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International Activist Paul Farmer to Speak at BU

Year in Review: 2008


International aid worker and physician Paul Farmer will speak at the annual University celebration, to be held on Monday, January 19. Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Through December 24, BU Today is looking back at the most popular stories of the year. We’ll be back with new stories for the new year on Monday, January 5. Happy holidays!

Next month, to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), the Boston University community is not only reflecting on King’s place in history. On MLK Day 2009, students, faculty, and staff will examine inequality, injustice, and human rights violations in the 21st century by bringing renowned aid worker Paul Farmer to speak at the annual University celebration, to be held on Monday, January 19, at 1 p.m.

Farmer, a medical anthropologist and physician, is the founder of Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based international organization that provides health care and advocacy services for people living in poverty around the world. The organization works in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Malawi, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Boston to treat and reduce instances of HIV infection and tuberculosis, as well as to meet food, water, and housing needs in poverty-stricken countries and regions.

“We are honoring Paul Farmer as a living example of what was important to Martin Luther King,” says Katherine Kennedy, the director of BU’s Howard Thurman Center and one of the event’s organizers.

Farmer began working in Haiti in 1983, during his first year as a student at Harvard Medical School. He helped found the first PIH clinic in the village of Cange two years later; since then PIH has expanded its community-based treatment programs to six other countries.

“Before I became aware of his work, I had no idea that doctors could be social activists and change the way you perceive the world,” says Ashish Premkumar (CAS’10, MED’13), who will introduce Farmer at the University’s celebration. “I see his work as a continuation of Dr. King’s legacy — the idea of equality and justice for everyone.” Premkumar (right) is one of BU’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholars, a group of academically gifted students with leadership abilities, a commitment to social justice, and a record of community involvement who are given full scholarships by the University.

The idea that we all share an obligation for social activism connects to the celebration’s theme: The Drum Major Instinct, based on King’s sermon of the same name. In it, he called on his congregation to take the drum major instinct in everyone — the instinct that makes us “all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade” — and use it to be a leader in love, in moral excellence, and in generosity. In a strangely prescient conclusion — the sermon was given two months before his assassination — King spoke of his future eulogy.

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others,” King said. “I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question . . . Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”

Peter Fu (CAS’09), another Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholar, will read an excerpt from the sermon during the program. Other performers include Andrew Jerell Jones (COM’09), who will remix King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with the “American Prayer” video made by Barack Obama’s supporters; the Inner Strength Gospel Choir, led by choir director Herbert Jones; and the student group Xception Step Team. Alexandra Bastien, the senior administrative secretary at the Howard Thurman Center, will lead the step team’s performance of African step dance, reinterpreted for a contemporary audience.

“Step originates from the gumboot dances of South Africa,” says Bastien. “I’ll be working with the team to create a routine that includes gumboot dancing, and then moves into what has emerged today.”

Premkumar, who says that PIH inspired him to choose medicine as a career, says that honoring Farmer is a way to link the past and the present and to make King’s words especially relevant and real for today’s college students.

“Dr. Farmer grew up in a normal neighborhood and did a bunch of normal stuff, but he found a way, with his passion, to really make a difference,” Premkumar says. “It was a lot of work, yeah, but it wasn’t unfeasible. He shows us that things can change outside of revolution — things can change through doctors and lawyers. Anyone can change the world.”

The University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day celebration will take place on Monday, January 19, at 1 p.m. in the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

This story originally ran on BU Today on December 9, 2008.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

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