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Dr. Darlene Sampson holds her sign from the Martin Luther King Jr Day March that will be on display at History Colorado. Photo by Mark Stahl

Sign of the times

Professor Darlene Sampson created a sign to show what she stood for in her profession. It would become part of history.

February 14, 2018

By Marlee Kobzej

In all the years she has been marching in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Marade, Darlene Sampson, Ph.D., clinical field faculty in the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver, has never had an experience like this year. She has always marched with a sign to advocate for something she supports or to highlight an issue important to her, but this year's sign made such a statement she had to quit carrying it for a while so she could actually march and not just stop to chat.

The sign had words like "Black Lives Matter," "DACA," "LGBTQ rights" and "love." Other, lesser-known words like "intersectionality" and "culturally responsive schools" connected the mainstream words to concepts that Sampson says she stands for in her role as an MSU Denver professor, licensed clinical social worker, social justice advocate and diversity trainer. Although they are powerful words, she wanted to evoke action from the crowd so on the back she wrote: "What will you do other than march?"

It got the response she hoped for. Sampson could not walk more than a block before someone would stop her and ask her what they could do other than march. She said, "I gave the advice to pay attention, listen, start a conversation, reflect on what positive contributions you are making to society, but also think about how you are not supporting the things you stand for, check your privilege, get curious and do not discount others when you see a difference."

Sampson takes this advice and imparts it onto her students. Her greatest action other than marching is training the next generation of social workers in MSU Denver's master of social work program. She noticed, however, that her first-semester fieldwork students were having trouble articulating what they stood for in social work. Sampson said, "social work is really about how to be a social justice advocate in any space. Social workers will work with such a diverse population. Students need to identify their challenge points early so they can address them. We don’t want them to run from their biases but rather step into them."

MLK Marade in Denver on Jan. 15, 2018. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Then an idea dawned on her. Something simple yet compelling that would help students visualize their challenges; a project that could be displayed and reflected upon. It was "the sign." Sampson made her own sign to show her students what she stands for and what some of her own challenges are, which created a safe space for them to do the same. Sampson says she was blessed to have found her values early. "Social work was anchored in me from the time I can remember. My parents were the first Ph.D.s in wisdom, and I was rooted in social justice and the church and caring for others," she said.

Dr. Darlene Sampson's sign from the Martin Luther King Jr Day March that will be on display at History Colorado. Photo by Mark Stahl

Years of practicing social work and advocating for social justice have led Sampson to a focus that is close to home. "My focus in social justice is around the harm and the challenges of being a black boy and man. I have a son, brothers, a father, and friends so this issue has become a passion for me."

To showcase this to her students, she included the names Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray on her sign. The sign project was completed in November 2017, and in January 2018, she realized her sign, "the mirror of her values" as she called it, had an appropriate message for the Marade and day of commemorating King's life. "My sign so aligned with Dr. King's dream. Constructs like intersectionality, caring for all different types of people from all walks of life and understanding different populations--it’s a part that deeply connects to who I am." Just like King, Sampson believes to make words more impactful there should be action behind them, and that is why she wrote the question "What will you do other than march?" on the reverse.

In the eyes of History Colorado's Chief Creative Director, Jason Hanson, Sampson was making history. Hanson and the staff at History Colorado are working to collect contemporary items that tell today's story. He attended the Marade and was drawn to Sampson's sign and the effect it had on the crowd. He described Sampson's sign as a sign of the times and a perfect example of an item that captures a snapshot of the moment in today's story. "Many of the issues that are swirling in our contemporary conversation are represented on the sign,” he said.

History Colorado has identified a need for items from 1945 and onward. They have about 15 million items with a strong collection up until about World War II, but more current pieces are missing. "A history museum, at its best, can help us make sense of the world around us by giving us perspective from the past and how we fit in to the broader story. In this case, the broader stories are about the democratic experiment and what it means to live in a democracy; it’s also about the expanding sphere of liberty that we’ve seen in this country over the generations and centuries," said Hansen.

There is no current exhibit planned for Sampson's sign or the multitude of others History Colorado has, but it will be stored in a climate-controlled, safe, well-taken-care-of environment among millions of other items. However, its message is one in a million: do not be afraid to take action on the things you stand for.

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