Back when I was at RISD and to get the blog off the ground, I’d post all kinds of things there. Now it’s a great resource for all things RISD thanks to the great comms teams there. All of my old writings are now gone there, but I wanted to find a particular post given the special day it is today here in the US. Thanks to the Wayback Machine I found it. It’s here, and pasted down below.
I was in the first year of my presidency during that time — it’s a day I remember well as embarrassingly it was the first time I had left the more upscale and predominantly white part of Providence for the first time, and it brought me back to where I originally grew up. It was an important day for me.
Post from January 18, 2010/
Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. It is a day where we remember a great leader of our country who fought for civil rights, equality, and possibility. Last year while I was still very new to this area, I had the privilege of addressing the Ebenezer Baptist Church here in Providence, RI. The time was just before the inauguration of our new President, and the mood in the church was calm and proud. I thought it befitting that I post the text of my address a year later, as it helps me remember how I felt a year ago. It helps me remember the important work we do here at RISD in our world. And especially with the dire situation ongoing in Haiti, Dr. King, Jr.’s inspiration reminds me, and I know you as well, of the massive work that still remains. -JM
January 19, 2009 on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Providence RI
Mr. Rosenbaum, thank you so much for your generous welcome and for inviting me here today to celebrate this momentous occasion. The work that you, Representative Almeida, Mr. Walker, Ms. Cook, Reverend Dr. Balark, and the other members of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. State Holiday Commission have done to convene us here today is important and impressive. I’m honored to be here today with all of you on this day of celebration with festivity in the air. Esteemed guests and fellow citizens, please join with me here today in honoring the legacy of one of this country’s boldest leaders.
I was two-and-a-half years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Ten years later I would be the beneficiary of much of the civil rights movement of the 60s and find myself and my neighbors bussed 40-minutes across Seattle from the predominantly black part where I lived, to the predominantly white part of town as the implementation of desegregated schools. The fact that there was a junior high school in walking distance from my home didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but it was clear that the schools in the north were cleaner, newer, and simply better compared to the more rundown schools in my neighborhood. It seemed only natural that the longest stretch of road we would take on the bus ride up north was later renamed as “Martin Luther King Jr. Way.” I imagine that everyone gathered here today has been either indirectly or directly affected by Dr. King work as we celebrate his life here today in this auspicious ceremony.
I am the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design — a community of 2,300 students, and with more than 1,500 faculty and staff supporting them — and like all new leaders, my skills are being tested with the recent global financial situation. Fortunately, before I got started in office I went to a special presidential training course held every year at Harvard where I was able to interact with sixty other new presidents of universities, colleges, and community colleges from around the world. It was there where I learned how to walk into a crowded room and do the “4-step” by crossing diagonally across the room, traversing along one edge, crossing the other diagonal, back across the room and out the door. 4 steps, and I was done. If only all things in life as a president were so simple.
When I think back to what I remember with most significance during my experience at the president’s camp, it was a special presentation on leadership by a respected expert in the field. He told us that everything we needed to know about leadership was in the video he was about to present. I expected some kind of fancy PowerPoint presentation with whizbang graphics and the “ten points of leadership” outlined in careful, bulleted form. So when the lights went out and the images began to form I was surprised, and humbled. Because there, in black and white was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on the mall giving his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. Of the many inspired lines that Dr. King speaks in his presentation, he says:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
As the lights in the room came back on, all sixty of us presidents sat stunned and speechless in that moment of watching Dr. King. Because leadership is not about the leader, but about the scale of challenges that the leader will face. And although each of us felt the pressing weight of the trials ahead of us, none of us could imagine what Dr. King confronted head-on. The incredible courage for him to step forward with such vision and bravery, as an African-American, says everything about what it means to lead at the highest level of service to humankind.
If you haven’t watched Dr. King’s speech all the way through, I suggest you view it on YouTube**. Yesterday I noted that it was viewed 5,525,247 times. A few hours ago I checked again, and it has now been viewed 75,000 more times, and that’s just on YouTube. Dr. King’s dream is carried forward to the next generation, and his dream will certainly be everlasting.
