University Community Reflects on Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
As part of the University’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, several Chargers were recognized for embodying the ideals of Dr. King and for their dedication to the University and local communities. The program also included a critical conversation about the importance of empowering democracy and embodying Dr. King’s vision.
January 31, 2024
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When the University’s NAACP chapter became inactive, Sadara Funches ’24, who had been a member of its executive board, recognized an important need. This was, they believed, an organization that was important to have at the University. So, they took the initiative to make sure it would continue to be a valuable resource, offering Chargers a sense of community.
After completing the necessary paperwork, recruiting new members, and building a social media presence, Funches became president of the chapter, which was officially reactivated in the fall. Funches was recently recognized as part of the University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. They received an MLK Vision Award, recognizing them as someone who embodies the ideals of Dr. King.
“To be recognized is an honor!” said Funches, a communication major who also serves as a diversity peer educator in the University’s Myatt Center for Diversity and Inclusion. “This award shows that my community sees my commitment to fostering positive change, advocating for marginalized communities, and actively working towards promoting an equitable and compassionate campus community.”
‘A catalyst for change’
The ceremony was the culminating event of the University’s annual celebration of Dr. King’s impactful work and the ongoing relevance and importance of his vision. A weeklong series of events were organized around the theme “EmPOWERing Democracy: Embodying Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Vision.” Funches was one of two undergraduate students who received an MLK Vision Award this year.
For Youssef Ossama ’24, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principles of justice, equality, and unity are just as important now as they were when Dr. King shared his vision with the world. Ossama considers them to be his guiding principles, inspiring him to continue to foster an inclusive University community.
“Being recognized as someone who embodies the ideals of Dr. King is a profound honor and responsibility,” said Ossama “To be acknowledged in this way affirms that our collective efforts are making a positive impact, but it also serves as a reminder that there is much work to be done. It fuels my determination to continue contributing to the ongoing fight for social justice and equity.”
The event included interfaith prayers for peace and a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Rare Desire. Ophelie Rowe-Allen, Ed.D., vice president of student affairs, dean of students, and co-chair of the MLK Celebration Committee, told the Charger community that the event is a tribute to the past and a call to action today.
“Our challenges should not weigh us down or dissuade us from reimagining a better, more just, and hopeful future,” she encouraged. “As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., let us POWER ON to embody Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's vision of being a catalyst for change.”
‘I was determined to make an impact’
The event celebrated Chargers who have done just that. Kiana White ’24, ’25 M.S. and Toyin Folorunso ’24 M.S. received the graduate student MLK Vision Award and honorable mention recognition, respectively.
“I started my time as a Charger in 2020, during the peak of COVID-19, and I remember stating that I was determined to make an impact on this campus,” said White. “All I knew was that when I left the University, I wanted to have impacted it in such a way that it would not be the same again. I hope the lives I touched and continue to touch understand that the life we live is not for ourselves but for the future generations behind us!”
“The legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is evident in PanAfrican students and his unwavering advocacy for justice, equality, and freedom continues to inspire young Africans such as myself,” Folorunso said to his fellow Chargers at the event. “Today, as we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, we must acknowledge the progress made and the challenges that persist.”
‘Honor the legacy of Dr. King’
The event followed a weeklong series of programs and events at the University that fostered community and critical conversation. They also enabled Chargers to volunteer and continue to advance Dr. King’s legacy of activism. It brought the University and local communities together, and Chargers recognized the Ansonia High School chapter of the Jr. NAACP for winning the MLK Regional Secondary School Students Challenge. The Charger community also recognized Marcus T. Harvin ’23 A.S., ’25, who was awarded the MLK Scholarship.
“It is important for the University of New Haven community, and every other community throughout this continent, to honor the legacy of Dr. King,” he said. “Without the selfless work of Dr. King and his comrades, this campus would not be the beacon of DEI that it presently is. I am extremely thankful for this illustrious honor. I pray that I can live up to the faith this institution and its community has afforded me.”
‘Make an impact on their communities and on the world’
Harvin was also a member of the inaugural graduating class of the University's Prison Education Program and the Yale Prison Education Initiative last June. Zelda Roland, Ph.D., director of the program, was the staff recipient of the MLK Vision Award. She’s been teaching in prisons for nearly a decade, and she finds deep meaning in supporting the education of “extraordinary college students” as they pursue their degrees. She says it was deeply meaningful to be recognized at the event along with Harvin.
“It’s been the honor of my life to see him come home, become a Charger on campus, make the most of every opportunity given to him, and hold that door open for other students coming home from prison behind him who are also looking to utilize their university education to make an impact on their communities and on the world,” she said. “Marcus is such an inspiration and an example of what our program can do. I hope Marcus and I can inspire the Charger community to continue to come together to support college in prison and the example the University of New Haven is setting for institutions of higher education across the country looking to extend real, rigorous access to higher education to students in prison.”
Dr. Roland has worked closely with Michael Rossi, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty and curriculum for the University’s College of Arts and Sciences, to enable incarcerated students to earn their degrees while in prison and to receive support during reentry. Dr. Rossi accepted the Philip H. and Susan S. Bartels Advocacy, Leadership, and Service Award as part of the event.
“This award recognizes not just me but the entire team of people that work with our incarcerated students,” he said. “We all do it as a labor of love and find the work to be enriching. All aspects of what we are teaching our students, across all disciplines, is more powerful when it includes respect for others.”
‘Be unafraid to ask the difficult questions’
For Randall Horton, Ph.D., a professor of English, the importance of Dr. King’s vision was something he learned while growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. He, too, was formerly incarcerated, and he says that all he wanted was another chance to change his life for the better. He wanted to make his parents, who he says “lived the Civil Rights Movement,” proud. He then dedicated himself to challenging injustices and showing what one can do if given a second chance.
“I want my students to understand the world and society in which they live,” explains Dr. Horton, who was the faculty recipient of the MLK Vision Award. “I want them to be unafraid to ask the difficult questions. I want them to know they are the change we seek, and I want them to be that change. In every class I teach I not only want to teach the material for the class, but I want us to expand the reach of how we think. Many of my students have gone on and are now advocates for social change, I am very proud of each and every one of them.”
‘Unity within the Charger community’
The event concluded with a panel discussion including Antionette Badillo, political action chair for the Greater New Haven NAACP; Michael Lawlor, J.D., an associate professor of criminal justice at the University and a nationally recognized expert on criminal justice reform; and Connecticut State Rep. Corey Paris. In a conversation moderated by Barbara Lawrence, J.D., MPA, vice president for institutional equity and diversity, chief diversity officer, and co-chair of the MLK Celebration Committee, the speakers discussed the fight for civil rights, the importance of voting rights, and promoting activism.
Funches, the undergraduate MLK Vision Award recipient, says the celebration was an important way to recognize Chargers’ dedication to Dr. King’s mission. They say it also encouraged further discussion and reflection since there is still important work to be done to make Dr. King’s dream a reality for everyone.
“To celebrate Dr. King’s vision is to show unity within the Charger community,” said Funches. “Our unity shows that the Charger community honors and acknowledges the foundational and strategic work Dr. King has laid out for individuals all over the world, and how that work continues today through the expansion of various movements. However, it is also important for us to see how much farther we have to go to achieve fairness, justice, and respect for all.”