GV MLK Jr. week encourages celebrating King’s legacy through activism

Shannon Cohen speaking at Grand Valley in remembrance of Martin Luther King. GVL / Andrew Nyhof

Shannon Cohen speaking at Grand Valley in remembrance of Martin Luther King. GVL / Andrew Nyhof

Allison Rafferty

The week of Jan. 21, Grand Valley State University celebrated what has now become a campus-wide affair: Martin Luther King Week. This year’s theme of “Break the Silence” was evident throughout the week’s events. 

The week-long celebration began on Monday with workshops, a silent march, a keynote presentation by Professor of Educational Policy Studies and African American Studies at the University of Illinois David Stovall, and a #BreakTheSilence panel discussion. The last event was scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 26, entitled “The MLK Jr. Day of Service and Solidarity,” where students involved would be educated on the Civil Rights Movement, but was cancelled due to weather. 

One of the keynote speakers at this year’s MLK Week was GVSU alumna Shannon Cohen. Cohen, who got her undergrad degree from GVSU in 1999 and received her graduate degree from GVSU in 2011, was invited by GVSU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs to give her keynote presentation on Wednesday, Jan. 23 in the Kirkhof Center. 

During her presentation on racial equity work, Cohen talked about “what the cost of real racial equity work is,” as well as “the need to be willing to give up some of the comforts and conveniences we have in order to advance equity.”

Cohen touched on why she thinks it’s important for GVSU to host events like hers, saying this type of education is essential for universities. 

“I think it’s part of the mandate that the institution has as a place of higher education and learning,” Cohen said. 

“I think that Grand Valley’s mission of producing leaders ready to lead in this next century is going to require leaders that are adept in equity and inclusion and that work is the work of all of us and not just people of color.”

The events of MLK Jr. Week have various meanings for each participating individual, and Cohen addressed what her presentation meant to her. She reflected on there being a Ku Klux Klan rally held in downtown Grand Rapids during her first weekend at GVSU, and how even though today’s society has evolved when it comes to social equity issues, equality has yet to be reached. 

“I think for me, even in the ways that we’ve seen the world evolve, we still see so much hate every day,” Cohen said. “We don’t have to look far. We see it, we scroll through it with our fingers and if we’re not careful, we can get desensitized to it.”

Cohen said that her response to these issues was to encourage others to become aware that they exist right under our noses. 

“For me, it was just to say this is a wake up call and it requires folks to be willing to give up their comfort and their convenience and not to get desensitized to the fact that it’s happening,” Cohen said. 

The other half of Cohen’s motivation is to stand up for those who are publicly subjected to racism.  

“We don’t want to treat people that are experiencing hate based on the color of their skin as visibly invisible,” Cohen said. 

There were many takeaways from Cohen’s racial equity presentation. In her speech, Cohen “challenged everyone to really think about how they’re leading into equity.” One of her main points was that “real racial equity work will cost you something.” 

“If it’s not costing you comfort and convenience, you’re probably not doing the real work,” Cohen said.

Cohen also encouraged her audience to live a life similar to King’s, where their impact can be celebrated beyond their life. 

“Will we be able to celebrate your life at 90 like we are this year (with) Dr. King?” Cohen said. “Will we be able to celebrate your life and the choices that you make because someone else will get to rest on the shade of your legacy?”