Stanford students fundraise for Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute

Stanford students fundraise for Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute

After urging Stanford University to prioritize funding for the Institute’s endowment in a letter to Stanford’s Board of Trustees, a group of Stanford students launched the #StandWithKing campaign to fundraise for the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute themselves.

“The ultimate goal of our work is to get Stanford to grow the endowment of the King Institute, to provide it a more permanent, stable funding source,” said recent Stanford graduate, former Associated Students of Stanford University president and student activist Shanta Katipamula. “But in the short term, we also want to demonstrate to Stanford that this is something that the community cares about, that this is something that can be funded and it’s viable to fundraise for this, and to demonstrate that we’re going to fundraise money for the King Institute.”

The campaign started on June 9, 2020 and calls for graduating seniors and Stanford community members to donate $20.20 or any other amount they are able to contribute to the cause. Katipamula said the campaign brought in over $10,000 in the first 24 hours and has raised almost $40,000 from over 800 donors as of June 17. The accompanying petition has received over 12,200 signatures at time of publishing.

The letter, which was signed by 16 current and former student body presidents and vice presidents, states, “ … we urge the Board of Trustees and the President’s Office to make the King Institute’s endowment one of Stanford’s top external fundraising priorities. The University has made clear that the permanence and value of initiatives are demonstrated through endowments. The King Institute deserves an endowment that is commensurate to King’s centrality to this nation’s future, an endowment that can ensure its permanence and prominence.”

[divider]Champions for Change[/divider]

Nestled next to Stanford’s Science and Engineering Quad, the King Institute occupies Cypress Hall D, a small 50-year old portable building that’s in stark contrast to the nearby state-of-art STEM centers.

In 1985, historian and Stanford professor of American History Dr. Clayborne Carson was chosen by Coretta Scott King to direct a project to edit and publish Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, sermons and correspondence, which later became known as the King Papers Project. Originally placed in a Meyer Library office, the King Papers Project was moved to Cypress Hall in 1989. 

When Dr. Carson established the King Institute at Stanford in 2005 as a continuation of his work with the King Papers Project, he remained in Cypress Hall. Though the location was initially intended to be temporary, the Institute still has not been moved to a proper, permanent location. 

“I think it’s really sad and unfortunate that for so long, Stanford has failed to prioritize fundraising for the King Institute,” Katipamula said. “It’s basically being sustained from an initial $1 million endowment that was given by Ronnie Lott, who was a football player but has no association with Stanford, and my understanding is that they’re pretty dependent on grants and other outside sources of funding. In comparison, the King Institute’s endowment is less than 1% of that of the (notoriously conservative) Hoover Institute, which in and of itself is a shame.”

Zach Kirk, a Paly alumnus and recently graduated Stanford student who has worked at the King Institute for four years, said the constant lack of funding and support from the administration shows Stanford’s prioritization of hard sciences over the Papers Project, symbolized by the $1 billion engineering campus sitting right beside the Institute.

“They’ve been there for all of these years and the reason they’ve been there is not because they have not wanted to move, but because the administration has not cared about them,” Kirk said. “It’s just offensive that this entire collection of the most valuable documents about the Civil Rights movement (is in these portable buildings). 80% of people will be on the campus and not know it exists. With this campaign we’re confident that we can push the administration to commit to something in order to make the institution a permanent part of campus and at least give it the respect that it deserves as a really important historical place.”

Dr. Carson plans to retire in August, which Kirk said is all the more reason to fight for the Institute’s funding.

“(Dr. Carson is), in his own right, one of the best historians who has ever been at Stanford and in terms of … his contributions to history around social movements and looking at student movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s are some historical contributions that are still read to this day” Kirk said. “He’s … been doing this work for a long time and as a final nod to him and as his student who really admires him, it would be really good to see the institute get funded. As a nod to all the 30-something years work he’s put into the institute, to see some action from Stanford.”

Though Katipamula said ASSU has not yet heard a response to the letter sent to the Board of Trustees, president, provost and senior administrators on June 18, they’ve received lots of support from Stanford’s faculty and staff, and she is confident the administration is aware of their efforts.

“We’ve had professors donate, sign our petition, and amplify our work on social media,” Katipamula said. “Some of our highest donations that have come through have been from Stanford staff members. It goes to show that the entire community is very much rallying behind this, really believing in the mission and the work of the King Institute and believing that it should be much better funded than it currently is.”

