RISD Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

panelists on stage with an image of King behind them

The RISD community gathered on Wednesday, January 17, for the annual event celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year’s program, RISD MLK Series 2024: An Evening of Art and Justice, featured a panel discussion with architect Gabrielle Bullock BArch 84, artist Walter Cruz and educator/author Salamishah Tillet and a performance by the Prism of Praise Community Gospel Choir. It followed on the heels of other campus-wide activities honoring King, including free admission to the RISD Museum for a curated exploration of objects related to social justice and a “CommuniTea” gathering for students, faculty and staff.

“Community is the platform through which shared understandings and identities take shape,” noted President Crystal Williams in kicking off the evening program. “Dr. King’s belief that our existence is predicated on mutuality and interdependence fueled his faith in a dream that this world holds the possibility for all of us to thrive.”

Vice President of Social Equity and Inclusion David T. Carreon Bradley went on to welcome the panelists, as well as panel co-moderators Naimah Petigny, a Schiller family assistant professor in race in art and design, and Njari Anderson BRDD 24 SC, a fifth-year student in the Brown|RISD Dual Degree Program. Carreon Bradley encouraged the speakers to share their thoughts about the responsibility of makers and thinkers to honor the principles of social equity and inclusion at RISD and in the wider world.

President Crystal Williams addresses the audience
Vice President of SEI David Carreon Bradley on stage
President Crystal Williams and Vice President of SEI David T. Carreon Bradley introduce the panelists at this year's MLK, Jr. Series event.

Bullock, a RISD alum and trustee, noted that she sees justice as an action word, not a noun, and used her Los Angeles-based Destination Crenshaw project as an example. “It tells unapologetically Black stories steeped in the history of the Crenshaw community and challenges the status quo at every level,” she explained. “It’s a great example of how action makes change.”

Cruz, creative director and co-founder of Zeal—a Black artist-owned cooperative that establishes spaces for Black creatives to thrive—spoke of love, joy, grace and abundance, the principles upon which Zeal was founded. “It’s not about being the next big name, but uplifting your community and co-creating with the people around you,” he said. “There are small actions we can take every day to be of service to the community.”

Tillet, a professor at Rutgers University and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The New York Times, said that she focuses on freedom in her social justice work but recognized that justice is a prerequisite for freedom. “All art is political,” she added before paraphrasing the words of late African-American author Toni Morrison. “She told her students, when you get these jobs after college, remember that your real job if you are free is to free someone else.”

Fifth-year student Njari Anderson offers thoughtful questions as co-moderator of the panel discussion
The Prism of Praise Community Gospel Choir completes the celebratory program
Above, fifth-year student Njari Anderson co-moderates the panel discussion; below, the Prism of Praise Community Gospel Choir closes the program with inspiring music.

The inspiring words of Tillet and the other panelists were followed by a joyful gospel performance by the Prism of Praise Community Gospel Choir, featuring RISD’s Associate Dean of Student Social Equity and Inclusion Tony Johnson 93 SC. He recalled planting the seeds for RISD’s MLK Series when he was still a student, along with his wife (and fellow choir member) Monique Rolle-Johnson 92 PT.

“It is our responsibility as artists and designers to create the kind of world we want to live in,” Johnson said. “But justice work is tiring, and with everything happening in the world, goodness knows we need a little joy! So, we’re ending tonight’s program with a moment of inspiration and celebration.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Thad Russell MFA 06 PH
January 25, 2024

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