On a day celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the fight for civil rights, West Virginia University honored two who embody his values of social action, humanitarianism and supporting human rights.
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast held today (Jan. 19), the University honored longtime Morgantown resident, councilman and activist Don Spencer with the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award and Hispanic/Latino leader WVU junior Brandy Ledesma with the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship.
The keynote speaker at the breakfast, Sheila Coleman-Castells, compared King’s era to our own saying she feared he would be appalled by the injustice that exists today.
Coleman-Castells, currently the owner of Sangha Consulting, has served as a consultant with the West Virginia Department of Education, the Weatherization Training Center Development Program and the West Virginia Home Builders Association Charitable Fund.
She remembered when King was killed.
“I saw how our country was torn in pieces, and I experienced with my family, with my church, with my community the depths of despair when he was taken away,” she said.
While society has moved forward since then, she said, there is still injustice, poverty and division that are damaging the nation and world. She pointed to the recent deaths of black men in which no one was charged or convicted. She pointed to a recent study showing that more than half of West Virginians 16 and older are unemployed. She said those facing systemic poverty face a lack of hope and vision for the future. Lastly, she said, the world is greatly divided.
“[King] would tell us that we cannot hate other humans,” she said. “That we destroy ourselves and all we hold dear in the process.”
“You and I can start with the fact that we are all West Virginians. Then we can answer with the fact that we are all Americans. Then we can continue with the fact that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Spencer, who served on Morgantown City Council from 2003-11, has been involved in improving the human condition since he participated in an anti-war demonstration in 1968 during the Vietnam War and happened to ride on the same bus as Martin Luther King Jr.
Since then he has advocated for housing for the homeless, revitalized the Morgantown Human Rights Commission and served on a variety of organizations.
He was the organizing chair and fundraiser for the Community Need Council 24/7 Telephone Access/Crisis Intervention Service from 1969-’73; co-organizer of the West Virginia Council on Legislation for the Elderly that initiated legislation in the ‘70s to improve the lives of retirees; advocate for the adoption of Vote-by-Mail pilot legislation; introducer of the Employee Home Ownership Down Payment Assistance Program to help city workers make a down payment on a home in city limits; and driver of community support for state legislation amending human rights laws to include ending discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation and in support of marriage equality.
Spencer also worked for the betterment of residents in other ways through leading the acquiring and development of Dorsey’s Knob Park, serving on City of Morgantown-Monongalia County Homelessness Task Force and helping to develop last year the WVU Community Human Rights Film Festival.
The former high school teacher, head coach, WVU campus minister, aging services planner and administrator was described by Morgantown City Councilman Mike Fike as “the father/parent of human rights within our city.”
“Most recently, Don’s dynamic leadership precipitated the successful completion of a community-wide needs survey designed to measure both the citizen awareness of human rights issues and the identification of specific areas of needed improvement,” Fike said in a nomination letter. “The results of that survey will help guide the future endeavors of both the Commission and the City Council.”
Jan Derry, executive director of the Northern West Virginia Center for Independent Living and chair of the Morgantown Human Rights Commission, wrote, “Don is a historian, an educator, a passionate leader and visionary thinker.”
“These gifts have fueled the Human Rights Commission to develop meaningful action steps that, as implemented, will make Morgantown a community that goes beyond tolerating diversity but rather one that aspires to be diverse, valuing the unique contributions that diversity brings to our community,” Derry said.
When the WVU Community Human Rights Film Festival was formed, Spencer said, “The ability to understand, respect and support basic human rights and diversity in people never has been more essential to the future of our country and our world.”
Ledesma received the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship for her work supporting Hispanic and Latino students on campus. She helped to create the first Latino association at WVU, “Culturas WVU: An Association for Hispanic, Latino/a students and Allies,” and helped to create the University’s Hispanic Heritage Night last year, which was sponsored by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“Through this organization, the board members and myself are trying to stress the importance of diversity on our campus as well as engaging in others’ cultural differences,” Ledesma said of Culturas WVU.
Ledesma is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, a program that supports undergraduate research among minority students. Her research focuses on disgust sensitivity, prejudice and stereotypes toward racial groups in an effort to discover how discrimination biases form. She is working toward a bachelor’s degree in social work and intends to pursue a Ph.D. in public affairs.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Brandy since the summer of 2014 when Brandy sought our division to share about her ideas regarding diversity outreach to the Hispanic community at WVU,” Diversity Outreach Assistant Ellen Rodrigues wrote in the nomination packet.
”?One of the most successful moments of the [Hispanic Heritage Night] was the story of her heritage and the powerful impact of education in her family.”
Ledesma’s community activities include assisting in creating WVU’s first water polo club, serving as community service officer for the Mountaineer Swim Club, serving as a panelist during Diversity Week, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House and Mountaineer Boys and Girls Club, and serving as a conversational partner to work on English-speaking skills with international exchange students.
“The legacy of Dr. King not only lives on in myself but each of us as we promote, teach and live the American Dream,” Ledesma said.
CONTACT: Marjorie Fuller, Center for Black Culture and Research
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