A week after U-M’s MLK Symposium recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, the Rackham graduate school hosted five student speakers in a TED-style presentation called “King Talks.”
In its inaugural year, King Talks followed the university’s 2018 MLK Symposium theme of “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” Rackham announced the new speaker series and encouraged students to apply during fall semester and three PhD students and two master’s candidates were chosen to deliver 10- to 15-minute speeches on social justice themes within their academic studies.
Melvin Washington (MPP ‘18), a graduate student at the Ford School, was among the inaugural speakers. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, FL, Washington joined the Ford School after serving two years in the Obama Administration at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He also has a background in speechwriting and public speaking.
Washington’s speech was accepted in December, and he went through an editing process during the end-of-semester break and first few weeks of the new year. The group met weekly to rehearse for the presentations.
“It’s always nerve wracking to go up there,” Washington said. “It’s not just the performance, it’s also your ideas and being surrounded by people, even if you don’t necessarily know them, what you do in this time frame is a reflection of you and you can’t get it back.”
Washington discussed the criticisms of public service pedagogy through “Sheep Dog Logic” for his King Talk. He emphasized the importance of creating more transformative policy frameworks for black communities in America.
“It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, how many different policy interventions you’ve worked on, or how many forums you go to. Unless we commit more energy to redefining the boundaries of possibility, true transformations in distribution and agency will remain elusive. Sheepdog approaches mean Black communities will continue to experience new forms of the same old oppressions. Same sheep, different day,” Washington said during King Talks.
Washington got the idea for his speech by reflecting on classes he had taken in the fall: At the Ford School, those included “Community Development Finance” with Towsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence Dudley Benoit and “Values and Ethics in Public Policy” with assistant professor of public policy Joy Rohde. Washington said he also took a class in the School of Urban Planning that influenced his work. He began to consider the ways personal values influence policy, and what society considers desirable.
Though he said he’s received well wishes from King Talks, Washington said the speaker series’s biggest impact is creating an opportunity specifically for students of color to show off important work being done on campus.
“It gives students an opportunity to speak and reflect on what they’re learning here, but also communicate that to people who may be from completely different disciplines,” Washington said. “King Talks could be a showcase of where we as a university are going intellectually.”
--Olivia Lewis (MPP ‘18)