Illustration by Louise Leong.

No matter who you are, you are born with the individual privilege of being yourself.

This is a privilege Nikki Giovanni — world-renowned poet and writer, storyteller, English professor, civil rights activist and commentator — feels is underestimated and misrepresented, and should be harnessed by contemporary American society, especially its youth. Giovanni will share these sentiments with the Santa Cruz community as keynote speaker at the 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation.

On Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Giovanni will speak on “The Privilege of Serving: Art and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” The event is hosted by UC Santa Cruz each year as a part of the celebration of Black History Month, and as a way of remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and continuing to raise awareness about civil rights.

Giovanni was active in the civil rights movement after growing up in segregated eastern Tennessee. She said although she was only 12 years old at the time, watching Rosa Parks refuse to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery in 1955 was “a galvanizing moment for all of us.”

Rosa Parks, whom Giovanni grew to be very close friends with, took an initiative that had not been taken before and represented repressed Americans all over the United States.

“It’s so important young people recognize it’s your mind, and you should make it up for yourself,” Giovanni said. “In doing that, sometimes it’s going to be difficult, sometimes you’re going to find yourself standing there pretty much alone — that’s why I talk about the individual, because a crowd is no better than the individuals in it. It’s very important that if you are with a group, you be proud of the fact you’re there.”

David Anthony, associate history professor at UCSC and emcee of the event, discussed the importance of informing and inspiring students on this subject matter.

“Not everyone has had the opportunity to attend [a university], or even if attending, to complete [a degree],” Anthony said. “And yet, there are many ways to become educated through being observant and committed to building a better world for oneself and one’s fellow human beings, in all ways. Student awareness usually comes as a response to living in stimulating environments.”

Giovanni says she enjoys talking to young people because there is a future in it, an opportunity for even more change.

“Change is important for the self, for itself, change in every way,” Giovanni said. “That’s why you grow old. If you never changed, you’d be running around in diapers right now.”

She said she is amazed at the change that has already happened in her lifetime.

“What you youngsters will be doing is something we have not thought of,” she said. “It’s not beyond my imagination, but at this point it’s outside of my articulation.”

This event is a rare opportunity, as Nikki Giovanni will help us remember the great and inspirational man Martin Luther King Jr. was. She will, as he did, use the power of spoken word as a change agent.

“Human beings only have words — anything else, we are fooling ourselves,” Giovanni said. “The word among human beings is sacred and should be treated as that. Words determine who we are. We dream in words, so words are always important.”

A balance of the individual and the crowd is crucial. When asked what she means by “the privilege of serving,” Giovanni explained,

“The privilege of being yourself, the privilege of standing up.”

“It’s a privilege to be educated, to have First Amendment rights, to worship as you choose and to recognize that some people don’t worship as you do,” she said.

Joy L. Lei, assistant campus diversity officer, said Giovanni will be the perfect person to speak at the event in honor of Dr. King.

“She has an immense amount of energy— she is known to be such a dynamic speaker,” Lei said. “This is important, for Dr. King was such a wonderful orator. I’m hoping that [Giovanni] will speak to what civil rights and equality mean to us today.”

In addition to Giovanni’s talk and poetry reading, there will be several other performances including the African-American Theatre Arts Group (AATAG), Reverend Johnson’s reflection on faith, Chancellor George R. Blumenthal speaking, and the presentation of the fourth annual Tony Hill Memorial Award.

For the past four years, UCSC officials at the MLK Jr. Memorial Convocation have presented the award in memory of Tony Hill, a beloved community leader, mentor and volunteer that was a part of the convocation planning committee. The award will be presented to a community member who reflects Hill’s qualities: a mentor, inspirational leader, and bridge builder in the community. The recipient will be awarded $500 to donate to their charity of choice.

Nikki Giovanni said recognizing and remembering leaders is vital.

“I think for the sanity and the soul of America we have to recognize the wonderful contributions people have made for our freedom,” Giovanni said. “And it’s not just the freedom of black Americans, it’s all of us. Any time you can take a step away from hate, this is a good thing.”

In addition to the event at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium at 7 p.m. (free of cost), Nikki Giovanni will also lead a student panel in the Stevenson Event Center beforehand, on Feb. 2, at 3 p.m.