Dr. Alma Rosa Alvarez is a force for unity in the Rogue Valley. The English professor at Southern Oregon University is a strong advocate for social justice in the community, working with her local Catholic church, St. Vincent de Paul and the Racial Equity Coalition. She teaches courses such as U.S. ethnic literature that expose students to a diversity of experiences and that aim to facilitate empathy and bridge differences.

“There’s not a lot of diversity in Ashland, and a few of my students had never engaged with a person of color or even seen one beyond television,” said Alvarez. “I thought about how difficult it might be for some students to understand an experience that is so different from theirs. One thing I do in a lot of my multicultural lit classes is I have the students explore how their ancestors came to the United States and why. It’s really an eye-opening experience for them.”

That assignment, says Alvarez, can have a strong impact. “A lot of students discover their own ancestors went through quite a bit of struggle. If they were Irish or Italian or Greek, they have some of those legacies. Populations that were initially not considered white,” said Alvarez. “Once they delve into that history, it creates a sympathy for their families that begins to open the door for empathy towards other groups,” she added.

Alvarez came to Ashland about 20 years ago from Santa Barbara, California, when she was hired at SOU. When she moved to Ashland, Alvarez says it hit her that she was in a much different place than Southern California. “When (former Oregon Poet Laureate and SOU professor) Lawson Inada picked me up at the airport it was late and, as we walked to his car, I noticed he had left it running to keep it warm while we picked up my baggage. I thought, 'wow, where am I that you can leave your car unattended and running at the airport?'”

Alvarez is the keynote speaker at Ashland’s 28th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Celebration. The celebration starts at noon Monday, Jan. 16, at the Historic Ashland Armory in downtown Ashland. The event is free and open to the public.

The celebration’s theme of “Power-Justice-Love for All,” from Dr. King’s 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here,” says Alvarez, especially resonates for her. “I think right now we’re feeling so much division. I’m looking forward celebrating Dr. King and the powerful and unifying force of love,” she said.

Alvarez says her keynote speech will address Dr. Martin Luther King’s ideas about love. “Right now, we seem so divided. As early as 1950, Dr. King talked about the six pillars of love and it is really powerful and gutsy,” said Alvarez. “It’s standing for the person who is not showing love. If a person isn’t able to perceive correctly because they are blinded by hatred, we stand and help them get to the point where they can shed that hatred and really build a relationship with others. It comes back to empathy with one another. I think we need that type of love, that type of courage.”

The celebration’s theme, says Alvarez, is fitting for these times. “There is so much hatred out there currently, and it is scary, but the other part that makes me sad is that I’ve talked to people since the election who have decided to just give up or to stop speaking to people who disagree with them,” she said. “We can’t afford to retreat into ourselves. Our protective reaction is to look another way, but this Martin Luther King Jr., celebration reminds us, yes, let’s take care of ourselves, but then let’s regroup and do something powerful.”

Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.