An Equation for Change on MLK Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Day brought a march to the Ordway, where keynote speaker Caroline Wanga outlined a strategy for activism

In the concert hall of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, a giant woman in a toga stands over the stage. She is a blown-up painting, the backdrop for an upcoming play about Roman goddess Diana. But Monday afternoon, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Target’s vice president of Diversity & Inclusion, Caroline Wanga, had the stage. About half of Diana’s height, Wanga nonetheless towered over the deity as she paced the stage, charismatic in a black-and-white, peplum-and-shoulder-pads ensemble.

“The elevator of justice is malfunctioning,” Wanga said to the packed ground floor, “and we’re going to have to take the stairs.” That morning, much of the audience had marched one mile from the State Capitol to attend the Ordway’s 31st annual State of Minnesota Governor’s Council Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration. “Dr. King took the stairs,” she added.

The governor’s office chose Wanga as keynote speaker in lieu of other big national names—to feature a voice grown here in the metro area. This year, Wanga and other speakers focused on acting fast and acting now, singling out the King quote: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

Governor Mark Dayton felt too under the weather to attend, but Senator Amy Klobuchar, Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith, and Mayor Chris Coleman addressed the crowd.

“It’s really nice to be with all of you instead of in Washington right now,” said Klobuchar, who spoke of reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, which in 1965 prohibited voter discrimination under federal law. “I’ll bring your spirit with me when I go back this afternoon.”

Coleman compared the day’s march to the marches of the Civil Rights Movement. He encouraged the fight against prejudicial federal policies going forward while Smith noted, with pluck, “There is just us, and no time like now.”

“Now” has a daunting ring to it, but Wanga grounded that concept by outlining a step-by-step plan for activism. She asked each member of the audience to start by “anchoring down in your personal purpose.”

Middle school English teacher April Vaughan sat in the audience, considering her own personal purpose.

Vaughan is the only African American teacher at Murray Middle School in St. Paul. Most of her students are white. She asks herself, “How does that affect my students?” She had them read A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, about racism in the housing market.

“[My students] were saying, ‘How can we possibly do something?’ And I said, ‘Well, change starts with you,’” Vaughan said. “When you start growing up and having children, make sure you teach them the proper things to do…Go out and do some outreach.” For example, volunteering with the homeless can help you recognize the system, and when you know the system, you know where you fit. That comprises the next part of Wanga’s formula: preparing for obstacles and leveraging what power you have.

Three students from Maple Grove High School did just that, taking the stage to speak out against graffiti messages that had appeared in a school bathroom last year, including “#gobacktoafrica,” “#whitesonly,” and “Trump Train.”

In the audience, Ruby Brown, a small business owner and hairstylist in north Minneapolis, had a flashback to when she was their age, growing up in an all-black community in southern Indiana.

She remembered sitting in her grandmother’s living room, nine years old and dressed for King’s funeral. “And I saw the nation on a black-and-white TV, divided,” she said, recalling televised violence—a fixture on national news stations today, too.

When Brown was bused to a new district for school, she experienced that racism firsthand. “And it just ignited a fight for change. I’ll be 60 in March, and it still goes on.”

Wanga compared that ongoing fight to a relay race: “Whichever leg you’re running, you have to stay disciplined in receiving the baton well, and passing it off well.” As the Civil Rights Movement showed—and as Black Lives Matter is showing—power lies in numbers, making teamwork crucial. “Trust is the only performance-enhancing drug,” she said of working with allies, “so stop competing against people who are also fighting for social justice.”

To that end, Wanga’s final step involves embracing activism for the right reason—not for self-promotion, but for love of yourself and your community.

In an example of cultural self-love, Gary Hines directed 15 members of Sounds of Blackness, the Grammy Award-winning R&B group based in the Twin Cities, through a medley of Civil Rights march songs. The group’s latest single, “Royalty,” was sung at Philando Castile’s funeral and celebrates African heritage.

“So often, the media focuses solely on Martin’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Hines said. He pointed out another speech King gave, in which the preacher declaimed: “Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word ‘black.’ It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word ‘white.’ It’s always something pure, high, and clean. I want to get the language so right that everybody here will cry out, ‘Yes, I’m black. I’m proud of it. I’m black and beautiful.’”

“It’s like, you almost never hear that,” Hines said. “It’s like, what? Is that Malcolm X? No, that’s Martin Luther King…he knew what this was about. After centuries of being classified as not human, or without culture, or degraded—he knew it was about self-esteem.”

Sounds of Blackness lined up on stage—all of them dressed in yellow, black, orange, and red accents. They filled the hall with soul music, and the audience got to its feet, clapping, singing, and feeling one.

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