Panelists Share Lifelong Passions During Giles Symposium
Their interests vary widely – a Nobel Prize winner, an innovative educator, a community pioneer, a civil rights activist and an environmental activist – but one theme united them at the University of Science and Arts’ academic symposium Thursday. They share a passion to serve others.
The first ever Ray and Mary Giles Symposium on Citizenship and Public Service welcomed human rights activist Jody Williams; Marilyn Luper Hildreth, daughter of Clara Luper and an instigator in one of the first civil right protests in the United States; Bob Dixson, mayor of Greensburg, Kans.; Amy Ingram, founding teacher and assistant principal of KIPP Reach College Preparatory, and Robert Wildrop, president and general manager of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. These five change agents shared in a panel discussion during an afternoon event before Williams lectured that evening.
Marilyn Hildreth began with an intensely personal view of race relations 50 years ago, when restaurants, water fountains, restrooms, hotels and neighborhoods were divided. “When I was young, we had an opportunity to visit New York City. It was the first time we were able to sit down and drink a pop. When we came back to Oklahoma, we faced with the same old segregation. The kids, 6 to 13 years old, decided we were going into Katz Drug Store and sit there until they served us. Little did we know that the decision we made in Oklahoma City would help change the course of history. Four days later, Katz opened their doors to us. If we have not stood up to sit down, what would have happened to this great county?”
Hildreth was asked by an audience member about the upcoming election, what kind of person would make a good president and how she felt about an African-American in the race.
“I wish we could pull some DNA on all of us to make a perfect president. I feel really good about an African American on the ballot because history is changed in America. I was in Memphis the night Dr. King was killed. King was a dreamer and Obama is the dream. History will record how many paid the price for this moment.”
Several family members accompanied Hildreth to the symposium including her mother Clara Luper, who is known to many as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. Luper received a standing ovation from the audience of more than 250.
Entrepreneur Robert Waldrop shared his experiences of growing up in rural Oklahoma and how he sought to change economic decline in small towns in the state. “For many years, the government policy in farming has been to get big or get out. This has resulted in fewer people in rural communities. Many rural areas have been running in the red for 40 years.
“For many years,” he continued, “I wanted to buy produce from small local farmers. I wanted to establish a better way for farmers to sell their produce and for customers to buy that produce. That’s how we started the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. Now we have customers and farmers throughout the state and are sharing this model with other states.
“Nothing tastes better than food grown on small farms. This cooperative provides a way for us to get that food to customers. In a time of economic crises, this will support our local economy. A strong local economy is developed when people look out for each other,” Waldrop said.
Praising their passion for change, Kansas community leader Bob Dixson described his experiences in Greensburg, Kan., where the community is rebuilding a “sustainable economy” after devastation.
“On the night the tornado hit our town, it was like a bomb went off,” Dixson said. “We had nothing left, but we still had our relationships with the people around us. And we had the opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past. My generation needs to set the example. We must leave this place better than we found it.”
While innovations may be essential to success, looking back is educational,” Dixson said. “Innovation is great but you have to look back to where you’ve been. People in rural America are the original ‘green’ people. Sustainability is not a new concept. The pioneers of this area practiced it everyday.
“Sustainability is not just for this generation – it’s designed to keep us from jeopardizing future generations. Each one of us has a realm of influence. Find a cause and make a difference,” Dixson said.
Amy Ingram shared her passion to teach. “I wanted to teach. I wanted to do whatever it took to teach. I wanted to work with children who needed a mentor, a parent, a teacher, an advocate and a person to kick them in the behind.” Ingram is a founding educator in Oklahoma City’s hugely successful charter school, the KIPP School.
“During of our first day of KIPP, we had 63 fifth graders and we were giving them some crazy ideas – we were talking about college,” Ingram said. “People told us that we could not have a high performing school on the east side of Oklahoma City. Don’t let anyone tell you that something can’t be done if you have a passion to do it.” Despite poverty and unstable family situations making success difficult for the children, test scores rose sharply in that first year, she reported.
“The teachers spend at least 12-13 hours at school a day and many of the kids are there waiting for the teachers to arrive” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience. Every kid has improved five reading levels in the first year. By the eighth grade they are reading on a high school level,” Ingram said.
In addition to her evening presentation, Jody Williams shared some thoughts during the panel discussion. “I hate injustice. I am passionate about correcting injustice. I want our country to be what it says it is. I want our country to be the best it can be. It’s hard for many people to accept that we can criticize our nation while we love it.”
One of the injustices Williams observed in the world was the use of landmines. “We saw many landmines in several countries. In theory, guns and soldiers go home, but the landmines remain. Approximately 30 French farmers are killed each year by landmines left during the world wars. A weapon that cannot discriminate is illegal. A landmine can kill anyone after a war.
“We took an idea to get rid of these landmines and ran with it. About 10,000 normal people worked together and got rid of them. It was the first time in history that countries gave up a conventional weapon.
“We believed in a different kind of world. I want people to understand that the world has changed and we must be a positive part of the change. I challenge you to be a part,” Williams said.
USAO’s Ray and Mary Giles Symposium on Citizenship and Public Service was made possible through a generous gift from the Ray and Mary Giles Fund in the USAO Foundation.