Tag Archives: civil rights

Philanthropy Spotlight: MLKSB

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara chose the theme for its 14th annual observance of the holiday celebrating the birthday of the slain civil rights leader back in early April. That was just a couple of weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic brought California’s first lockdown, more than a month before George Floyd’s killing led to the Black Lives Matter marches and racial justice protests of spring and summer, several months before it became clear that Blacks and other racial minorities were among the hardest hit populations affected by the continuing coronavirus crisis, and most assuredly before last week’s shocking insurrection at the U.S. Capitol received a far different response than the BLM gatherings had. 

Still, King’s observation that “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy” sure does seem prescient for last year’s milestone events.   

“More than ever Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words are as prophetic now as they were more than fifty years ago when he said (them),” says E Onja Brown, president of the committee, noting that the mostly young people protesting the death of an unarmed man whose life was brutally taken by those sworn to defend us faced plenty of their own challenges. 

 “Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, [so many people participated in] one of the longest and most persistent protests ever illustrated the demand for systemic changes,” says Brown, whose introduction to Dr. King was standing just steps away when the civil rights leader delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963.

But perhaps it’s also true that Dr. King’s words are just so timeless that any moment in our nation’s long history of oppressing those who are less privileged would seem a more than appropriate time to consider the courage of standing bold in the face of challenge and controversy. 

And that’s a big part of MLKCommitteeSB’s mission, to make sure Dr. King’s speeches and legacy, and his vision for a world where people were no longer divided by race, perpetuate, Brown said. 

One of the ways that shows up is the annual essay and poetry contests for local school children that award three prizes and honorable mention in four categories. 

“The students participate in the contest each year to show how Dr. King’s words connect to the realities of their own lives and the world around them,” she said. “We want students to think and make connections to the theme for themselves.”

The first place winners of the contests normally have a chance to read their poems and essays at a live celebration that culminates the four-day celebration surrounding the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, the MLKCommitteeSB’s biggest event of the year. 

“Dr. King’s vision was the beloved community, to embrace everyone,” Brown explained. “We reach out to be that point where all people can come and feel free and be in a safe environment to speak their mind.” 

Normally, to that end, the weekend features events ranging from speeches at the Eternal Flame at UCSB’s campus, Interfaith services at local churches, and a Unity March from De La Guerra Plaza to the Arlington where a lively celebration would feature music, the student readings, keynote speeches, and more. 

But of course the pandemic has forced an inevitable move to a livestreaming event. Still, Brown stressed, all of the above facets of the four-day celebration will be represented in the Committee’s two-hour virtual program beginning at 11 am on Monday, January 18, which is the Federal observance of King’s birthday. The event will be livestreamed on www.mlksb.org and on the MLKCommitteeSB Facebook page (www.facebook.com/MLKCommitteeSB). 

Speakers who recorded presentations include Rev. Richard A Lawrence, a retired United Methodist clergyman who was active in the civil rights movement and knew Dr. King personally as he participated in the Selma to Montgomery march and later helped Dr. King organize an anti-discrimination demonstration in Chicago. Dr. Anna Everett, an emeritus professor of UCSB, who was recently elected to the Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees and also serves on the Santa Barbara County Commission for Women, will also talk. 

In addition, the program will feature a photo and video montage of past MLK Day celebrations – including encore performances from Inner Light Gospel Choir and Santa Barbara Dance Institute, World Dance for Humanity, and the Red Sea Rhythm Rockers – and highlights from this year’s other offerings from the Committee, including group and individual videos that were created for Santa Barbara’s Juneteenth celebration and the Committee’s Virtual Townhall meeting “State of the African-American Community in Santa Barbara County” that featured a diverse panel of health professionals in a dialogue with county administrative leaders. 

“There were more than 1,000 participants on Zoom asking questions, people in the community whose voices aren’t often heard,” Brown said, noting that the series will continue this spring examining issues of inequality in unemployment and education.

But there’s much more the all-volunteer organization could be doing with additional resources, she said. 

“It has been an extra challenging time during the pandemic in terms of reaching out to people to get funding, which is what we need to do each year in order to sustain what we do for free,” she said. “With more stability in the organization, we could be spending our time developing programs instead of raising money to support the ones we have now.” 

Brown wondered aloud why that’s necessary in a community as well resourced as Santa Barbara. 

“Actually, it boggles my mind,” she said. “We’re a community where there is enough for all of us, but for some reason, we haven’t gotten the funding that we need to be able to develop our programs more. And now with the pandemic, not having direct contact with people has seriously impacted us, Because if people don’t see you, it’s like that old expression: Out of sight, out of mind.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara

His Dream is Still Alive

As a young person in 1963, E. onja Brown got on a bus at W. 138th in Harlem bound for Washington, D.C., alone. 

