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How Dr. King Inspires ACT’s Focus on Equity by Design

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By: Janet Godwin, CEO

As we take a moment to join millions of people around the globe to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I am moved to pause and reflect on the legacy of his life’s work, which transformed the nation and the world. At the age of 35, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent organizing and his unyielding fight against racial injustice. His nonviolent peacemaking was anchored to a firm conviction that, with disciplined action and strong will, we might all live up to the constitutional ideals and democratic values we hold dear. Even through the horrors of overt, covert, and systemic racism, Dr. King was a man who remained steadfast and always pushed for equality, justice, and truth.

In 1960, Dr. King addressed the Golden Anniversary Conference of the National Urban League about the rising resistance to racial justice with this call to action:

The great challenge facing the nation today is to solve this pressing problem and bring into full realization the ideals and dreams of our democracy. How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our political health as a nation and our prestige as a leader of the free world. The price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro is the price of its own destruction. The hour is late; the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now! It is a trite yet urgently true observation that if America is to remain a first-class nation, it cannot have second-class citizens.

Sixty years later, his call for urgency is even more necessary. With the passage of time, we cannot allow the “great challenge” he acknowledged then, to become something we accept and live with today. We cannot allow gaps in equity, access, and opportunity to continue creating second-class citizens. We cannot afford to wait another 60 years to address the systemic barriers to success that sit squarely in the path of so many. The time to act is now.

In fact, when it was suggested to Dr. King that he let time do its work and that eventually Black people would achieve racial justice, he pushed back. He wrote in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

It’s in this spirit of urgency and action that I reflect on Dr. King’s work and words today. We cannot simply rely on the “wheels of inevitability” to roll as we seek to make ACT even stronger and more meaningful for all individuals, and especially Black, brown, and individuals from low-income communities. As Dr. King said, “the time is ripe.”

This year, ACT is working intentionally, integrating Equity by Design across our organization, as we aim to address the systemic barriers that hinder success for so many. This intentional focus includes:
  • a way of approaching education reform that puts the learner at the center of the policies and practices contributing to disparities in education achievement and abstains from blaming students and educators for those accumulated disparities;
  • a commitment to design solutions that honors the input from diverse stakeholders, meets the needs of all learners, and is achieved through collaboration where influence is distributed and shared; and
  • the practice of purposefully involving those being served as key players throughout a design process ensuring that diverse voices directly affect how the solution will address inequities and achieve the prescribed goal.
In order to successfully embrace, embody, and engage in a commitment to Equity by Design, we must approach all we do with an asset-based mindset. I’ve learned so much from Trabian Shorters, the CEO of BMe Community, who consistently challenges leaders, philanthropy, and people of good will to develop an “Asset-Framing” approach – which seeks to “defin[e] people by their aspirations and contributions before noting their challenges and investing in them for their continued benefit to society.” By engaging Equity by Design and using the lens of Asset-Framing to inform our thinking, we can be more intentional and successful in serving the needs of all students.

It is with this intentionality, 60 years on from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, that we remain determined to carry forward his tireless work and strive to bring King’s dream to life. As King admonished the crowd so many years ago, we at ACT recognize that, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” So, on behalf of ACT, we look forward to walking with you, the equity and justice leaders and champions in the field. May our combined dedication, conviction, and disciplined action encourage, inspire, and motivate us all to march ahead.

Join ACT for a virtual event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Join ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning for a webinar on Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. CT with Dr. Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, an American social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, who will discuss the effects of unconscious bias and stereotype threat in education. Register here.