A call to break free from labels and boxes was the central theme from Dr. Linda Dolny, keynote speaker during Lander University's Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Program on Feb. 23 in the Josephine B. Abney Cultural Center Auditorium. Dolny is also chair of the Lander Board of Trustees.
Before Dolny spoke, the Minorities on the Move Gospel Choir performed, and Lander President Dr. Richard Cosentino spoke of the importance placed by the university administration on the idea of diversity. "When our students embrace diversity, they become better positioned for success in a global environment," he said.
Cosentino also spoke of the strides taken by Lander over the previous year to specifically promote and embrace diversity. In particular, he noted the establishment of the Diversity Advisory Council, which is comprised of decision makers on campus and within the Greenwood community, and the launch of an annual diversity conference, the first of which is scheduled for the summer and will include guest speakers from throughout the U.S.
Saying that she was "tired of political haranguing" by leaders across the political spectrum, Dolny took aim at the current climate often displayed on social media outlets. "We're so busy screaming 'our truth' at one another, that no one is in interested in joining together and achieving a collective truth," she said.
"We use labels and letters to categorize others and place them in little boxes, and then we marginalize them, dust off our hands and go back to worrying about our own boxes," Dolny continued. "Not only do we categorize others, we like to place ourselves in a box surrounded by people just like us, ultimately walling others out while walling ourselves in. But in reality, we are all too complex for any label or any box; ultimately, we are just people."
Coming together through fellowship, food and being "just friends."
Pivoting to a personal experience with a powerful impact, Dolny then suggested to those in attendance that a way to break down walls between people could be found by simply enjoying fellowship and a good meal.
In the wake of the fatal shooting of a five-year-old Greenwood boy as he slept in his home in 1996, Dolny, a white woman, joined with Mamie and Senator Floyd Nicholson, a black couple well known in the community for their leadership.
"We started a mixed-race small dinner group with the only rule being that each couple could invite another couple," Dolny recalled. "During that time period, it seemed as though the only time you'd see couples of different races having a meal together was when they were working a project. Just as Floyd predicted, before we even received our menus that first night, someone asked if we were working on a project. We told them, 'no project; we're just friends enjoying each other's company.'"
Over the following months, the group grew so large that no local restaurant was able to provide accommodations.
"To this day, we've remained good friends," Dolny said. "To take a step towards letting light outshine darkness and love triumph over hate, I encourage you to simply have a meal with someone who doesn't look or sound just like you, but rather someone you may learn from."