Kirk also said the issue had been brought to administrators many times in the past. For example, a 2017 Stanford Daily article, “MLK Institute staff dismayed by building’s location” described the lack of plans to move the Institute to a permanent facility.

“I know that this area of campus will be torn down,” Dr. Carson told The Mercury News. “I have no knowledge of what will replace it.”

Joy Leighton, senior director of public relations for the School of Humanities and Sciences, said a lack of campus space is to blame.

“The university supports the Institute in many ways, including providing it with ample office space at a time when space is severely limited on campus,” Leighton said. “Over the last several years, improvements have been made to the facility. The university’s application to Santa Clara County for a General Use Permit was withdrawn, which means that any future plans for growth on our campus are on hold.”

Though Katipamula said the topic of the King Institute’s meager endowment was the topic of conversation in some student circles every few years, the campaign took off following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, after she and other students decided to give Stanford concrete ways to fight racial injustice on campus.

“Stanford said the right things but they haven’t put any actions behind their words to convey how they actually are going to combat racial injustice,” Katipamula said. “It’s something that’s always been frustrating as a student, so we felt like this was a really great way to mobilize around the issue, in particular because we’ve seen people in our social circles, current students, recent alums, really just opening up their pockets and doing a lot of fundraising for a lot of great black organizations and racial injustice organizations.”

Kirk said the timing of the campaign shows how important the King Institute truly is, drawing a parallel between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights movement.

“With these sources, people are going to be able to…  grapple with King’s legacy and what he’d say in a social moment like this, which is important and it’s not unlike the moment where he died in ‘68 and what happened afterwards,” Kirk said. “We have a really good movement pressuring administration to give them a permanent place. With that, we can have a better understanding of King, of social movements, of black history, of revolutionary history, of labor history.”

[divider]Time to Take Action[/divider]

The recent murders, nationwide activism and incidents of racism on Stanford’s campus led to Provost Persis Drell’s May 29 update entitled “Confronting racial injustice,” which expressed Stanford’s desire to make progress toward racial social reform, including a snippet of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at Stanford.

“We condemn this history and present reality and ask all to join us in seeking racial justice and an end to the brutality that oppresses and traumatizes Black communities,” Drell wrote. “Ending this violence requires not only constant vigilance, but a united stance against racism and hatred in all its forms. As a community, we will continue to seek ways to be defined by what unites us rather than what divides us. In the last year, we have worked with our student, faculty and staff communities of color to find ways to better support them. We have a long way to go but we are committed to making progress through specific actions.”

Leighton cited Stanford’s Brave Spaces as an example, which was launched under Stanford’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access in a Learning Environment initiative.

“Brave Spaces (is) a virtual forum to discuss equity, inclusion and racial justice, which will bring together groups of individuals and subject-matter experts across campus,” Leighton said. “We will implement additional initiatives in our community as we focus on the critical issue of racial equity.”

Makayla Miller, a 2020 Paly graduate and former president of Paly’s Black Scholars United club, said Paly also has room for improvement.

“I think that Paly handles racial issues and racial education on campus like a predominately white campus would,” Miller said. “The minority voice is silenced and the majority does what they think is best. I don’t think it is intentional, but I do think it’s just as debilitating. Whenever a new problem surfaces, they throw us a bone and hope it’ll silence us. For too long it’s worked.”

In the ASSU letter to the Board, graduating ASSU president Erica Scott wrote that Dr. King’s vision of the future is essential to overcoming such social and political divides on campus, and advocated a future in which Stanford would better honor King’s legacy.

“If the King Institute were to become a well-funded Stanford symbol like the Hoover Institution, Stanford could become a veritable magnet for the best and brightest Black minds who are seeking to study issues of racial and social justice,” Scott wrote. “Imagine a Stanford where… a significant portion of students and faculty are using Dr. King’s work as a platform to deeply engage in some of the most important moral and political questions of our era… this reconception of Stanford would have a more effective understanding of how to heal its own community divisions, not to mention those of the nation at large.”

Kirk said though Dr. Carson has written textbooks and has directed online courses to make King Institute material more accessible for students of color and those who need to learn this history, a larger endowment would allow for more possibilities in their education-focused work.

