UM student integral to community celebration of MLK

sierra pannell

After moving to Missoula at age nine, Sierra Pannell was not sure social justice was a priority in the community. However, after attending the University of Montana, she realized that social justice was actively being discussed and actions were being taken both on campus and off. During her sophomore year, Pannell took a class, "Black: From Africa to Hip-Hop," taught by Dr. Tobin Miller Shearer, director of the African-American studies program at UM and associate professor of history.

During the course, students were encouraged to use their critical thinking skills in formal writing exercises as well as in-class debates, such as one discussion on the historical merits of the Reconstruction period after slavery. Pannell’s experience in this class, along with Shearer’s enthusiasm from the program, helped persuade Pannell to minor in African-American studies.

Now in her senior year, Pannell is pairing her minor with a practicum in her social work major. In August, she became involved with Empower Montana, a Missoula-based social justice organization, and she helped lead an orientation for the organization’s K-12 after school project, Epic. In December she became an intern with Empower Montana and joined their coalition, Missoula’s Idea for Racial Justice. Pannell has played a major role in organizing the Missoula MLK Jr. Day Community Celebration, a day for the community to celebrate and honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

One important piece of this celebration for Pannell is to acknowledge that youth in Missoula have a voice, so she was honored to organize the behind-the-scenes logistics for the Youth Art and Essay Contest. This contest provided a chance for children from preschool to grade 12 to submit their response, whether artwork or writing, to a quote from Dr. King. This year’s quote was, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” There were 330 submissions from students in Missoula and the surrounding area. Pannell met with the Youth Advisory Council to determine first, second, and third place winners in each grade. Awards will be given to these winners during the MLK Day Celebration, and the first place winners will present their submissions.

The celebration kicks off with two screenings of the film “King in the Wilderness” followed by a facilitated discussion of the film. The first screening is on Sunday at 1 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom, and the second screening is on Monday at 1 p.m. in the Roxy Theater in downtown Missoula. Both screenings are open to the public and free for all.

On Monday at 5 p.m., the celebration continues with a 30-minute Youth Rally with the theme, “We Were Made for These Times,” in Caras Park. The rally will feature two youth speakers, a youth performance, and a keynote on the topic of missing and murdered indigenous women. From Caras Park there will be a march across the Higgins Street Bridge to the St. Anthony Catholic Parish (217 Tremont Street) where the community celebration continues.

Starting at 6 p.m. there will be musical performances, including a community choir directed by UM professor Dr. Christopher Hahn, the award ceremony for the Youth Art and Essay Contest, and a keynote address by Justin Green. Green coaches the running backs and serves as the Grizzlies’ recruiting coordinator. Dinner will be provided by Murray Pierce, the Administrative Liaison to the Black Student Union & Support for Students of African Descent. Donations are greatly appreciated but not necessary; the suggested amount is $5-10.

For those who need assistance with transportation, ASUM bus transportation will run in a continuous loop from the UM Music Building to Caras Park every 15 minutes from 4-5 p.m. on Monday. It will then take people with mobility issues from the park to the church, and it will run a continuous loop from the church to the Music Building every 15 minutes from 8-10 p.m.

Pannell is glad that winter break was shorter this year so students have the chance to participate in these events. She believes that everyone should put their words into action and become part of this event. She has enjoyed being a part of the planning team for the celebration and encourages others to get involved; the committee is passionate about what they do and everyone is always willing to help.

For more information, go to the Missoula MLK Jr Day Community Celebration Facebook page or their website.

The University of Montana is the home to the country’s third oldest African-American Studies program and the only one in the state of Montana. It offers unique classes like “Voodoo, Muslim, Church: Black Religion” and “Prayer and Civil Rights.” The program’s faculty have won every major teaching award offered by the university and the local community of Missoula. The African-American Studies program is within the College of Humanities and Sciences.