Columbia Values Diversity Celebration marks legacy of MLK – and this year, Eliot Battle

Jan 16, 2014

The winners of this year's Columbia Values Diversity Awards both have close ties to education – and to longtime Columbia educator Eliot Battle, who died last year. 

The awards, which are given out at the annual Columbia Values Diversity Celebration, honor those who have helped the community better appreciate diversity and cultural understanding. It's also a chance to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Julie Middleton

Julie Middleton won the individual award. She works for MU extension, and she is involved with several boards in Columbia that serve minority youth and families. She's also a strong advocate for youth education, and for dialogue among the diverse people of the community.

She recently co-directed the documentary “Battle: Change from Within,” which told the story of Battle and the role he had in desegregating Columbia. 

Middleton has been nominated for the award before, but it's her first time winning. 

"I was really delighted, and I was surprised, and I was very excited to actually win it this year," she said. 

Looking to the future, she said everyone can have a role in helping Columbia continue to move forward in promoting diversity.

"We certainly have a diverse community," she said, "but I think we all need to make sure that we're honoring that diversity, and that we're valuing each and every person, and that we don't let any past define us, whatever that is, that we can move forward."

 Ulysses S. Grant Elementary School

Ulysses S. Grant Elementary School won the group award.

It’s the oldest existing school in Columbia, and 1959, it became the first racially integrated elementary school in town when the Battle family sent their kids there.

Now, the school has students from 27 different countries.  "Grant is a micro chasm of what our community and our world looks like," said Lena Sheets. She's a counselor at the school, and it's her first year working there. 

She said if you were to pull any 10 students, you most likely wouldn't have any two in the group from the same cultural background. 

"It's a real mix and experience for the people that walk in – when they leave our school, they're not afraid of race or culture," she said. "Or, you know – socioeconomics is not a big noticing thing because we're all there together."

Keynote speaker: Steve Pemberton 

On a hot summer day, when he was just four years old, Steve Pemberton left the orphanage with a social worker. They were going to look for a family for him – for a mommy and a daddy, and a place he could call home. 

But after hours of searching, they had no luck, and he went back to the orphanage. 

"Why is this so hard?" he asked the social worker. 

It came down to color – the social worker said they weren't sure whether he should be placed with a white family or a black family. He's African American, with a light complexion and blue eyes. And back then, he had a blond afro and a Polish last name. 

At age four, his only real concept of color came from a box of crayons. He thought black and white referred to the color of the house. 

He remembers feeling confused: "Now why does it matter what color the house is painted, if there's a mommy or a daddy there?"

Years passed, and he never did find that home. It seemed that social workers were focused on what he was, rather than on who he was. 

But he loved reading, and it gave him a vision of a different life – one he pursued with vigor.

Now, he's the chief diversity officer and divisional vice president for Walgreens, and he traveled to Columbia to give the keynote address at this year's Columbia Values Diversity celebration. Though he's originally from Boston, he now lives in Chicago with his wife of 17 years and their three children. 

He's also the author of a memoir: "A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home." 

Someone once said of him, "He doesn't look like his story." But the way he sees it, none of us do. Within each of us are stories of sacrifice, struggle, equality and opportunity, he said. 

In addition to sharing his own story, he also spoke about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and how it fits in with society today.

Pemberton spoke about the way we, as members of society, tend to measure ourselves by what we have and do. 

"I am contemplating writing to Facebook and asking them to put a 'don't care' button on their site," he said, eliciting laughter from the audience. "Because the fact of the matter is that I really don't -- care and nor do you -- how much cream you had in your coffee this morning, or what time you woke up, or those mundane things that really don't say much about the impact that you're having on someone's life."

That instinct to focus on those trivial things comes from what King called "the drum major instinct," Pemberton said – the need to be first, to be valued, to be celebrated. 

That concerned King, and he cautioned people against judging our value by what we acquire, not by our impact on others. 

He quoted something King said a few months before his death: "If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant – and that is the definition of greatness."

Pemberton also spoke about diversity from the perspective of a business leader. 

"Our future is going to be directly connected to our ability to integrate diversity into our daily experiences and our daily lives," he said. "Long after we have shuffled off this old coil, future generations are going to look at us and ask whether we were successful in that particular task and endeavor." 

A lot of the difference, he said, comes from the way we think. "We say all the time that great minds think alike, but the fact of the matter is that one of those minds is redundant," he said. When faced with a challenge, you don't need two people who have the same perspectives – you want to hear different views. 

And that difference of perspective is a key part of what he called a "new definition of diversity."

"Diversity is a lot less about how you look," he said. "And it's a lot more about how you think, what you've experienced and what you are willing to learn."

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values.