For DuShun Scarbrough, leading the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission was a natural next step in his lifelong commitment to activism and prolonging Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
“As a child growing up, I heard about Dr. King and his life story inspired me so much,” Scarbrough says. “To serve as the executive director of an agency with his name is a dream come true and a wonderful opportunity. I admire Dr. King’s ability to organize and mobilize communities to work collectively for change. As executive director, I want to do the same.”
Scarbrough caught the activism bug early and was even trained on the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” by King’s children Martin Luther King III, Dr. Bernice King and his nephew Isaac Farris.
“As a teenager, I was able to speak at summits throughout the state,” Scarbrough says. “I was a little nervous at first, but as I continued, my confidence increased, and I became better. Public speaking soon became natural, and that’s when the practical methods became more theoretical. I was also involved in a lot of hands-on activities, and I’ve been participating in programs ever since.”
As Scarbrough got older and transitioned to college, he began to write reports and narratives about how to resolve conflict and curb violence through outreach. His efforts brought community members together and were effective training for his current role.
Since its creation in 1993, the vision of the commission has remained consistent, but has adapted over the years as communities evolved and issues facing today’s youth began to look different from the challenges of King’s generation. Today’s concerns include education, food insecurity, digital literacy, bullying, violence, financial literacy and community service.
“These efforts make the work of Dr. King relevant to youth who cannot identify with the Civil Rights Movement that occurred before they were born,” Scarbrough says. “Today’s youth can, however, identify with bullying incidents, creating safe communities, the importance of digital literacy, conflict resolution programs, integrating education and dialogue to address conflicts at various levels, just to name a few.”
The commission is a division of the Arkansas Department of Education, and the ADE is proud of the path the organization is on.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of nonviolence is as relevant today as it was more than 60 years ago,” ADE Secretary Jacob Oliva says. “The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission not only keeps Dr. King’s message alive, but the commission’s efforts also have built one of the most active and robust King programs in the country. Director Scarbrough and his team truly live their mission, and their positive impact extends to students and families beyond the borders of the state.”
The Day of Impact on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is one of the commission’s most well-known initiatives. On Jan. 15, 2024, the commission will host multiple community service activities and educational and unity programs to promote King’s principles of nonviolence, equality and citizen service. The group will also host the MLK Birthday Bash alongside one of their partners in education, as well as a food giveaway that provides volunteer opportunities to promote the spirit of giving back.
“The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission hosts food giveaways throughout the year and they are largely successful,” Scarbrough says. “Our goal for the King holiday is to distribute more than 25,000 pounds of food items to economically disadvantaged families. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas ranks first in food insecurity. This is one way we can help.”
The commission will also partner with Rock Region Metro to host free bus rides throughout central Arkansas and provide free health screenings on the Day of Impact, ending with a unity vigil and fireworks display.
It’s no wonder the commission is best known for its Day of Impact lineup, but it stays busy the rest of the year, too. Scarbrough says the commission has identified four major community needs of interest: health, education, facilitating resources and forming diverse partnerships.
One of the commission’s most hands-on initiatives is the Dream Keepers program, which is designed to instill in youth the importance of serving others.
“This team performs local area service projects where they learn the gratification of helping others, and where others learn that there are young people with the desire to serve,” Scarbrough says. “The Dream Keepers program will immediately address specific issues that serve as a hindrance to Arkansas’ progress of the youth — an effective system to enhance the ability to work together, a lack of positive role models for youth within the local community and the lack of understanding of Dr. King’s message of service.”
The commission is currently also in the process of launching a new multilevel mentorship program called LEAD (Learn, Educate and Acceptance of Diversity) focused on career, academic and social mentorship.
“Some say that our youth are the leaders of tomorrow,” Scarbrough says. “But we say that they are the leaders of today. Focusing on the youth is an investment in the future. By providing them with necessary tools, resources and opportunities, we empower them to contribute positively to society and address the challenges of the future. By investing in their education, skills and character development, we contribute to building a generation capable of leading and shaping a better future.”
Apart from its more intimate programs, the commission is also working to expand its outreach and get in front of as many students as possible, and the students are responding.
“We consistently receive requests for our nonviolence youth summits from schools across the state of Arkansas,” commission chairwoman Sharon Ingram says.
Based in area schools, the nonviolence youth summits are free and accessible to everyone. The summits focus on a variety of topics, including mental health, financial literacy and conflict resolution. Last year’s summit was themed “A Culture of Peace” and welcomed keynote speaker Little Rock Chief of Police Heath Helton, who spoke about fostering peace and understanding within the community.
Scarbrough says input from young people is vital to the summit’s success.
“In Pine Bluff, the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission chartered a task force to gather youth input on violence,” Scarbrough says. “We need their voices. We need them at the table. Young minds often bring fresh perspectives, innovative ideas and creative solutions to problems. Through this task force, we are involving them ‘in the work,’ and yes, it takes work to build a safer community. We need to partner with law enforcement, schools, families and our youth as they are on the front lines.”
For Scarbrough, peace starts with education.
“Education and open dialogue play crucial roles in fostering peace in communities by promoting understanding among individuals,” he says. “Education exposes individuals to diverse cultures, histories and perspectives. Understanding and appreciating diversity can reduce stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Through education, we also learn about different belief systems, values and traditions. This knowledge helps foster acceptance, creating a more inclusive and harmonious community.”
If the commission needs confirmation of its efforts, it need look no further than Bernice King, the reverend’s youngest daughter, who knows her father’s legacy is in good hands.
“As executive director of the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, DuShun’s passion and commitment are the cornerstone of his successful community work,” she says. “He has done an extraordinary job working with individuals and organizations collaboratively to address the unique needs and challenges of the community for a greater positive impact.
“For more than 15 years, his work in carrying on the legacy of my father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., throughout the state of Arkansas, has been exemplary. As a lot of my father’s work was in the South, I appreciate DuShun’s laser-like focus on bridging divides or building unity in the community by keeping his philosophy and methodology of nonviolence at the forefront of his work, especially during those times and seasons when most needed.”
Scarbrough and the commission aren’t slowing down any time soon and have every intention of spreading their message far and wide. Requests for their programming and guidance now come in from all corners of the state to help build a culture of nonviolence, with task forces in Pine Bluff, Harrison and Fordyce having already been established.
“This is important,” Scarbrough says, “because you must start the spark so someone can carry the torch when we leave.”