“There’s this first task which hasn’t even been done of documenting all of the documents related to his life, and this second task which is educating people on what’s important and compiling the important,” Kirk said. “The institute does these two things at the same time and I think that with more funding comes the ability to bolster their education component. With a proper exterior… they’ll be able to do it justice and have the ability to have a library and an art space, things that have always excited people who work at the institute.”

Leighton said drastic change might take a little while longer.

“With the faculty director’s upcoming retirement, the university is working to maintain the MLK Institute’s strong position into the future,” Leighton said. “When a new faculty director is hired, they will bring a vision for the institute that will address the institute’s funding as well as the location of the Institute.”

[divider]Tip of the Iceberg[/divider]

Beyond the King Institute, Katipamula and Kirk said there is still room for growth at Stanford in areas like student diversity.

“It’s pretty clear they pay only lip service to admitting black students,” Kirk said. “It’s something like 5% and then an extra 3% or 2% with international students so like 7% of the students are black, 13-15% of America is black, so they’re failing on that end. There’s obviously major overrepresentation of white groups and certain Asian groups, but other Asian groups are very very underrepresented. I’m Polynesian so there’s like four, five, six, seven, eight Polynesians on campus, and we all know each other. In terms of elite education in general, it needs to focus on what actually makes a good student (rather than) what is just a rich student.”

Katipamula said that Stanford also has work to do in terms of faculty diversity, mentioning that she went through five years at Stanford without having a black teacher. She said employing more nonwhite faculty members is essential because students of color need teachers who look like them, come from the same backgrounds as them and can empathize with them.

Miller said hiring more black and brown educators would also benefit Paly.

“It makes a difference to black kids that the only people that they can talk to about college and after high school success don’t look like them and only encourage them to do bare minimum work,” Miller said. “There have been many times where teachers and administrators have doubted that I could be successful in different ways, whether that be in an AP class or applying to a UC school. It’s hard to believe that you can be all around successful when everyone around you is telling you that you can only be successful at the lowest levels.”

Miller said there are always ways for Paly to better support their minority students and staff.

“By giving students every opportunity that their white counterparts are given,” Miller said. “Treating them as equals and not like fragile beings that’ll crack and fall apart at the littlest of things. Hiring more black staff in all departments to get a different perspective on how we can best serve those students. There’s always more to do, but I’m only a student, I don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, but that’s why I think it’s important for someone who is black to be back there.”

Miller and Katipamula said they think changing curriculum is also important in the effort to achieve racial reform at both Paly and Stanford.

“There’s still a lot of education that needs to happen collectively for us as an entire community on how we can all work towards being actively anti-racist,” Katipamula said. “I think that’s something that has really been a topic of conversation recently but is new to a lot of people, and when you think about the curriculum that you experience at Stanford, focusing on not just a very Euro-centric white approach (is important). I know that they’ve been changing some of that, I hope that whatever it looks like has work that comes from the diverse chords of scholars, not just those who are traditionally taught.”

Beyond the #StandWithKing campaign, Katipamula said plenty of proposals are floating around that community members want Stanford to carry out, including a petition for the 50-year old African and African American Studies program to become a department and a list of demands regarding police accountability on Stanford’s campus created by a group of black law students. Kirk also said Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights, a campaign supporting Stanford’s service workers, had been present for years but picked up traction around May when it brought attention to subcontracted workers laid off after the university’s facilities closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think in every aspect of the university, from the classroom and academics to the support system, the administers (and) the resources available, I think there’s a lot that Stanford can still do,” Katipamula said. “There are students who are open about their experience and are willing to share and pinpoint exactly what it is Stanford needs to change … there are people who have made it very clear what they need to thrive in this environment, not just survive, so I think the university needs to listen and they need to act.”

As Dr. Carson’s retirement date approaches and rapid nearby development in the area threatens Cypress Hall, Kirk said he hopes Stanford will take action soon.

“Using these acres and acres and acres of undeveloped land for these multiple buildings and devoting the place to Martin Luther King and to the people who have tried to uphold that legacy on this campus and have been unfortunately marginalized to a little temporary building, that’s my big hope,” Kirk said. “We can use this time of great social unrest but also Dr. Carson leaving Stanford to reflect on how much they know what the institute means to the world, to the Stanford campus and to the student population as well.”

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