MLK Day: LaTosha Brown on the power of light, love and our shared humanity

In the grief of immeasurable loss, LaTosha Brown is spending time contemplating the healing power of love – along with its challenges.  

“My heart has to expand,” Brown said Monday in her keynote speech at the MLK Day celebration at Western. “I gotta go deeper in this thing called love.”  

Brown is co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which is devoted to building and organizing the political power of Black Voters. She had been planning to talk about her work in Georgia focusing on politics and social justice.   

But in a personal, vulnerable speech livestreamed from Georgia to the WWU Performing Arts Center and to viewers online, Brown told the audience she’s been “sitting in all kinds of questions” since her son died unexpectedly a month ago, followed by the deaths of both a dear friend and a beloved uncle in the past week.  

“My pain broke me open. It has broken a place in me that has allowed the light to come in,” Brown said.  

“I am literally sitting in the space where I’m starting to see and believe and feel love can heal all things,” she said. “Love can heal politics of the day. Love can heal and shift and transform our institutions. Love can transform and heal us. We have to be courageous enough to stand in the space to allow ourselves to do that.” 

People too often fail to see the humanity in those who disagree with us and especially in those who would cause us harm, Brown said. But we can’t experience our own full humanity if we avoid the very human experience of pain, she said.  

“If I want people to understand me, I have to create the capacity to understand folks who don’t understand me,” Brown said. “I’ve got to do some work to be able to hold space and hold folks accountable, not to make people feel bad, but to make them rise to a higher occasion, to get to a higher level.”  

The MLK celebration also included a discussion by members of the Whatcom County Racial Equity Commission, a performance of “Poor Man Lazarus” by the WWU Chorale and a land acknowledgement by a student from Northwest Indian College. The PAC lobby also hosted a collection of local Black-owned businesses. Jason McGill, CEO of Northwest Youth Services spoke at a breakfast reception earlier in the day. 

Western collaborated with Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College, Bellingham Technical College, Bellingham Public Schools, the city of Bellingham and PeaceHealth to host the MLK Day commemoration, “Now Is the Time.” 

On the day’s theme, Brown urged the audience to avoid thinking of time as something to be managed or filled up. Time is a precious gift that requires us to be present, she said. Understanding that “opens up the possibility for us to see our purpose, for us to tap into love. It opens up the possibility for us to really have a respect for humanity in this moment.” 

But for love, compassion and shared humanity are to transform our society, first we must envision what the world would look like without racism or other forms of oppression. “At least we’ll have some concept of what we are moving toward,” Brown said. “If we aren’t asking ourselves that, we’re not serious.”  

Brown said that as she is reckoning with her own capacity to love, the nation is facing a transformational crisis, too. “I don’t have to give you the data for you to see that. This nation is at a very tenuous point in its existence.”  

Love can transform and heal us. We have to be courageous enough to stand in the space to allow ourselves to do that.

But some of the greatest breakthroughs in our nation’s history have come in the most painful periods, Brown said.  

“Once the light is in, you can’t shut it out again,” she said. “The light is transformative, but we’ve got to respond to it. There’s a crack in a foundation that really was only temporary, because we’ve not as a nation dealt with racism. We have not dealt with sexism. We have not dealt with homophobia. We have not dealt with how we’ve treated our Indigenous brothers and sisters. We have not dealt with the economic inequities. And we continue to move forward as if what we have is OK. It is not.” 

“The good news is that when the light comes in a room, you can’t unsee it,” she continued. “It’s here, y’all. So as challenging as things are right now, now is the time, because this is all you got. What other time do you have?”