By Tia Sprengel, Editor-In-Chief
On Monday, Jan. 21 at 1:00 p.m., the Hansen Student Center featured Illinois Wesleyan University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. teach-in as part of its week-long celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Hosted by the Action Research Center (ARC) since 2005, the Martin Luther King Jr. teach-in serves to involve Illinois Wesleyan students, faculty and staff as well as the Bloomington-Normal community in an active discussion on social justice and equality. This year’s teach-in featured three different panel discussion centering around local and international prisoners and prison reform.
“One of the ways we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to engage the campus community in discussions of social justice issues that we know are tied to his vision for this country,” President Richard Wilson said. “Given the amount of time he spent in jail, there is no question in my mind that he would have had much to say about these issues if he were alive today.”
The first panel featured John Maki, the executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, as well as Bob Sutherland, a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) of McLean County. Both the John Howard Association of Illinois and the CJCC advocate for prison reform, and Maki and Sutherland shared their experiences within these organizations.
“What stuck out most to me in Maki’s speech was when he said something along the lines of being forced into a cage does not teach freedom. We want our system to be just and effective, but it isn’t. That isn’t just the criminal’s fault, it’s everyone’s,” junior Amy Werner said. “That’s why reform is so necessary. We have an opportunity to make a bad situation better, but we must take action through reform to stop beating people when they’re down.”
“I found Bob Sutherland’s talk about the successful efforts to reduce jail overcrowding locally to be heartening. He illustrated all the principles of success in action research – if you want to make positive changes, all the stakeholders must be in on the conversation, and that is how McLean County has done it – the judges, the sheriff, the prosecutors, the jail staff, the inmates themselves and the county board, all have to be at the table and engaged,” said James Simeone, professor and chair of IWU’s political science department as well as a member of the teach-in planning committee.
After Maki and Sutherland’s presentation, the Illinois Wesleyan Peace Fellows discussed their work with Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, a victim of unlawful imprisonment, as well as Russian professors Svyatoslav Bobyshev and Yevgeny Afanasyev, who were convicted of high treason after a business trip to China.
“It was fascinating to hear the experiences of Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, who has been on the front lines protecting human rights in places like Tunisia, where he helped protect a Dean accused (likely falsely) of slapping a woman wearing a burka,” Simeone said.
The final panel was different from past years, featuring a discussion of Andrew Clapham’s Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction. Assigned to 70 students who participated in the Making Human Rights Real liberal arts course cluster, the book takes a global view of human rights issues and focuses on topical issues such as torture, arbitrary detention, privacy and health. The participants were invited to first discuss the book at their tables and then to share their ideas with the entire crowd.
“I read selections from Clapham’s Human Rights for my anthropology class,” sophomore Eric Novak said. “Getting to hear others’ viewpoints helped me to critically evaluate my own, which resulted in a fuller learning experience.”
For both the Illinois Wesleyan and the Bloomington-Normal communities, the Martin Luther King Jr. teach-in allowed time to reflect both on social justice issues and everyone’s responsibility in addressing them.
“As students, we get sucked into the Illinois Wesleyan Bubble and we lose sight of what’s happening in our society. The annual teach-in is a way for us to inform and expose members of the IWU community to the problems and inequalities that currently plague our country,” junior Katie Rothas said. “In addition to informing us about these issues, it gives us the opportunity as a community to reflect and analyze these issues and inspire us to get involved to invoke change.”
“For the campus, I believe we gain congruence with our mission, a deeper personal understanding, and an opportunity to share our own personal commitments to social justice,” Dean Karla Carney-Hall said.