Local activists envoke the legacy of MLK in annual event

The panel discussion, "You Have the Choice," was a continuation of UNE's annual events celebrating the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A group of panelists speaks onstage in the Harold Alfond Forum, discussing their approaches to local activism
The panel discussion, "You Have the Choice," featured local activists and community organizers.

The clock struck noon on Wednesday, Jan. 25, as members of the University of New England community gathered to gain insight from local leaders and community organizers about the purpose of activism and ways to advocate for societal change.

The panel discussion, held in person on the Biddeford Campus and streamed to the University’s campuses in Portland and Tangier, Morocco, celebrated the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and commemorated the 59th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic visit to UNE’s Biddeford Campus precursor — the civil rights leader’s only visit to Maine.

Wednesday’s event, “You Have the Choice,” brought together a panel of prominent community activists, including Victoria Pelletier, a Portland city councilor; Tara Balch, communications director at nonprofit organization Maine Needs; Isabella Petroni, a UNE student and trustee of the Framingham (Massachusetts) Public Library and Syd Avitia-Jacques, political education director at the Southern Maine Workers’ Center.

The goal of this year’s event was for attendees to gain a sense of empowerment in engaging with their local community, whether it be UNE, Biddeford, or the southern Maine area. UNE’s director of Intercultural Student Engagement, Andrea Paredes, M.Ed., moderated the panel discussion.

Panelists discussed their varied experiences volunteering and working in the community. As a Portland city councilor, Pelletier discussed her experiences acting as a voice for the Black community.

“Growing up as a Black person — a Black woman — in this country and seeing continued violence against Black people, I was just drawn into becoming a community organizer and activist,” she reflected. “I think it’s important that you have energy to do this work, because it’s lifelong work, and it’s important that you’re building community really intentionally.”

Regarding King’s legacy, Pelletier said she struggles with his namesake holiday, as it is typically used as a day of service or a one-off time for people to support Black-owned businesses. Rather, she said, it should be a time to accept that King was not universally loved but bravely challenged the status quo of a racist, polarized world.

“I think about [King’s] legacy in terms of living it authentically because it’s historically been so white-washed,” she said. “I try to make sure that, if we’re having a conversation about him, then we’re having an authentic conversation about him. Every single year, more and more of Dr. King’s legacy is erased. As a Black woman, it’s important to walk in alignment with the real Dr. King, who was a very unapologetic Black person.”

When the panel was asked about their approach to building relationships in the community, Avitia-Jacques, who uses they/them pronouns, discussed their method of “transformative organizing.”

“It’s not so much about the number of people you get to participate, but rather, ‘Did I make a connection with somebody, and did I see the same root causes of the thing we’re struggling with?’” they said. “It’s very relational, and it’s about being in solidarity with people who have my experiences and with people who don’t and learning to understand that. The relational approach is about one-on-one connections.”

UNE President James D. Herbert, Ph.D., in his opening remarks, reflected on King’s 1964 visit and its everlasting influence on the University.

“Dr. King deeply inspired the people he met that day, and he continues to inspire us today,” Herbert said. “Our Biddeford Campus may have changed over the past 59 years, but our devotion to inclusion, diversity, fairness, and justice has not wavered. Through the generations, we have built a consistent identity of extending educational opportunities to those marginalized by society. At UNE, our commitment to these values remains steadfast.”

Shannon Zlotkowski, M.S., assistant provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, said King’s visit is a constant reminder of UNE’s role in creating a more inclusive and equitable space for all people.

“Dr. King’s visit to St. Francis College tethers us to our history as an institution that engages in difficult conversations and self-reflection, all in the pursuit of a more just world,” she said. “While present day UNE has a more secular approach [than its predecessor], we are certainly still working toward having difficult conversations, reflecting deeply and personally, and creating a more just world.”

Herbert cautioned that, in our increasingly polarized world, the fight for inclusivity, equality, and justice is not over.

“Sadly, there remains much work ahead to fully achieve Dr. King’s vision,” Herbert said of our deeply divided world. “Racism and discrimination still show up far too often, and, even when current discriminatory practices are no longer operative, the lingering consequences of past racist practices continue to stain our society. While we celebrate the tremendous advances toward racial justice since Dr. King’s remarkable life, we must avoid complacency. We must not let down our guard.”

Herbert pointed to several ways in which UNE upholds King’s legacy, including admissions efforts to reach the broadest possible demographic of students. This past fall’s incoming class — the largest in UNE’s history — was one of the most diverse ethnically, racially, and geographically the University has ever seen. And UNE’s “Our World, Our Future” Strategic Plan codifies the University’s commitment to being “A Welcoming, Inclusive, and Vibrant Community,” whereby people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints are represented and supported on all of UNE’s campuses.

“It is still a tall hill to climb,” Herbert said about achieving a more equitable world for all, “but with the wisdom of Dr. King and the righteousness of the cause lighting our way, it is surmountable.”

Portland City Councilor Victoria Pelletier

Syd Avitia-Jacques

Isabella Petroni

Tara Balch

UNE professor Bethany Woodworth asks the panel a question.

The panelists pose with UNE Director of Intercultural Student Engagement Andrea Peredes

The panelists pose with UNE ISE director Andrea Peredes.