Today is Martin Luther King Day, and in recognition of the holiday, Greater Ithaca Activities Center held its annual MLK breakfast over the weekend - in a virtual setting. WRFI News Contributor Peter Champelli caught up with GIAC Executive Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne about the event, and what MLK day means this year in particular.

CHAMPELLI: It’s Martin Luther King Junior day — and this past Saturday, the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, or GIAC, held their annual Breakfast event commemorating the civil rights leader.

CHAMPELLI: Thanks so much for making time to talk with me today.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: Thank you, you know it’s important to me because it’s Sunday football and I’m talking to you!

CHAMPELLI: That’s Leslyn McBean-Clairborne.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: And I have been the director at GIAC for the last 5 years—interestingly enough it was at GIAC’s MLK Jr Breakfast that the mayor announced that he was appointing me as the director of GIAC. It’s always a day of celebration for me in more than one way.

CHAMPELLI: She’s also the Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, and has represented District 2 in the City of Ithaca.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: Since 2001. My colleagues elected me to be chair of the legislature. Last year, it was not lost on me that as that election was going down, it was during February, Black History Month. And there I was standing at the podium. Elected as chair of the legislature, and on my left shoulder, hung the pan African flag. The red, black and green.

CHAMPELLI: Do you find that your role at GIAC and your role on the legislature, do those roles crossover?

05:05 MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: The platform that GIAC operates from, which is a platform always, has been the foundation of which is social justice issues, social, you know, any kind of racial and economic justice issues are the things that fueled my experiences that I brought to the legislature. And as a body, we also talk about those things in the legislature and how important it is, for us to one provide the safety net services for us to make sure that those who are most marginalized and disenfranchised in our community, those who are living in the condition of poverty, get their needs met. So those things they do cross over.

CHAMPELLI: So, for McBean-Clairborne, these two roles—serving in the legislature and being a long time staff member turned executive director of GIAC—go hand in hand. And I asked her to tell me about their Martin Luther King Jr Day Breakfast this year, which was of course, online.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: We could not imagine not having the Martin Luther King Jr. Community breakfast this year, like we couldn't imagine not having it. And it was a struggle trying to figure out how do we do this. We are used to four to 500 people gathering in the space of BJM. We’re used to cooking up a breakfast and serving to the community as a staff. And just being there and soaking in the energy in the room from all of us being there in person, you know, community members coming and basking in just the memory. We have to have an event where we can just be there. And even through zoom, still bask in that energy, and that hope that tomorrow brings. 

CHAMPELLI: The virtual breakfast event included pre-produced videos highlighting GIAC’s work, quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., a musical performance from local band SingTrece, and something different this year: a keynote presenter.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur. This year, we decided we wanted to do a guest presenter. It was different in the sense that we normally have somebody who comes and speaks for, you know, 15 to 20 minutes. This year, we said we want to do an educational piece, a larger educational piece. And so we invited this amazing up and coming rising star and professor, associate professor from Harvard University and Brandeis as well. She teaches both both universities and historian and someone who's been featured in on a lot of the television documentaries and commentaries around elections and Black Lives Matter and so on and so forth.

CHAMPELLI: Dr. Wright Rigueur is an Associate Professor of American History at Brandeis University, and she wrote the award-winning book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power. But before we get into her talk, I want to rewind a bit. Because it’s important to point out that this year’s theme for the event—Facing the Divide—and having Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur speak; the GIAC team made both of those decisions long ago in the midst of the surge of racial justice protests and the movement for Black lives, but before the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: “We proclaim our devotion to democracy. But we sadly practice the very opposite of the Democratic creed.” That was a quote from Dr. King from strength to love. And when we thought about that, quote, we had it a long time, we just didn't know what we were going to do. And then all these things started happening. We're seeing the divide, it's happening with COVID-19. And, you know, the people who would be most affected, you know, the marginalized groups of black and brown and indigenous folks, we're seeing this and we said, we have to do something.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: And because of the protests, all summer of 2020. And before that, around black lives, and the unjust killing of black men in the street. And we saw a country erupt in protests following the death of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, just too much, just one after the other. And I can keep naming names, which is one after the other. We contacted her and said, you know, you know, we have this quote, and it fits with what's been going on for, unfortunately for black, brown indigenous peoples in this community that these unjust killings and some on reported that this is, can't keep going on. So can you speak to this? And she said, Yes, I'd love to talk about why Black Lives Matter. America's racial reckoning. And then, the domestic terrorism happened on January 6th. Leah wanted to know if it would be okay to address the riots on Capitol Hill. And I wrote back and said she must. So that's one thing that changed. I was like, No, she must. Our theme speaks directly to what just happened.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: So we brought Dr. Wright Rigueur in—and she brought it.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So the first thing I want to point out is that our nation is in crisis. And I think that was on display for everyone to see in the capital riots last week, January 6, but it's actually been more than that. In fact, we've experienced, essentially, nearly a year of protest and riot. And I think the other thing that it kind of points out is that our world is actually in crisis as well. So it's not just the health pandemic, or the you know, the medical pandemic that we're facing with the Coronavirus, but it's also a racial pandemic that we're facing. Now, where do we start? For me, I'm a historian, and that's my training. So I have to start from the beginning. And that beginning is reconstruction. And I want to be clear that in the same way that radical reconstruction was comprehensive, so to was this thing that develops out of the end of radical reconstruction. So we call this system, Jim Crow, we call it segregation. And it exists across the entire country.

Listen to audio above for full quotes from Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur.

CHAMPELLI: GIAC describes the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast as a time for movement building, and I asked Leslyn McBean-Clairborne what she thinks the GIAC team and the attendees took away from Dr. Wright Rigueur’s talk, the Q&A period between the presenter and the attendees, and the event as a whole.

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: We hope to bring her back on at another time, because there's just so many more deeper dives that we could be doing and some of the issues she talks about. And leaving us with great advice on how to get involved. What do you do? How do you change this narrative? That seems to be the story of America? How do we, as she said, work towards transformational change rather than transactional change, creating the connections to make that happen? Because that's what will have its greatest impact? And then what would you think?

MCBEAN-CLAIRBORNE: We also took away from that, you know, all of us, and especially our white colleagues, our white brothers and sisters, working towards convincing themselves and each other, that their interests lie in cross cultural solidarity. And reference what we saw with the protests for Black Lives Matter. You know, white people standing out front, leading some of the marches, being in solidarity, being a partner in this movement, not an ally, but a partner, being an agitator along with us. That was really important. So going forward, we hope to continue to engage community. And not only conversation, but real action steps that we can take to move this needle. We try to do well in Ithaca. But we still have a lot of work to do. We're not there. We have a lot of work to do.

CHAMPELLI: For WRFI Community Radio News, I’m Peter Champelli.