Springfield, Ohio – Wittenberg University kicked off its annual weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., with a panel discussion titled "Privilege II: Education as Transformative: Engaging the Work of Lani Guiner" on Wednesday, Jan. 16, in Bayley Auditorium in the Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center. Panelists discussed issues such as availability of higher education, African-American poverty in society today and the importance of education as a transformative experience.
The event, moderated by Associate Professor of English Carmiele Wilkerson, built off last year's panel discussion, "Poverty vs. Privilege in the Black Community." The discussion featured four panelists: Philana Crite from Clark State Community College, Director of Multicultural Student Programs Forest Wortham, Assistant Dean for Judicial Affairs John Young and Assistant Provost for the First Year Experience Miguel Martinez-Saenz.
Throughout the discussion, audience members and students were presented with various thought-provoking ideas and issues, beginning with poverty statistics in society today. According to Crite, the poverty rate for African Americans in 2006 was 12.3 percent, or 36.5 million people.
"What does this say about the quality of life in the U.S?" Wilkerson said. She pointed out that African Americans are three times as likely to be in deep poverty, which means falling below 50 percent of the poverty line. In addition, the effect of growing up in a poor neighborhood is equivalent to missing an entire year of school.
Crite, who works with impoverished adults in Springfield, began the panel discussion with comments about education and people taking the initiative to make their lives better.
"It's very important to me that people create the lives they want," she said.
Crite acknowledged the benefits of access to higher education, citing various historical figures, including King, who had the privilege of a college education. Crite also discussed the importance of viewing education as transformative.
"Do you realize that the purpose of your education is to transform you?" she asked. "If you walk our thinking the same way as when you walked in, you have not become educated. If you continue to have the same thoughts, you are not educated, because education is transformative. Just like King said, 'America, you must be reborn.' How are you going to be transformed?"
Wortham continued the debate with a frank commentary of the state of society today.
"What has happened to our society?" he said. "We've always lost some people, but we seem to be losing a lot more today."
Wortham addressed the availability of higher education throughout history, and of an "economically segregated higher education." In the 1940s, just two percent of African Americans had a college education, Wortham said, making a direct correlation between economic status and education.
"Higher education was not designed for the average man and woman," he said.
"Clearly, there is an advantage to being born into wealth," he said. "We don't choose our parents. We don't deserve the lot we're given in life. Some of us were lucky. But the question for you is what does that mean?"
On the issue of higher education, Martinez-Saenz said: "We all might agree that there's a disadvantage there. We just disagree on how to go about it. If we believe there's some injustice, we ought to do something about it. The question is how."
Young brought a new topic to the table, discussing the importance of students working for social and economic change.
"Students were the unsung heroes of [King's] era," he said. "I look at students as agents of social change. The students of the Civil Rights Movement imagined a kind of society where justice and freedom would be available to everyone."
Written By: Rachel Morgan '08