Each year, the MLK Diversity Celebration in the company hometown of Jackson, Michigan leaves us with actionable steps for the year ahead – and this year was no different.
This year’s speakers reminded us of opportunities to improve our communities by lifting others as we rise, all year long.
We’re well on our way
Before we get started, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come. As Paula Cunningham, President of AARP of Michigan, shared, “We’ve held hands and we’ve changed hearts as a result of what Martin Luther King did.” By accomplishing more than our ancestors thought possible, we’ve laid the foundation to take our communities to the next level.
“We are all the light Dr. King spoke of when he said it takes the light to drive out darkness,” Paula shared. May that light burn brightly within us as we continue the path forward.
One chance can change everything
Keynote speaker and Jackson native Aidan Sova shared how his whole professional trajectory changed when he reached out for an opportunity, and someone reached back.
Sova grew up with his mother in a 1-bedroom apartment, a life that included “many loads of laundry in the tub” to save on laundromat costs and what he described as, “other intangible considerations of destitution.” His commute to school, work, or home often involved traveling down 4th Street, on Jackson’s South Side. During these long days and often longer nights, “The capacity of my brain was simply spent,” Sova stated.
As a high schooler, he boldly reached out to a local steel manufacturer and requested to be an intern. To his surprise, the owner of the company wrote him back directly, and he made history as their first intern. During his time there, Sova gained invaluable mentorship from several staff and the owner himself.
He went on to attend the University of Michigan and other esteemed environments, which he found “largely bereft of those with similar trauma”, causing him to feel isolated. Sova made it his mission to make sure people know they’re not alone – particularly those who are as he once was, walking down 4th Street, “fighting for security and wellbeing on a lonely island of poverty, while in a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Now an employee at a major tech firm and a Master’s degree candidate, Aidan is living proof of the exponential returns on finding ways to support others. He also continues to give back, serving as the youngest African-American to ever sit on the Ann Arbor District Library Board of Directors.
Sova shared how libraries were a crucial resource during his formative years, making it imperative for him to help steward access for others. During his retelling of the effect of libraries on his upbringing, he called on a line from fellow scholar Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
For future generations
During the festivities, we watched a video presentation from the Jackson School of the Arts. From the founder, Leslie Montgomery, to elementary and middle school students, we saw living proof of embodying courage and planting the seed.
Montgomery grew the student body from an inaugural class of 85 to the hundreds served today. All along the way, she has ensured that the Jackson School of the Arts will continue to be a local institution driving lasting, positive change that goes far beyond dance classes or martial arts. One student proudly stated, “I see myself trying to live up to Dr. Martin Luther King, trying to be as brave as he was.”
Another participant offered this insight: “I can make friends with anybody. At the Jackson School for the Arts, I can go to teachers and play with people who don’t look like me. When you’re nervous, just remember all the things that happened to you before that were good, and be in charge of what you’re gonna do.”
Montgomery beamed as she reflected on how a dream she acted on 23 years ago continues to thrive and give opportunities to youth who may not experience them otherwise. “They’re the embodiment of a dream that continues to shape the present,” she said. “We can forge a future where Dr. King’s dream becomes a shared reality for all.”
In the year ahead
As Sova expressed, “The list for engagement is, thankfully, endless.” Helping others doesn’t require a big network, a specific blueprint, or a lot of money or time. You can start small with one of the ways below.
- Check in on a loved one you haven’t spoken to in a while
- Share a good opportunity with people who may be interested
- Send someone flowers
- Ask a friend if you can babysit to give them a few hours off
- Take a couple hours a month to teach a skill (language, tech, cooking, music, math) to the next generation