NEW LONDON -- One day in 1963, at the age of 12, Freeman A. Hrabowski III was sitting in the back of a Birmingham, Ala., church eating peanut M&Ms and doing math problems when something the visiting minister said got his attention.
The visiting minister was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said that if children participated in a peaceful protest for desegregation, America would understand that even children knew the difference between right and wrong.
While his parents initially pushed back, Hrabowksi, the longtime president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, participated in the protest, known as the Children's Crusade. He spent a week in jail as a result -- "a horrible, horrific week," he said.
"We were empowered to believe we could make a difference in the same way that (Henry David) Thoreau talked about civil disobedience, that we were Americans who believed in our country and we just knew the country could be better," Hrabowksi said Wednesday during a dynamic, 45-minute speech at the Coast Guard Academy as part of the Class of 1964's leadership workshop. It was his second visit to the academy.
The academy did not disclose how much Hrabowksi, known as a trailblazer for his work to increase minority participation in science and math, was paid for the speech, titled "Inspiring Inclusive Excellence."
"All the experiences you have will shape the way you solve problems," Hrabowski said. "And if we're to protect our country, we need as broad an array of skills and perspectives as possible in the problem solving process."
He challenged the audience to come up with a two-minute answer to the question: What's your story?
"How did you get here? Who helped you to get here? What is it that you believe in? ... The more we have people at the table saying what they really believe, the richer the kinds of solutions we can come up with," he said.
The academy, which develops and trains Coast Guard officers, has faced scrutiny for racial disparities and its handling of discrimination and harassment complaints.
Two academy faculty members, during a question-and-answer session after Hrabowski's speech, referenced an inspector general report released in December that found the academy retaliated against a black female faculty member who made discrimination and harassment complaints against her superiors.
"What's the role of personal accountability, ownership of wrongdoing and public apology when a leader has contributed to harming another's dignity?" said Alex Waid, a professor of Spanish and literature.
Hrabowski said he'd been briefed on the report and other issues by academy leadership, and that he was "convinced people are working on these issues."
"It is clear to me that your faculty and your leaders are convinced that you can be even better, that there are areas where you need to improve, that there are structural problems to be worked on," he said.
These issues don't just happen at the academy but at institutions across the country, including his, he said.
Superintendent James Rendon said, in introducing Hrabowski, "He knows that we are collectively committed and determined to improve as an institution, that we strive to be known as an equity-minded military enterprise, a premiere community of inclusion."
Lt. Danielle Brown, an instructor in the electrical engineering department, asked Hrabowksi: "How can we speak about promoting excellence and inclusion when we haven't even apologized to her, let alone acknowledge that we collectively failed, and harmed her repeatedly, our shipmate who has given everything to make the Coast Guard and the academy a better place, a place where we all can thrive."
Hrabowski said it's not his place to address those issues but he believes "it will be addressed appropriately and with sincerity" and that leadership would be responding soon.
Brown, a 2011 academy graduate, said Hrabowski was only the second person in her life to ask for her story. As a cadet, Brown said, she was "told and taught to leave gayness in the closet."
"I want any cadets in the audience to know that if you see anything in me, if you identify with me at all, to never leave your gayness in the closet, to never leave your femaleness in the closet, to never leave your gender (in the closet)," she said.
Sharon Zelmanowitz, head of the academy's engineering department, said Wednesday night that, "The Coast Guard Academy Engineering Department consists of four engineering majors and the new Cyber Systems major. We have joined forces with the Science Department to launch a Diversity Initiative inspired by a nationwide effort to increase access and equity for faculty, students and staff."
"The success of our mission depends on our ability to foster a welcoming and safe environment where cadets, faculty and staff can contribute and thrive," she said.
This article is written by Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.