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Forest Whitaker emphasizes power of the individual in ASU democracy lecture

Forest Whitaker at the podium with Pilgrim Rest choir members in backdrop
April 30, 2014

The ASU Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s goal for its Delivering Democracy Lecture is lofty: to establish the series as the premier Central Phoenix event that inspires and affirms the best of what a democratic society can be.

If success toward that goal can be measured in ebullience, last week's inaugural Delivering Democracy Lecture with Forest Whitaker was nothing short of a triumph.

Aware of the 500-plus wait list for tickets, many of the 2,800 attendees arrived at Phoenix’s Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church 60 to 90 minutes before the 6:30 p.m. lecture – excited to be seated, to greet friends, neighbors and colleagues, to purchase one of the center’s “be an architect of change” t-shirts, and to browse the resource fair.

At 6 p.m., the Pilgrim Rest Combined Choir – 125-voices-strong – lifted the room’s energy to the rafters with numbers that included a double-time gospel rendition of “We Shall Overcome” and the community-building “I Need You to Survive.”

“This is not just a lecture,” reminded Matthew Whitaker, founding director of the Downtown Phoenix campus-based center and ASU Foundation Professor of History in the School of Letters and Sciences, as he welcomed all gathered. “This is an event meant to empower and inspire, to combine the practical and the inspirational.”

This first Delivering Democracy Lecture included opening welcomes from Daniel Froetscher, senior vice president of APS; Duane Roen, ASU assistant vice provost for university academic success programs; Gerald Richard, assistant to the chief of police for the city of Phoenix; a video welcome from Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton; and Bishop Alexis A. Thomas, Pilgrim Rest’s senior pastor for the last three decades.

Bishop Thomas shared with visitors the history of the congregation – founded in 1922 – and Pilgrim Rest’s philosophy that “a church is measured not by what it does on Sunday, but what it does Monday through Saturday, and by how it helps people who may never attend that church.”

Looking out on the diversity in the room, Thomas summed up the feeling of unity that filled the sanctuary: “I can’t but help believe that heaven looks a little like this!”

But Thomas also emphasized the need for the work of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and its community partners.

“The journey of understanding race is not over, particularly in Arizona,” he said, and mentioned the previous day's Supreme Court decision giving states the power to ban race as a factor in college admissions.

A video montage crafted by School of Letters and Sciences communications major Sylvia Whitley, highlighting Whitaker’s career and humanitarian efforts, offered a dramatic lead-in to his taking the stage.

Then, actor Forest Whitaker, exuding a natural warmth, began his remarks by recalling his fond memories of shooting his directorial debut, “Waiting to Exhale,” in Phoenix, where the beautiful desert sky, sunsets and city seemed to be helping him make the movie, he said.

The soft-spoken artist and humanitarian talked about his circuitous route to a career in acting and film after dreams of football success were dashed by injury. He encouraged young people especially to remember that, though our career may define us for most of our years on this planet, we shouldn’t let our job descriptions define how we do our jobs – any work can by carried out with kindness, caring and compassion.

He emphasized the importance of finding and holding onto a moral center, and reminded the audience of the role that ordinary citizens can play in creating a new reality.

“Perhaps the most important thing that came out of the election of Barack Obama was the lesson that ... the sum of very small actions can transform the world,” said Whitaker. “The energizing force in the campaign wasn’t millionaires; it was regular people giving what they could, taking control in their lives and trying to make a difference.”

He reiterated the importance of individuals in a participatory democracy by calling to mind the black and white photos we look at today from social movements in our nation’s history.

“We may all recognize particular leaders, but how many notice the faces of the thousands of ordinary citizens standing by their side? People who got involved because they knew they had to do what was right. We are standing on the shoulders and legacy of anonymous heroes.

“People are often asked to think about the question, ‘If you could live at any time in history, when would you choose?’” said Whitaker. “I know Martin Luther King Jr. said he wanted a few years in the second half of the 20th century.

“I’ve thought about that question a lot,” he continued.

Expressing a feeling of hope and excitement about a world with so many peace opportunities, and seemingly infinite possibilities in many realms of life, Whitaker observed, “ I realize there’s no place, no moment in time I’d rather be part of than this moment right now. Because I can walk beside all of you."

“The energy, solidarity and inspiration the event generated was unlike anything most attendees have experienced at a university-organized event,” reflected center director Matthew Whitaker on the results of this higher education, corporate and community collaboration.

“Our next step is to tether this historic moment to sustainable action,” he notes, “and this summer, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD) will be holding its New Generations Leadership Program, preparing high school and college students for servant-leadership in an age of rapid demographic change and cultural multiplicity.

“In the meantime, CSRD staff is already planning next year’s Delivering Democracy event,” Whitaker says, “which will be every bit as motivational, cerebral and meaningful in answering the call for a better educated and united citizenry.”

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s inaugural Delivering Democracy Lecture was sponsored by ASU’s School of Letters and Sciences, Arizona Public Service (APS), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, SRP, the Safeway Foundation and Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, with additional support from a number of individuals and community organizations.

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