It may well be the most eloquent American speech ever delivered. In August of 1963, in what would be ultimately known as his "I Have a Dream" speech, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and referenced the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, and wove in passages from the Bible, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and the African-American spiritual "Free at Last." Five years later, King would die from an assassin's bullet, and while his dream of a nation "transformed into an oasis of freedom of justice" may still feel untouchable at times, variations on that dream are embraced, particularly by generations that only know King as an icon.
"I think what we're seeing, especially in students' consciousnesses, are very high expectations. The dream of freedom is alive. The dream of equal standing is alive. The dream of an equal recognition for all humanity is alive. What's different, though, is that we're at a moment of taking stock in inventory, particularly from students from underrepresented communities," said Boise State Director for Student Diversity and Inclusion Francisco Salinas. "These younger students have learned to navigate a racialized reality. They understand the fragility of the times. Discrimination and bigotry still exist. They're very aware of today's reality of dog-whistle politics. They're dealing with that on a one-on-one basis and then they try to figure out how to dismantle today's partisan political realities."
How does a young adult take on such a heady challenge? Well, it usually begins with something very particular. Take 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 21, at the Boise State Student Union, for example.
"That's MLK Day, a national holiday and a day off from classes. But we think it should be a 'day on,' not a 'day off,' right? That's one of the reasons why we started calling it the 'MLK Day of Greatness,'" said Salinas. "So, beginning that morning at 9 a.m., we'll once more have a poster-making party in the SUB, and then we'll march up Capitol Boulevard to the steps of the Statehouse."
What makes the Day of Greatness rally a bit different this year is that, instead of scholars, authors or professors, students will be the main speakers on the Statehouse steps.
"For the past several years, Boise State [has kept] introducing a new class of students that is more diverse than before. You better believe that we're at a crossroads," said Salinas. "New leadership brings a new vision, and with that comes a respect for inclusivity."
Respect is a big part of what Carmen Barney does for a living. She enforces state and federal anti-discrimination statutes as part of her role as senior investigator and mediator at the Idaho Human Rights Commission.
"It's awesome, even a blessing, to help people sit down at the same table, look at each other in the eye and determine what the real issues are," said Barney. "Quite often, the perception is entirely different for people because we're all part of our experiences. The truth usually lands somewhere in the middle, but if we can bring people closer to the middle, we can create an understanding. That's what I get to do for a living every day."
This month, Barney is also incredibly busy overseeing the official Idaho Human Rights Day Celebration, also on Monday, Jan. 21, under the the Idaho Capitol Rotunda.
"It's a great team that I work with. I draw from colleagues at the Idaho Human Rights Commission, the Idaho Department of Labor, Serve Idaho and the Idaho Office for Refugees," said Barney. Salinas is also on her planning committee. "But the person I credit for getting us this year's keynote speaker is Lindsay Glick."
Glick is a bilingual civil rights investigator at the Idaho Human Rights Commission.
"One of my passions is trying to connect so many of Idaho's different communities," said Glick. "And that's how I met Palina and heard her amazing story. She graciously accepted to be our main speaker."
That would be Palina Louangketh, who even as a young woman had already led a life that could fill several bestsellers. She was born in war-torn Laos in the mid-1970s. Her father, an officer in the Royal Lao Armed Forces, abandoned his family and fled the country.
As Louangketh shared her personal story, she paused several times to wipe away tears.
"I'm sorry. It's hard to not get emotional when I talk about this," she said softly.
Louangketh spoke of walking, when she was 3 years old, through jungles and woods, and fording the daunting Mekong River. She recalled waking up one morning to learn that she, her mother and her older brother had been sleeping atop fresh grave sites. They lived in refugee camps in the Philippines and Thailand. It wasn't until October 1981 that they came to America—specifically Boise, Idaho.
"I attended Franklin Elementary, East Junior and Boise High, and Boise State University," she said. Now, Louangketh is an adjunct professor and a doctoral candidate at Boise State.
But the real show-stopper is that she's currently working on what will be the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora, which will showcase the contributions of immigrants and refugees who have come to the Gem State, and the Native Americans who knew this land as their own long before they were displaced.
"It's a huge step to promote those histories and, more importantly, generate a healthy discourse on cultural awareness and inclusivity," Louangketh said.
She added that there is rarely a day that she doesn't reference Martin Luther King Jr.
"[His legacy] resonates with me profoundly. I reflect on it every day, and when I was invited to teach a Foundations class on ethics and diversity at Boise State, I immediately began incorporating all of MLK's messages," she said.
Boise State's MLK celebrations will stretch long beyond Jan. 21. The highlight, in fact, will be the MLK Living Legacy Celebration Performance on Monday, Jan. 28.
"Instead of a speaker this year, our student committee has chosen to have a pretty spectacular artist," said Salinas. "It's Chelsey Green and her ensemble, The Green Project."
Having performed at festivals around the world, on the Late Show with David Letterman and at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Green breaks down every musical stereotype by fusing the classical, pop, R&B, soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop and gospel genres.
"Art is amazing in that it's fundamentally connective," said Salinas. "It doesn't respect any kind of thing that divides us. It creates opportunities to connect us. Chelsey Green and the Green Project? It's something you just can't deny—human connectivity. Now that's a big part of Martin Luther King's dream."See related PDF