Mason students well-positioned to fight for social justice, equity

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Mason students and President Washington appear on a screen together during a panel discussion at the Evening of Reflection
Mason students and President Gregory Washington (bottom center) during a panel discussion at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Evening of Reflection on Thursday, Jan. 28. The event was hosted by the Coalition Building and Diversity Education, and co-hosted with University Life, Welcome2Mason, the Center For Culture, Equity, and Empowerment, Mason Votes, and Student Engagement for Racial Justice. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Students living in this era of racial reckoning and political unrest have far more resources at their disposal than social justice advocates had a half-century ago, George Mason University President Gregory Washington told a student panel at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Evening of Reflection on Thursday night.

“We are in a difficult time – but we’re in a great time,” Washington said during the virtual event. “We are indeed the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s dream. And while we have a lot of work to do . . . that dream will be fulfilled.

“He had the tools of his day, and those tools were nonviolent protests. We have nonviolent protests as a tool. But we have economic empowerment. We have political empowerment. We have other tools that we can employ to help people – all people – today.”

Washington’s nearly hour-long question-and-answer discussion with a panel of students, and the annual Spirit of King awards ceremony, highlighted the Evening of Reflection, which also included performances from the School of Music. The evening’s theme of “a burning house” alluded to the concern King once stated about how he might be “integrating into a burning house.”

Washington, reminding students that King added that social justice advocates should be the firefighters suggested that parts of the house might need to be destroyed but other parts just need to be repaired and remodeled. And Mason students can help lead the way.

“From a learning perspective, this is the greatest opportunity that I’ve seen easily in the last 30 to 40 years,” Washington said. “Our system, our way of life, is being stressed in such a significant way that we’re learning things about the inner workings of our government, the inner workings of our legal system.…and how they are stratified in order to continue to support and maintain the country in which we live.

“I firmly believe that we’re going to be a better nation because of what happened. A big part of helping us do that is the actual academic institution. We get to study this. We get to learn from it. And we get to debate it and put it out there for the world to learn.”

The student panelists were particularly interested in the Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force that Washington established during his first month at Mason to make the university, as he said Thursday night, “a beacon to the country on what inclusive excellence means.”

The task force will conduct town halls Feb. 23 and March 4 to discuss findings and recommendations.

“We all have to come together and lock arms and make sure every single student here, regardless of who you are, gets what you need,” Washington said. “That’s what equity is all about. Equity is not about treating you all the same. It’s about giving you what you specifically need in order to be successful.”

Six members of the Mason community and one organization were honored with Spirit of King Awards for their roles in carrying out King’s vision today. They were:

Resounding Voice Award: Shauna Rigaud, PhD candidate in cultural studies

Emerging Alumni Award: Janae Johnson, assistant director, University Information

Superior Service Award: Black Student Alliance

Yara Mowafy Award: Ayah Abdelghany, information systems and operations management major

Spirit of King (student): Malek Salhab, neuroscience major

Spirit of King (staff): Kheia Hilton, staff clinician, Counseling and Psychological Services

Spirit of King (faculty): Richard Craig, MA director/faculty, Communication