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Friday, January 16, 2009

Mayor Kevin Johnson Surprise Keynote Address Highlights MLK Scholarship Dinner

Last night the sixth annual MLK Scholarship Fund and Recognition Dinner at Freeborn Hall on the campus of UC Davis gave out scholarships to two UC Davis Students and six high school students that will enable them to either go to graduate school or go to college. The fund was co-founded by the late Mel Trujillo and the Reverend Timothy Malone.

Bob Dunning had the honor of introducing the night's surprise key note addresser, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Mr. Dunning said:
"Mayor Johnson is the first Sacramento Mayor to lead the NBA in assists. The former Mayor wasn't very good at the assists."
Mayor Kevin Johnson spoke at first about the importance of the election of Barack Obama and like many, that he never thought he would live to see an African-American elected President.
"What I appreciate most about Barack Obama is that he does not believe that he just represents the African-American community. He believes that his Presidency transcends color. That's the best of America. Forty years ago Martin Luther King in his 'I have a Dream' speech he said that we should not judge people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In a generation's time, his dream is being realized. We all have a chance to witness it."
Mayor Kevin Johnson said that while we have accomplished much, there is still much to be done. One thing specifically he mentioned was the importance of education and the failure of our education system.

"There's still a lot more to do. Let me give you one statistic that I think ties into the theme today. That is, public education is failing our kids around this country. If Martin Luther King was around today, I could assure you that he would say that public education is the Civil Rights issue of the 21st Century."
He continued:
"You have situation now where a third of our kids are not graduating high school. Half our kids are not graduating high school that are black or Latino. That's just not acceptable. We're talking about America being one of the most powerful leading countries in the world, and it's no longer the case. When it comes to math and science we're 18th and 25th. Our schools are not preparing our young people for the 21st century. What makes matters worse is that if you're graduating high school and you are black and Latino, you are at the same academic level as white eighth graders. If your in third grade, and you're not reading at grade level, 80% of those kids, never catch up... That means your future is determined by the time your in third grade. To make matters worse, that we are building prison facilities based on third grade reading scores. That we are taking reading scores and projecting it forward to know how many people we have that are going to be filling up our prisons.

That's why none of us can sit on our hands or say we want to sit on the sidelines. We all have to get involved.

Among the awardees, first was UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef who announced that he is retiring in June after 25 years year. Chancellor Vanderhoef received the lifetime achievement award.

Chancellor Vanderhoef related a story from the mid-1990s during a time when the board of regents had repealed many of the state's affirmative action programs in advance of Proposition 2009.
"UC Davis Gospel choir helped me make that point quite a while ago about 11 years ago. I was at the board of regents at the University of California. It was in the mid-1990s, it was shortly after the board approved policies that prohibited consideration of race and gender in UC admission and hiring.

The campus at that time had a rare opportunity, it had an opportunity to make a presentation before the regents--a presentation about what we thought UC Davis was and what we thought was important to UC Davis...

I could still picture the major event of that presentation. We were just about to begin and we had this group of students come into the hall. They marched in. Now the regents had been having a very difficult time with students marching into the meeting because of Prop 209 and things that the regents did prior to that. So they fretted about that group of students marching in and seated themselves altogether.

Then they all rose as one body and in fact it was the Gospel Choir. The diversity of faces, the diversity just in general was obvious, it just filled the room before they even mouths. And then they began to sing. It was wonderful. For one thing, the regents relaxed. They relaxed enough so that by the end of the presentation by the Gospel Choir, they gave them a standing ovation.

Afterwards I talked to one of those regents... I said that moving that the regents felt so good about that group of students. He said, I don't think that we've ever seen any university group that showed the diversity that that group showed and at the same time they showed us how wonderful diversity can be. And what it can bring to the stage that other groups cannot."
Dave Dionisi from Teach Peace received a well-deserved award as an Outstanding International Peace Leader. He shared early in the evening a rather moving story about some of the things they accomplished in Liberia in attempting to transform it from a war torn country to now a place where they provide hope in the form of education to young children for just $50 per year.

Mr. Dionisi talked about Martin Luther King and importance of action:
"In the packet tonight, there's a quote from Martin Luther King that I just love about cowardice. 'Cowards ask the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question: Is it politic? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? But conscience asks the question: is it right?' There are many people out there tonight that have the courage folks that are standing up, that ask some hard questions about the Federal Reserve, what it's doing to our country, to ask difficult questions about the massacre in Gaza and what that means for justice everywhere, to ask difficult questions about what really happened on 9/11 and what that means for our democracy as we go forward. I want to say thank you to all of you who have made such a big impact on my life..."
Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald received an award for Outstanding Community Service, she told the students:
"One person can make a change and we can all come together to make a better change. So when Dr. King says that we must sometimes take positions because they are the right positions to take, I want to challenge everyone in the community and students as you go through your studies, as you run into challenging opportunities, some of you have said 'I don't know if I'm going to get into that school,' you know what, knock on that door. And if that door slams on your face, then you go through the window. If the window slams on your face, you go back and kick the door open. I came from a family where we... were in a one-bedroom home, where we shared mattresses, we were very poor. But we never knew it because there was so much love and hope in the family. So don't let lack of finances and lack of opportunities... you keep asking questions and do not take no for an answer."

Professor Bruce Haynes of UC Davis was named outstanding educator:
"We've heard this a few times on the stage here tonight, that sometimes we have to take a position because it's right. That's something that I try to do... I wanted to take this opportunity to say that thing that is uncomfortable but what must be heard. I'm one of the few black professors at UC Davis that is actually tenured. There are few Latino faculty, few Native American faculty, and we're at historical times in the university's history. Never before has there been so many faculty up for retirement, so it is a unique time for personnel change. We have a deep pipeline problem in the state of California. At times I found myself battling with Chancellor Vanderhoef because he had challenging times trying to find diverse faculty. Part of that crisis in education in California really goes back to something that happened in the 1970s, something that no politician seems willing to talk about. That's Prop 13 which is pretty much the reason that education in the state of California left us in the dark ages. It prevents us from keeping up with other states in terms of expenditures, teacher qualifications, training our teachers. I guess I'm putting it on all us to do something about that..."
The Reverend Malone closed the night with a very moving tribute to Martin Luther King as the nation's first African-American President is about to be sworn into office.

---David M. Greenwald reporting