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Celebrating the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

January 14, 2021

On this day, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While many are familiar with Dr. King’s leadership in the 20th century American civil rights movement, his influence reaches far beyond this important work. Dr. King was a change agent for good and dedicated his life to be in service to others. He fought for equity in education, and he recognized the impact the environment has on marginalized populations. As an institution of higher education committed to making an environmental and sustainability education accessible to all people, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonates deeply with the mission of Unity College.
Dr. King understood that quality education could advance the condition of people of color while creating promising societal, economic, and cultural change. Now, this work has taken on a larger meaning, with a focus on creating equity in education for all marginalized populations. Unity College is committed to making our environmental and sustainability education accessible to people from all walks of life, graduating students who are culturally competent and ready to tackle environmental issues in communities across the country and beyond. While we are proud that our efforts thus far have resulted in an increase in the diversity of our student population to 22%, we recognize that we have a long way to go. 
Increasing access to education takes into account more than affordability, it means developing curriculum steeped in cultural competency. It means implementing strategic hiring practices among faculty and staff to ensure we have a wide range of demographic representation, knowledge, experience, and perspectives supporting our students. Students need to be able to see themselves in Unity College in order for them to feel like they are welcome, and we take that notion seriously. A recent deep dive by an external review group of several of our degree programs resulted in a report that highlighted areas for us to focus on the next phase of this work. In his work, Dr. King recognized that environmental challenges such as pollution often hit poor and marginalized communities with higher population density particularly hard. For this reason, it is imperative that people in these communities have access to education that prepare them with the skills and knowledge to address these pressing concerns. 
Higher education has traditionally been a luxury for those who can afford it and are able to put their lives on hold to pursue a degree. This is simply not reflective of nearly 85% of today’s college students who are identified as non-traditional. These students are often older than traditional college students, many of them are working adults who have families. There are also students who are right out of high school but are unable to access the traditional college experience, or struggle to see how they can be successful in college when no one they know has been to college. When considering the need for environmental leaders and stewards is greater than ever, in conjunction with our mission, we at Unity College have a responsibility to create access for these groups.
Dr. King’s approach to public outreach and political advocacy influenced the environmental movement as well, inspiring environmentalists who worked on the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Issues of civil rights and climate change may seem to have little in common, however the two are tightly connected. Inspired by Dr. King’s work, his friend and mentor Reverend Gerald Durley said the following in an article in the Huffington Post:
“I never could have conceived of becoming a champion for climate change. As a pastor, it seemed trivial to prioritize polar bears in a world plagued by poverty, violence, drugs, and broken families. But, I have had a change of heart. Climate change is a civil rights issue. When your children suffer from asthma and cannot go outside to play, as is the case for many in Atlanta, it is a civil rights issue. When unprecedented weather disasters devastate the poorest neighborhoods in places like New Orleans, New Jersey, and New York, it is a civil rights issue. When farmers in faraway lands cannot feed their families because the rains will no longer come, it is a civil rights issue.”– Rev. Gerald Durley
As we reflect on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and consider how we are influenced by his work today, it is abundantly clear that access is imperative to solving the environmental challenges faced by so much of our human population. The Unity College mission is critical. Our work is both timely and necessary. Doing this work means continuing to push against the status quo and embrace change. This work will make us mentally uncomfortable as we disrupt historical norms to focus on access and equity within the Unity College experience for all. 
“The soft minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.”– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We, as supporters of the Unity College mission, are also change agents for good. With the inspiration of Dr. King’s work, I encourage you to consider ways in which you can be of service to others on this National Day of Service and throughout the year, remembering the impact of your work now and for the future. If you are looking for ways to be of service within an organization, take a moment to visit this site for opportunities near you. We can change the world too by giving our time, being compassionate, providing understanding and showing kindness. 
I would also encourage you to register for this free event, a talk led by Dorothy Jean “DJ” Tillman during which teens will discuss how Dr. King influenced leaders in STEAM related fields. There will also be excerpts of speeches and artistic performances curated by Chicago area teens. Finally, the youth will host a Jeopardy style quiz-show about Dr. King’s impact on STEAM related fields. At 13 years old, DJ is a prodigy holding a Master’s in Environmental Science and Sustainability from Unity College. She is also the granddaughter of civil rights icon Dorothy Wright Tillman. This is sure to be an interesting conversation and opportunity to learn more about the dynamic work of Dr. King.
Please join me in celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today by thinking about the impact of his work on your life and how you can be inspired by his words in how you approach your work going forward to make the world a better place.
In Unity,
Dr. Melik Peter Khoury