Keynote speaker urges action, finding the everyday heroes at Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast

Feb 2, 2020

There were strong, blunt words, and a call for action at UMass Dartmouth’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast on January 31.

The event, now in its 18th year, honors the legacy of Dr. King and explores issues of diversity, race, inclusion, and struggle. 

With a theme of “Diversity Beyond the Obvious” this year, keynote speaker Steve Pemberton spoke of his struggle to overcome his past, and of why the world needs less dreamers, and more doers.

Speaking on the importance of Dr. King’s message, Pemberton noted it is not enough to be a “dreamer,” referencing the popular “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead, it is necessary to take action, and be a doer — which Dr. King embodied with his nonviolent protests and March on Washington.

“The harsh reality in America today is that we are talking about The Dream by day, and unloading nightmares on Americans in the dark,” Pemberton said.

He addressed unprecedented income inequality, the lack of upward mobility, record family separation, addiction, and suicide rates, and the current political climate tearing at the fabric of American democracy.

“We are bombarded by a culture that suggests the best we can do is retweet, and like, and whisper about it, but ignore the lessons of Dr. King, who actually marched, knowing full well that any day, could mean the end of his life,” Pemberton concluded.

“This is not a time for dreaming,” Pemberton said.

No one knows that difference better than Pemberton.  

The bestselling author and corporate diversity expert is a native to New Bedford, but his childhood was marred by abuse and neglect in the foster care system, which he grew up in from the age of three.

Growing up without a community or a family to call his own, and struggling with child abuse and neglect, he found his sanctuary right at UMass Dartmouth. He was enrolled in the university’s Upward Bound program when it was then known as Southeastern Massachusetts University.

That led to one of his major points during his keynote address: Recognize the everyday heroes that make an impact on people’s lives, not just the superheroes.

Through Upward Bound and his love of reading in school, he met Ruby Dottin, the program’s director — who even remembered him from a spelling bee he had competed in — and John Sykes, a teacher who pushed him to succeed. 

“Family isn’t who you’re born into,” Pemberton told the crowd. “It’s who you find along the way.”

With the support of those he met along the way, Pemberton was able to turn his life around and do the unexpected: Break the generational cycle of neglect from his past, and make a positive impact on people’s lives.

He briefly worked in higher education admissions before launching a career in workplace diversity. He is currently the Chief People Officer for Globoforce, and had previously worked for Walgreens Boot Alliance. He released a bestselling memoir documenting his struggle to overcome his past and who he is, which was turned into a feature film.