By Trevor Randall
Jan. 20 marked the 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday set aside to honor the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work for the Civil Rights Movement. On Saturday, Jan. 18, Whatcom Community College hosted the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Conference.
The event, held in Syre Student Center, was hosted by the college, the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, and the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center.
“Uniting for Human Rights and Environmental Justice” was the conference theme and featured local guest speakers such as Jeremiah “Jay” Julius, a member of the Lummi Nation, who discussed the importance of environmental justice and prevalent environmental issues in Whatcom County.
The Whatcom Human Rights Task Force is a nonprofit organization that aims to “promote and protect the rights of the human family,” according to its website. Janet Marino, the executive director for The Whatcom Peace and Justice Center said that the two organizations work closely to put on events such as the conference.
The conference began with a performance by Whatcom students of the hymn “We Shall Overcome.” Following the hymn, an opening speech was given by Dr. Victor Nolet, a professor from the Woodring College of Education on Western Washington University’s campus.
Nolet opened by giving thanks to all the sponsors of the conference, and pointed out that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force. Nolet emphasized that we should all be thankful to the Lummi people for allowing us to share their homelands.
Juanita Jefferson, a member of the Lummi Nation and part of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, came on to the stage after Nolet. She gave a speech about the struggles of her people and how every person on this earth is connected.
“There is no difference between one another, we are all brothers and sisters,” Jefferson said.
Her speech focused on how anyone can make a difference for human rights. “If you lead, we will follow,” were her closing words.
Key speaker Julius then took the stage. Julius said he is a member of the Lummi Nation Governing Council, and spoke about the growing need to protect the land and waters around the San Juan Islands which are sacred to the people of the Lummi Tribe.
“I am not here to seek sympathy for my people, I am here to educate and give you a better understanding of the history,” Julius said.
Julius talked about some of the traditions of the Lummi people. He spoke about the waters around the San Juan Islands and how he grew up fishing with his family. To the Lummi people fishing and being on the water is a way life, he said.
“It is so important to me to be on the water, it’s who we are,” Julius said.
He talked about how the waters around Bellingham are contaminated with mercury, the herring have disappeared, and that there have been 52 reported oil spills in Bellingham Bay.
“It’s about protecting the future,” Julius said. “When are we going to stop being so naive and do something about it?”
“Destroying is easy,” said Julius, who encouraged his audience to find their greatness within and change the world for the better.
The rest of the conference focused on preserving the environment in the Bellingham area.
After the speeches, there were a variety of workshops available for students and attendees. Some were about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and how his ideas and beliefs can be preserved. Others focused on different issues throughout Whatcom County, such as human health, preserving our water, and fish consumption.
“We must stand for what is right, and defend what is right,” Julius said. These words were a continuing theme throughout the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Conference.