Once there, she pushed her way up into the crowd assembled before the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. 

“People would let me go past them, because I looked like a kid,” Brown Lawson says. She made her way to the edge of the platform where Dr. King would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was so close, in fact, that as she heard his words she reached up and held the hem of his coat. 

“I had never heard anyone that close to me speak like that,” Brown Lawson says. And when she, as a young black woman, was initially denied entry to the college of her choice because of the color of her skin, it was Dr. King’s voice that “carried” her “through the racism” she faced. 

Today, Ms. Brown Lawson is the President of Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara, a purely volunteer-run organization dedicated to fostering “positive relationships between the many diverse groups in the Santa Barbara Community and the surrounding areas; to sponsor programs and events which exemplify the teachings of Dr. King; and to observe and celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.”

(January 2017) (l-r) Poetry coordinator Melinda Palacio and Sojourner Kincaid Rolle along with MLKSB Essay and Poetry Contest Winners. MLK Jr holiday, MLKSB Morning Program at the Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA. (Photo by Rod Rolle)

The committee’s primary charge is producing four days of events across Isla Vista, Goleta, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Ynez Valley to celebrate the King holiday in January every year, since 2007. This year’s series of events included a kickoff at the eternal flame at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to celebrate Dr. King; the annual Unity March; and a culminating speech by civil rights icon and King contemporary Dr. James Lawson. 

Throughout the year, the committee works to ensure that Dr. King’s words and actions are known and contemplated by people across the community, particularly the young. For that reason, the MLK committee organizes an annual poetry and essay writing contest where elementary and high school students win cash prizes for poems and essays centered on a theme for the year, along with Dr. King’s life and teachings. 

Ms. Brown Lawson laments that the achievements of the Civil Rights era did not alleviate racism, but sees incredible hope in the young people the committee tries to connect to Dr. King’s legacy every day of the year. 

“Listening to his words that day gave me the courage and strength to persevere despite many obstacles,” Brown Lawson says. “And that is what I believe Dr. King can do for young people today… his voice, his passion, and his resolve is the essence of the kind of person he was and what he stood for. My hope is that the younger generation can understand how he is still relevant today.”

Fighting Hate for Good

Dan Meisel was made for his current job running the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Santa Barbara-based Tri-Counties regional office. 

Raised in Santa Barbara, Meisel went on to practice First Amendment law and general litigation at a prestigious San Francisco law firm. From there he wrote and produced films including All She Can, a fictional drama about a Mexican-American teenager’s struggle to pursue her college dreams, which premiered at Sundance and aired on HBO.

“That film was my entrée into education equity issues,” Meisel says, and those issues would become a key focus of his ADL experience locally and nationally.

Chair, Education Equity Task Force, Dan Meisel, speaking at the National Commission Meeting. The annual, National Commision Meeting in Houston, Texas. November 5, 2018.

After finishing the film and moving back from New York to Santa Barbara in 2010, Meisel felt he needed to get a “foot back into constitutional law, policy and civil rights.” During the next 10 years he would serve – as a volunteer – as ADL’s Regional Board Chair, Chair of ADL’s National Civil Rights Task Force on Education Equity and many other ADL committees. In 2019, when he was asked to step in as lead staff of the nonprofit’s local office, it felt like a natural fit.

As Regional Director, Meisel works with local staff and a network of 25 other regional offices and ADL’s Community Support Center in New York to further ADL’s mission “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure just and fair treatment for all.”

ADL has long been a leader in responding to acts of anti-Semitism, but one of Meisel’s key tasks is correcting assumptions that ADL is an organization of Jewish people serving only the Jewish community. “Since its inception, ADL has believed that any minority is safe only when all minorities are safe,” he says, “and ADL has emerged as a diverse and formidable anti-hate organization because of its ironclad commitment to protecting the rights of all people to be treated fairly regardless of their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or level of ability.”

To that end, in addition to responding to anti-Semitism, ADL’s local efforts have included highlighting education equity issues largely impacting Latinx and other students of color, providing educational programming for teachers and students about how their own identities and experiences influence and sometimes inhibit the way they understand and interact with others, and directly responding to incidents of bias, hate and extremism. 

ADL provides education programs for educators, students, and non-school workplaces as well.

“ADL has been a transformative experience,” says recent Oak Park High School graduate Sam Barney-Gibbs. “ADL came to my school, educating students on combatting the manifestation of hate and promoting acceptance, and they also helped me find the kind of person I want to be both professionally and in my day-to-day life.”

“Given the marked increase of online hate and polarization in recent years, ADL’s work is as important as ever,” Meisel notes, “and it has been both invigorating and heartwarming to be a part of ADL’s effective efforts to “fight hate for good.’”