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Troy Area United Ministries Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast

“Creative Nonconformity”

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Franklin Terrace, Troy, New York

Monday, January 16, 2012


Good morning. Thank you for that kind introduction.

It is an honor and a great pleasure to be here. I wish to thank the Rev. Dr. Robert Loesch and the Board of Directors of the Troy Area United Ministries, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee, and its chair, Ms. Olivia Walton, and Executive Director, the Rev. Donna Elia, for affording me this opportunity to speak to you this morning. I also wish to acknowledge especially Hon. Paul Tonko, our great congressman, County Executive Hon. Kathy Jimino, and our new mayor, Hon. Lou Rosamilia—Happy Birthday!

For more than 25 years, the Troy Area United Ministries have served as a model of effective collaboration. More than 40 congregations in six denominations, working with non-profit partners and community members of all faiths and backgrounds, have transformed lives through programs that address the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of the community.

From The Furniture Program, which addresses the practical needs of families fleeing domestic violence or leaving homeless shelters;

  • to the Damien Center where people infected with HIV/AIDS can find support;
  • from ecumenical and interfaith activities that raise awareness and mobilize congregations,
  • to the CROP Walk in support of local food programs and agricultural development around the world, and the Holiday Adopt-a-Family program

—the Troy Area United Ministries are building a stronger community.

Three additional programs are of particular interest to me.

The imaginative Computers for Kids Program not only provides computers to low income and at-risk youth, it teaches them how to rebuild and upgrade hardware and to install and run software. The computers these youngsters receive are the machines they themselves have rebuilt. I can think of no better way to build self-esteem and respect for technological knowledge, while affording access to a world of information and opportunity. I expect to see some of the "graduates" of this program studying at Rensselaer in the years to come.

The Campus Ministries program touches Rensselaer students directly. The Rev. Beth Illingworth, who serves as Protestant Chaplain at Rensselaer and Russell Sage, provides pastoral care as well as spiritual formation and worship opportunities to students at a time when many young adults struggle with issues of faith.

And, of course, there is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Events and Scholarship Program, which has brought us together today. This breakfast, as you know, will provide scholarship funds for Troy area high school graduates to attend college. These scholarships are designed, specifically, to honor the vision and legacy of Dr. King. One of the selection criteria is the applicant's articulation of the impact the life of Dr. King has had on his or her own life.

Now, I am a child of the “King Era.”  I came of age as Dr. King and his associates were fighting their greatest battles for civil rights and social justice.  I was very deeply affected by all that Dr. King said and did.  I went to college – to MIT – strengthened by what Dr. King had done, armed with the knowledge of the sacrifices made by my own parents, and many others, to have the doors of opportunity opened for me, and others like me.

So, in 1968, I was a senior at MIT – one of only two African American women in my undergraduate class – and I was considering which graduate school to attend (from among Harvard, University of Chicago, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT), when Dr. King was assassinated.

His death was a turning point in my life. The moment I heard the news on the radio, I knew that I had to remain at MIT for graduate study. Why?  Well, I had been a very good student at MIT, and a quiet one.  I had endured my own vicissitudes and trials as I went through my undergraduate years.  But at that moment, I knew I had to make a difference right where I was.  A group of us formed the Black Students Union and presented specific proposals to the MIT administration—to change MIT—to make it more welcoming and hospitable to underrepresented students. 

Along with other students and university officials who were impelled by Dr. King's death to take action, I worked vigorously to recruit for admission more African-American students and more minority students in general, and to create a better environment for the then—current—minority students. All of this activity added time to my graduate studies, but I and others knew that what we were doing was important. The number of minority students went up significantly because of our work. It is "a work" that continues at MIT—and, I must say, at Rensselaer to this day. It has been, and continues to be, one of the most challenging—and rewarding—of my several "careers."

Students today are not privileged to be moved by the person of Dr. King. Their knowledge and awareness of him comes only from the perspective of history, and, sometimes, of myth. It is the responsibility of those of us who lived his legacy to ensure that the students of today are moved to action by knowledge, and examples, of the principles upon which Dr. King built his life’s work.

Churches and congregations have a unique opportunity to seek out and convey that knowledge, because, before he was an international icon of nonviolent social change, and martyr to the cause of human rights, Dr. King was a minister, and it was his theology that served as the foundation for his work and career. To honor the vision and legacy of Dr. King, it is important to understand what that vision was – both as recalled by history, and as expressed in his own words. Words very relevant today in a world of Internet and instant media.

In a small volume titled Strength to Love, published in 1963 by Dr. King, and reissued with a foreword by Coretta Scott King in 1981, Dr. King compiled 15 sermons on a range of topics that, together, offer a comprehensive summation of the religious and philosophical basis for his work as a clergyman, social critic, advisor to national leaders, and advocate for civil rights and economic justice.

 In it, Dr. King wrote: "We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. …The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists."

Dr. King goes on to say that nonconformity, in and of itself, is not necessarily a virtue and can, in fact, represent "little more than a form of exhibitionism. ... Nonconformity'" he wrote, "is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life, and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook."

While he was still a teenager, Dr. King wrote in the Morehouse College student newspaper, "To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. ... Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction."

In other words, education should enable one to become a disciplined, informed, nonconformist.

The world needs such people today—people who can discern truth from propaganda, knowledge from information – and put them to use for the betterment of mankind.

Today's students are faced with the flattening world—with the globally interlinked marketplace of ideas and forces. They must be prepared to thrive, to contribute, and to lead within this context, and to think about how they will approach challenges, how they will bring others together, and how they will motivate others to thrive, contribute, and lead. Their education must prepare them with the intellectual agility and the social maturity, to see connections between disciplines and among sectors, across a broad intellectual and social milieu.  They must be understanding and empathetic; strong, yet compassionate; passionate, but informed.

I hold the view that education must prepare our young people, not only in the fundamentals of a discipline, but to lead—and to lead globally and connectedly—because 21st century challenges are seldom borne of a single issue. They are complex, interlinked, and multilateral. They may involve a science or engineering problem, but they may have, and usually do have, a medical component, an aspect of international law, a diplomatic or geopolitical factor, and an ethical challenge.

Our young people must be equipped to think for themselves, to weigh conflicting facts and opinions, to see beyond the immediate problem to the larger social and ethical implications.  They must be able to put themselves in the shoes of another.

Our task, as educators, religious and business leaders, social advocates, parents, and concerned citizens must be to develop strategies to discover, and then to nurture, these attributes in our young people.

We must embrace not just the concept of mentoring and role modeling, but the actuality. We must be there for our youth, and we must set personal examples of commitment, hard work, and adherence to high ethical standards.

We must engage students early in their school years, spark their imaginations, train their minds, teach them a love of learning and excellent performance, instill in them self-discipline, mentor them, and showcase a wide array of role models —empathetic role models—for them to emulate.

We must seek out and nurture students to demonstrate individuality that is tempered with social awareness, nonconformity that seeks to find original solutions to life's most perplexing challenges. And we—we—must find the wherewithal to share, of course, the expense of helping these young people achieve the promise of their potential, and to be what I call “patterning” models for them. If we do all of this, we will have done honor to the vision and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for your kind attention.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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