Office of the President

January 17, 2020

Change is possible, but we must keep striving

Ana Mari Cauce

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day just a few days away, I find myself thinking of the time almost three years ago, when our campus community welcomed civil rights icon and long-serving U.S. congressman John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the historic 1963 March on Washington. He spoke to an audience of more than 1,000, including faculty, staff and community members, but he made it clear that his main audience was students. Because they will create the future, he wanted to make sure they understand the past. As he said at the 50th anniversary celebration of the march, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “Sometimes I hear people saying nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up, in the cotton fields of Alabama, to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them, ‘come and walk in my shoes.’”

Like him, and others who have lived through great social change, I can testify to the progress that has been made toward equity and justice. We have made significant strides toward racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion in higher education and across society; the participation of people of color and women in positions of leadership in the workforce and politics has expanded, as have LGBTQIA+ rights. If you had told me as a college student that I could one day call my partner my wife, I would not have believed you. But progress is not always linear – we move forward in fits and starts. Right now, there is legitimate concern that progress is stalling or slipping backwards in a wide range of areas, including hate crimes and harassment, school and neighborhood segregation, life expectancy and access to health care, and economic mobility.

Through the example of his tireless activism and a life spent in public service, Congressman Lewis reminds us that change is possible, but we must keep striving. Celebrating how far we have come toward a democracy that affords people equal opportunity and dignity is not a denial of the need for further change – just the opposite. The successes of our past are proof that change is possible. The ladder rungs below us are what lift us to the rungs above. Indeed, as Congressman Lewis is facing a new battle, against pancreatic cancer, his response has been, “I have decided to do what I know how to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community.”

As a great public university, our UW community has enormous power to bring about change. Our passionate and dedicated students, faculty, staff and alumni are engaged in equity work and community service both on and off the clock. This week, I hope you will take the opportunity to join in some of the UW’s  many activities and opportunities for service, including at UW Bothell and UW Tacoma, in honor of MLK Day.  The work of Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and so many others throughout history has accomplished great things. We can honor their lives and legacies by building on those achievements in the name of justice, freedom and a more equitable world. I know we will keep climbing the ladder together.