Sharon Fries-Britt, PhD, professor of higher education and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland, College Park, connected Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s works to America today and set forth actions to combat racial injustices during her speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) MLK and Black History Month Celebration on Feb. 7.
Discussing King’s 1960 speech “The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness,” she said, “He was saying in his speech that racism is not a Black person’s problem. It’s a national problem. It’s America’s problem. He also called on strong leadership from our nation. He looked at folks like you and me, and he said, ‘But it can’t be only from the top. It’s all of us. It has to be about real action and real change.’ ”
The UMB event came just weeks after the killing of Tyre Nichols by police in Memphis, Tenn., one of a string of deaths of Black men and women that has brought racial injustice to the forefront in the United States. Fries-Britt urged the audience of more than 300 in person and online to invest in young people as a way “to continue King’s legacy and unravel the threads of inequality in our society.”
She said in her research of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, she has found that students “feel like these are fields that are not welcoming to them, even when they show the intellectual capacity to do the work.” She praised UMB’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan for including plans for student growth and development as well as university culture, engagement, and belonging.
“It opens the space for you to have students identify as a scientist, particularly as they begin to see more folks who look like them. Faculty mentorship and connecting with students is critical, knowing how to create that authentic connection with students so they are able to fully be themselves,” she said, adding that the classroom is a powerful place to open up spaces.
“We need to empower people to bring their gifts and talents in a way that we can learn,” she said. “It’s bidirectional. I know one of the greatest gifts of being a professor is the relationships with my students and the sense of growth that happens in that context.”
She said that learning needs to occur on the individual and organizational level.
“Organizational leadership means that we come together and work on a problem together,” she said. “Organizational learning is a longer process and is a commitment. UMB’s strategic plan has a lot of room for you to be thinking about how you’re going to do that work with the community and with each other. I’m so delighted to see how much work you do with your faculty, staff, and students engaging with the community.”
She concluded her dynamic speech, titled “Unraveling the Threads of Social Inequality: Continuing King’s Legacy of Consciousness Raising and Racial Equity in America,” by talking about equity. She shared a personal story that ties into a 2021 decision by University of Maryland Medicine, which includes UMB’s School of Medicine, to eliminate race from kidney function estimates. This action could increase access to specialty care such as transplants for African Americans.
Fries-Britt shared that her 24-year-old daughter, who was in the audience, had a liver transplant when she was just over 1 year old at Johns Hopkins and is now a student at UMB.
“The bottom line is, we had great health care. We had great professionals like you all in this room. We had the opportunity to work with people who knew how to be in the moments of vulnerability with folks to explain things, but most of all we had people who operated with integrity,” Fries-Britt said. “If you do nothing else, keep a fine line of integrity and do your work with excellence.”
UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, opened the event, which was held in person at MSTF Leadership Hall for the first time since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing that UMB is committed to upholding King’s values.
“We’re committed to making change where change is needed. And I thank you for your efforts in helping us to do this and your efforts at keeping and moving forward for this quest. We will improve, and we will make UMB a place where everyone can feel that they belong and, as importantly, a place where they have opportunities to advance their career and become better people,” he said.
After the Voices of Coppin State University sang the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Diane Forbes Berthoud, PhD, MA, chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer and vice president, talked about UMB’s core values set of Equity and Justice.
“We embrace those values, we are committed to them, and we continue to work toward excellence in research, teaching, scholarship, and service as we prepare future leaders to serve Baltimore City and to work in Maryland and the U.S. and across the globe,” she said, adding that celebrating Black History Month is particularly important at this time in American democracy.
The program concluded with Lady Brion, MFA, a spoken-word artist who performed two poems including “Two Baltimores,” which she was inspired to write after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and the uprising that took place in the city in 2015.