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Achieving King's Beloved Community

Students and staff from across campus convene at HGSE to explore their own roles — and Harvard's — in fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision

Beloved community: a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. popularized the term during his lifetime of activism and imbued it with new meaning, fueled by his faith that such a community was, in fact, possible. But he always acknowledged that realizing his vision would involve systems of law, education, infrastructure, health care, and municipal reform — no one sector, much less one person, could create it in isolation.

In that spirit, students and staff from across Harvard University — from clinicians in Health Services, to staff at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to students at the Graduate School of Design — have joined forces for a winter-term course at the Ed School called Beloved Streets: Race and Justice in America.

The course is led by Tracie Jones, assistant director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Kaia Stern, lecturer at HGSE and director Harvard’s Prison Studies Project; and David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute on Race & Justice. The trio were inspired by Beloved Streets of America, a nonprofit founded by Melvin White to transform the nearly 900 streets named for King across the country — often in under-resourced, primarily African-American neighborhoods — in such a way that honors King and the idea of beloved community.

The non-credit course engages all participants in conversations about how the Harvard community works against racial injustice and inequality. An associated event will be held at the Smith Campus Center on January 31, featuring community leaders and activists, as well as practitioners at Harvard. This event is open to the public. (More information to come.)

Here, course participants reflect on the significance of Martin Luther King streets and surrounding neighborhoods in communities they care about — and how they hope to be a source of the kind of uplift that King envisioned:

Euwrama Okai

Ewurama Okai, Ed.M. candidate in higher education, reflecting on New York City's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard:

“(I’m from Ghana but) my younger brother lives in Harlem. I started out there because there’s a lot of things related to Africa being built (in that area). It seemed like a cool way to think about my identity as an African in relation to an American street.

"There are entire cultures that have been built around these spaces, both in their challenges and successes. People have built their homes there.

"I think a lot about (as universities), how do we think about our place and our responsibility in the amassing of wealth that has systematically deprived other communities of it, and how that affects our students who come from those neighborhoods. What are we telling them about the values of our intuitions versus their homes? What do our students want from us as educators? What do they need to see as students to see to feel like we as colleges are ready and willing to take the step to acknowledge where they come from and do our part to help them?”

Brandon Tilghman

Brandon Tilghman, faculty coordinator, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, reflecting on St. Louis's Dr. Martin Luther King Drive:

"St. Louis has changed. The last time I lived there was 2000. Now, there are abandoned buildings, even more than in 2000. I was right at the corner of MLK and Goodfellow and I felt a little nervous. I’m taking a picture of the neighborhood I grew up in, I might be considered a tourist. I’m sure back in the day it used to be thriving, with people and businesses, a place of light. But in broad daylight, around 2 or 3 p.m., it was just dead."

Raven Batshon

Raven Batshon, MPH Candidate, Chan School of Public Health, reflecting on Detroit's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard:

"This neighborhood is known as Cass Corridor. For the last three years as a medical student at a school down the street, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know this community. The people in this neighborhood are passionate, vibrant, hopeful, and so incredibly devoted to their city. It is working in this neighborhood that influenced me to come to the School of Public Health. It is my passion to address systemic, unjust inequities that are affecting the health of Detroit residents. This is also what led me to Beloved Streets of America. 

"I saw a BIRD electric scooter a few yards a way as I took this picture, a simple symbol of the type of growth in Detroit just a few blocks away. As we build the big stadiums and the fancy restaurants, I am hopeful we are intentional about honoring the Detroit community. During this period of change, I observe a duality exemplified in this neighborhood … the perceptions of a thriving city while some streets are still left untouched, the colliding of poverty and wealth, and a community that has always called MLK Boulevard home.”