URI alumnus, artist, scholar asks students to avoid ‘safe activism’ during University’s MLK Unity Luncheon keynote

Wilson Okello M.S.’12 returns to campus to give inspiring, stirring talk

KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 3, 2023 – University of Rhode Island alumnus, artist, poet and scholar Wilson Kwamogi Okello, told students and other members of the University of Rhode Island community Wednesday that “worldmaking is not for the faint of heart.”

Okello, an assistant professor at the Pennsylvania State University, gave the keynote address at URI’s Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Luncheon, putting King’s work in context with American Black history, starting with poet Phillis Wheatley in 1761, moving through time to the “great conductor” Harriet Tubman in the 1800s and to King’s work in the 1960s, including his 1966 speech at URI. He also pointed to the importance of the 1992 takeover of Taft Hall at URI.

Angela Gonzalez ’16, also known as AGonza, paints a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the event.

Okello said that returning to URI was a chance to remember the love, care and influence the school’s graduate program in College Student Personnel provided to him as he launched his own career in higher education.

Okello received his master’s degree through the program, and returned to campus on the first day of Black History Month to speak about the reality and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The program was held at the Multicultural Student Services Center, honoring King’s life and legacy and bringing together members of the URI community to foster conversations about change. 

Dr. Wilson Okello, second from right, enjoyed catching up with familiar faces upon his return to URI: (left to right) Kristy Embrack-Searles, Shirley Consuegra, Wynston D. Wilson, Bobby Britto-Oliveira, John Cruz, Okello, and Michelle Fontes.

Encouraging memory as a form of activism and inspiration, he conducted a powerful exercise with attendees to remember ancestors before moving into an examination of King’s work and what it means for people today.

“Oftentimes it is the convenient and utopianized version of Dr. King that is celebrated, but on this day we embrace and welcome the complex and radical version of the man who, even post-assassination, continues to guide and mobilize his followers in the ongoing fight for equality,” said Robert Britto-Oliveira, assistant director of the Multicultural Student Services Center. “This is not the romanticized, sanitized K-12 version of Martin Luther King that many of us were given. Dr. King called for radical revolution and we should recognize that legacy in our everyday lives.”

Britto-Oliveira was glad to welcome his College Student Personnel classmate Okello back to the University.

A research associate at Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, Okello focuses on the study of Blackness in education and his address at URI celebrated the “brilliance of Africana and BIPOC people” as a way to reclaim, celebrate, and look ahead.

“King’s audacious work is celebrated at this time of year and we should do that,” he said but cautioned the audience to not let it simply be the neat tale that is often shared, reducing King’s work, story and message to a three-day holiday weekend. “Be the keeper of stories but do so with accuracy,” he said, calling on the students present to be persistent in their revolt and agitation, to continue to maintain their presence.

“Our collective work maintains memory and community, memory and dreaming,” said Okello, asking the students attending three questions: what do you want? what power do you have? and what are you willing to give up? He counseled students to be specific in their dreams, avoid ‘safe’ activism, and continue to prioritize one another. His talk also touched on the power of ongoing education, saying, “Knowledge is a form of power and returns your agency.”

A sought-after speaker, Okello has delivered over 100 invited lectures, from Rhode Island to California. He is a recipient of URI’s Distinguished Alumni Rising Star Award (2014), as well as the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Outstanding Professional Award and was named a 2022 Emerging Scholar by the American College Personnel Association. He also received the 2022 Council on Ethnic Participation Mildred Garcia Award for Exemplary Scholarship by the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Okello has delivered two TEDx talks, describing the power of personal stories and resilience in the face of injustice, and is a founder of the Truth to Power Project.

“My URI education taught me how to ask a different type of question and to begin imagining solutions,” he said. “The College Student Personnel program at URI prompted self-reflection that enabled me to consider how identity, systems of power and oppression, and context are reflected in the questions we ask and the solutions that individuals and organizations are oriented to adopt.”

While pursuing his master’s degree at URI, Okello also served as a summer counselor in URI’s Talent Development program and mentored students at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Talent Development Scholar Kafui Glover ’23 said this was her second year attending the Unity Luncheon and that she’s looked forward to it all year: “It’s moving to see department faculty and students come together at the MSSC to honor Dr. King and his work, but also to celebrate unity amongst our campus community.”

The event also featured a special appearance by alumna artist AGonza ’16, who painted a portrait of King during the event, which will be displayed in the Multicultural Student Services Center. Marlin DaCruz ’19, now with the Newport Boys & Girls Clubs, provided musical accompaniment on piano, which also included students Tre Hamlin ’26 and Titiana Tambi ’23.

Thupten Tendhar (right) received this year’s MLK Peacemaker Award at URI, recognizing his work in the University’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies; shown with Amy Olson, executive director of URI Hillel.

Thupten Tendhar received this year’s MLK Peacemaker Award, recognizing his work in the University’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies and work as an instructor of Kingian nonviolence at the University, training URI students and international practitioners. Tendhar runs the University’s nonviolence summer institute, teaches a seminar about Kingian Nonviolence, and organizes weekly meetings for the Inner Peace Healthy Minds program, as well as guest lectures on human rights and activism.

The annual Unity Luncheon is a sharing of food, song, and reflection in celebration of the legacy of ideas espoused by King, and the application of his legacy at the University, presented by the Multicultural Student Services Center and URI Chaplains Association.

The program ended with a moving a capella rendition of “There is a Balm in Gilead” by Christopher Hunter, interim dean of URI’s University College for Academic Success.

Providence’s Caribbean Soul catered the event, sharing food of the African diaspora.