors and fed marchers even when food was sparse and funds were low. They were organized. They were committed.

“They organized—and you can’t have a movement of that size and scale without organizing,” said Ryan.

Ryan, a woman who has defeated many odds in both her personal and professional career, recognized the determination and the resilience of women, such as Rosa Parks, Coretta Scoot King, Harriet Tubman among many others as a source of inspiration and encouraged the audience to think about the risks and sacrifices these women made in the name of freedom. Often women, regardless of color, take on a supporting role—it’s an all too familiar narrative derived from real-life—not just a Hollywood film. And while one doesn’t need to watch a movie to see how quickly women are sidelined or go unacknowledged, the fact remains that women play a critical role whether in the day-to-day life of society or in movements, such as the Civil rights, #MeToo, or BlackLivesMatter. For Ryan, this can’t be underestimated nor ignored.