By Joe Zimmermann
In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. and in 1994 a burning cross was placed in a migrant farm in Lynden, Wa.
In response, the community of Bellingham stood in solidarity with the migrants and expressed their concern for local human rights by creating the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force according to the archived history of the Task Force.
Shortly after, in 1999, to organize and educate the community with a singular event, the WHRTF hosted the first Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Conference.
On Jan. 13, Whatcom Community College hosted the Human Rights Task Force’s 20th annual MLK conference. Over 400 students, teachers, and community members were in attendance.
The title of the conference, “50 Years of Freedom, or 50 Years of Fear? Chaos or Community? Where do we go from here?” is an homage to both the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination and his book, written a year prior to his death.
The conference was held at the Syre Student Center on Whatcom Community College and featured a keynote panel Q&A conversation and presentation workshops on human rights related topics held by students, teachers, and concerned community members.
“The reason Whatcom Community College was chosen is right there in the name; community, and that’s exactly why we have it here,” said Barbara Rofkar, a WHRTF member and MLK conference committee delegate. “We find this is an accessible spot in the city of Bellingham so that anyone from the community can feel welcome at this event. It’s about inclusivity and common humanity, realizing the individual’s impact on the community.”
In the auditorium, a presentation about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy was depicted through photos, videos, and audio clips by Theresa Williams, an artist, writer, and poet from the Whatcom County area.
The keynote panel, titled “A Collective Contribution”, was a group of self-described “diverse non-white womxn” who talked of the struggles they face, such not being understood while speaking with an accent or people touching their hair without consent, and how they would like to be seen, regardless of their nationality, gender, or race.
Exquisite Erika, a Bellingham resident and activist, began the conversation reminding everyone that MLK day is not a memorial, its a celebration.
Masa De Lara, a teacher and former Whatcom resident traveled over an hour to attend and participate in this event.
“At this point in time and in history, these kinds of conferences are more important than ever, we are all in this together,” De Lara said.
After the keynote, workshops were held in classrooms in Syre by Whatcom County residents, artists, and leaders along with students and staff from Whatcom and Western Washington University.
The presentations covered topics such as the unrest between the Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, poetry by Tupac Shakur, and the Conflict Resolution Center from the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center.
Jason Babcock, director of the learning center at Whatcom, presented on “mechanisms surrounding student persistence in STEM, and decision making on whether or not a student should keep going on a STEM pathway or switch.”
Babcock is studying the disparities in demographic representation in STEM and the reason why there tends to be more white and Asian representation in these fields.
Fialaui’a Lamositele and Jacqueline Rumble, both students and staff at the Simpson Intercultural Center, presented an activity based presentation they called “Heart Mapping.”
Participants wrote times, memories, and feelings on a piece of paper with a heart outline, showing what means most to the heart.
Najla Mohamed-Lamin, student-staff member of the Intercultural Center, spoke in a solo-presentation on the struggle of the Saharawi people; the nomadic Sunni Islam-practicing people known for their nonviolent principles and whose homeland was disputed since the 70’s.
“Palestinians in Palestine are in the same positions as African-Americans now with a legacy of slavery, and Native-Americans with a legacy of land removal,” Mohamed-Lamin said.
“I thought [her story] was amazing, phenomenal and heartbreaking. But, it was truthful. It took courage, and it needed to be heard,” Lamositele said.
Mohamed-Lamin along WWU students from Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (Alia Taqieddin and Nadya Sharif), spoke of the Palestinians struggle in Palestine and the similarities it has with Arab and Muslim-Americans in the United States.
Lunch was held in the main auditorium with a dance performance by the LaVenture Baile Folklorico and a whole body movement activity led by Sidney Anderson from Oasis Physical Therapy.
“I felt very encouraged to see so many members of the student body, the staff and faculty in attendance as well as members from the community,” said Babcock. “[I was] really encouraged to see students leading change.”