On the topic of having a dream, becoming the president of RISD is something like a dream to me, but to be frank it’s not a dream I ever strived for. For most of my life I was a passive member of our world. An art-technology geek, that kept to himself. Waiting for the computer code to compile. Or waiting for the wet paint to dry. I was the shyest kid in class through most of my school years, and was dreadfully afraid to stand in front of even an audience of one. I thought it better to stay within my bubble — it felt safe and warm in there. And then my mentors, who kept my bubble intact, all reached the age of their late 70s and 80s … and died. Vanished. For a few years, I grieved. And then realized that I owed them. I needed to live life on my own and find a new path forward as an educator, designer, artist, and a leader so that my mentors might have felt that their efforts were not in vain. We lead, I think, because we owe a lifetime debt to someone else. The lifetime debt is repaid, with another lifetime — yours. Dr. King literally gave his life to all of us, and it is our job to repay that debt.
It is in the shadow of these great leaders that we step forward to lead in our own ways. Dr. King’s legacy – that all people have a right to greatness on their own terms – comes to life for me every day as an educator. I feel the responsibility of opening the doors for students to achieve these dreams every day. In my many years interacting with college students, I have observed over and over that they are not willing to work within a single, practical norm. They have dreams. Big dreams. Inspired dreams. Dreams of their own. It was true at MIT, and I see students’ spirits almost bursting on the RISD campus. In the past few weeks, over twenty RISD students have contacted me — individual students who are reaching for the sky and beyond their traditional disciplines to see new ways to the future of our world. In the past, you may have known RISD as the place to call when you wanted something brilliant to display in your home, or else to get a consult on a creative approach to your businesses. And we still are, 365 days a year making and showing beautiful things as you and your children and grandchildren have certainly enjoyed in our RISD Museum of Art. In addition, today we are also the international magnet for creative agents of change — a place where students are sketching and building cars by hand, designing affordable housing for the third world, greening the campus with appropriate water usage processes, and defining the role of the artist and designer in the 21st century. In our increasingly flattened world, artists and designers will be glocally connected — globally and locally connected. And, as RISD Provost Jessie Shefrin elegantly posits, “in the world.” It is my sincere hope that the numerous “artrepreneurs” that RISD produces annually can help to reverse the pattern of economic decline we have felt in our city of Providence and our state of Rhode Island. Job creation in our country has always been led by innovation and empowering the creative mind. RISD is prepared to engage that challenge.
When I began this adventure at RISD, my last living mentor shared with me something he hadn’t thought of for many years. As a child, he grew up as a young American in one of the ill-conceived Japanese-American internment camps during WW2 that forcibly held over one hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry here in the United States. He recalled how shortly after the war, he was admitted to both RISD and UCLA. Back then, there were none of the on-campus residence halls we have today at RISD, and instead he was given a list of ten places where he could stay here in Providence. Every boarding house took one look at him, and politely said, “Sorry. We’re full.” So, he simply couldn’t go to RISD. A choice was made for him over 50 years ago based upon prejudices. Many of his generation have stories like these to tell; they underline the way the world once was. And it is clear that RISD, Providence, and the world have come a long way … but we still have much work to do. I am passionate about our becoming a society that can accept, and moreover celebrate, differences in who we are. Because we are all one people in the 21st century.
I feel the sense of “one people” in my inbox nowadays. It seems normal and natural to open my email and see a letter from Barack Obama. Granted, it’s the same emailed letter you all get in his mass mailing efforts. But I get the feeling that it really is from him. And I feel connected, and committed to helping to achieve his mission on our nation’s behalf. I feel America reaching out to me, and I’m reaching back. Do you feel it? I felt connected to our country when last week, First Lady-Elect Michelle Obama sent out a message that we should all play an active part in today’s National Day of Service, and when I visited usaservice.org, I read how an overwhelming number of Americans are answering her call. In moments like these, I cannot help but feel excited that many of the major things that were left undone in the last century might finally get done in this one. Because we are working together. Not against each other. But as one team. One people.
Major changes in the world have to occur, and bold leadership like that of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give indication that society DOES move forward thanks to the sacrifice of a select and gifted few. Whether Dr. King would be astonished or merely thankful for the events we will witness tomorrow we will never know. We do know, though, that we are living through proud, proud history tomorrow with President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration and we should savor it. We feel America living up to its greatest ideals and we hope that we will be taken forward in ways that our world has yet to experience. Yet to all that wait to be led by our next commander-in-chief, I say to not waste even a second of time to awaken the leader inside all of you. Dr. King, President Obama, and the world, will need our combined strength and leadership to achieve new, magnificently creative heights for our future together. Thank you, and good luck to all of us.
** A year later, Dr. King, Jr.’s speech has now been viewed 8,340,948 times.
*** 2014 note: the speech has been taken down from that link unfortunately, but it can be viewed here.