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Students share experience of advocating for full observance of MLK Jr. Day

| Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Last Wednesday, student government announced the University’s full observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for this academic year. The announcement followed the senate resolution calling for its full observance passed last March and a Letter to the Editor addressing how MLK deserved more than a photo in June. 

The process for the full observance of MLK Jr. Day was initiated by junior Eliza Smith, who wrote the original Senate resolution. 

“[The lack of a full observance of MLK Jr. Day is] something I’ve always felt off about even when talking to other diverse students and potential new students when I’m asked about diversity or inclusion on campus,” Smith said. 

To gain input on the resolution, Smith reached out to the Multicultural Student Program and Services. The resolution then received co-signatures and was passed by the student senate. 

Smith then proceeded to work with senior Cassidy Ferrell, director of student empowerment, and was advised by student body president and senior Allan Njomo to contact the administration. 

The resolution passed through the Campus Life Council — where all resolutions must pass before being approved by the University. 

Smith and Ferrell started working with last year’s vice president of student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding and then with the new vice president of student affairs Fr. Gerard Olinger. 

“We really love and appreciate [Olinger] because of his advocacy during this whole process,” Ferrell said. “After the first meeting, he saw that this was something students really cared about.”

Olinger brought the open letter Smith and Ferrel wrote to the Observer to the administration. The initial lack of a response by the administration then led to the MLK Jr. Day coalition that included Smith, Ferrell and several other students. 

The coalition began an Instagram campaign, enlisted historically Black clubs on campus to sign on to the open letter and reached out to people via GroupMe and other platforms. 

“We saw that a lot of change specifically regarding minority students happened when students got together,” Smith said. 

Smith and Ferrell reached out to senior football player Max Siegel who helped get the word out about the MLK Jr. Day coalition to athletes. 

Smith and Ferrell also contacted senior and director of the department of diversity and inclusion Amaya Medeiros, who helped connect them to historical Black clubs on campus. 

“A lot of issues at Notre Dame regarding diversity and inclusion need a lot of student support and organization to actually get attention,” Ferrell said. “So that’s something that we kept at the front of our minds when we decided to start the coalition.” 

The coalition also gained faculty support. The Progressive Faculty Organization gave several statements of support. Faculty statements included speeches regarding their experience at the University, other institutions and some who personally worked with Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. 

In addition, Smith and Ferrell held meetings with Olinger over the summer.

“He was a huge support system,” Smith said. “He made sure we got to the right people.” 

Olinger pushed for MLK Jr. Day to be on the undergraduate council calendar that governs the academic schedule for undergraduate students. The resolution then passed the full academic council for graduate students last Monday. 

Smith and Ferrell hope to organize programming around MLK Jr. Day using student government resources. Also in regard to student government, Smith and Ferrell noted the importance of follow-through and creating connections after resolutions pass the student senate to truly enact change. 

With MLK Jr. Day’s full observance, Ferrell mentioned they are “hoping that students will be able to have a reflection period on that day — as two hours, we thought, wasn’t a significant enough time for students to actually think about diversity, about MLK Jr.’s work and about civil and human rights on campus.”

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