Saturday, January 18, 2003

Home holds heart but needs healing


Cincinnati native has view from afar

By Shauna Scott Rhone
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Robin Lee returned to her native Cincinnati in 1997 after an extensive community health career in Africa and Central America. She still speaks fondly of magnificent sunsets in rural Nigeria.

Robin Lee
Robin Lee returned to Cincinnati in 1997.
"I worked near the Cameroon border," says Ms. Lee, who now lives in Clifton. "One day I was watching the sunset, and it was so beautiful I thought, `Would I ever be able to go home?' "

She did come home, mostly because of a mother in failing health, but she says she also came home to a city in failing health.

"When I saw the racism and conditions of some of the neighborhoods here, I thought, `I don't think I can live here.' I felt like I didn't belong here anymore."

But in January 1998, she went to Fountain Square to participate in the annual Martin Luther King march organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition. The single-minded purpose of the program and the interracial makeup of the audience reminded her of what had led her around the world. She had answered Dr. King's challenge.

"Everybody can be great," Dr. King once said, "because everybody can serve."

When she heard the announcement about the monthly coalition meetings being open to the public, she decided to attend the next one.

"When I got there," Ms. Lee says, "they made me feel at home and helped me find a way to stay. Five years later, I know I need to stay."

IF YOU GO
What: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial March and Commemorative Program 2003.
When: 11:15 a.m. Monday.
Where: Marchers gather at Fountain Square downtown and march to Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine.
Information: 361-2126.
Now a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati's School of Nursing, Ms. Lee also volunteers her nursing skills at a clinic in Over-the-Rhine.

She and 21 other members of the coalition donate their time to make sure the program continues each year. While they sell ads for the annual program handed out to the estimated 3,500 people who will attend this year's event Monday, the proceeds go back to pay for the printing and to the Martin Luther King Jr. Trust Fund.

"It's important to get Martin Luther King's message out to children," Ms. Lee says. "Every year, the coalition takes up a collection for our trust fund and gives it to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to obtain books, materials and multimedia about Dr. King, so that all the community will know about his life and his accomplishments."

This year's theme is "honoring the past, confronting the present and anticipating the future." The coalition's outgoing president, Maxwilliam SaekiLewis of Westwood says, "This year is the most significant one yet" in the 28-year history of the annual march and program.

"This is an ideal time to reflect and ponder and to extract our social situation here," he says.

Mr. SaekiLewis says he celebrated the Rev. Dr. King's birthday in private, personal ways before joining the coalition.

"I always did it on my own," he says, "but I wanted to be involved in a public forum that recognized Dr. King and his ideas. I heard about the coalition and where they held the meetings (10:30 a.m. the second Tuesday of every month at City Hall) and saw it was a worthy cause."

He has served as president and spokesman for the last 10 years and plans to continue as a member after his successor is named.

The coalition's resolve to honor the memory of the late civil rights leader confronts the present controversy of the boycott against downtown businesses.

"Some people in the community are questioning whether we should do it at all and have attempted to boycott the event," says coalition member Byron Coaston of Madisonville. "We're not a part of the boycott; we are not a political organization."

The interracial, interfaith, nonprofit coalition does not allow political speeches during the event. It also discourages carrying posters not directly related to the Rev. Dr. King during the march.

"Although I hadn't really participated in the marches and program before joining," Mr. Coaston says, "it's hard to imagine not being a part of the coalition now. It's one of the few organizations I've been with that only meets once a month and somehow everything comes together." Mr. Coaston joined the coalition three years ago as a representative of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, succeeding a retiring co-worker, Janice Kagermeier




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