Paying it forward
In celebration of the Martin Luther King holiday, the MLK Breakfast has been a longstanding tradition in the Twin Cities. Once again, General Mills and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) are hosting the annual breakfast, which will be in-person this year.
The theme for the breakfast is “Leading Onward – Elevating New Voices for Justice and Equality,” and will focus on King’s legacy of civil rights and its influence on today’s Black youth activists.
This year’s MLK Breakfast marks the 34th year the event has been held, which is one of the nation’s largest celebrations of Dr. King’s life and legacy. As in previous years, the breakfast helps raise funds for under-represented students in the Twin Cities. Proceeds from the breakfast benefit UNCF Twin Cities and support local students of color attending college at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) member institutions. Through the partnership, General Mills has provided $7.2 million to UNCF.
“Each year, this event gives us the opportunity to come together as a community to create an imperative to live out Dr. King’s legacy and celebrate his unwavering commitment to education,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and global impact officer at General Mills. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to creating a world that reflects Dr. King’s dream and to advancing a culture of equity and belonging.”
The MSR spoke with Laverne McCartney Knighton, UNCF’s development director who oversees fundraising for the organization’s 37-member private Black colleges and universities and scholarships awarded to Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota area students. This April, UNCF will celebrate 80 years.
“We were founded by historically Black colleges and university presidents in 1944,” said McCartney Knighton. “That was when only a small number of students were admitted to predominantly White colleges and universities. Our founders knew that a college education was important. And they created UNCF to raise dollars for HBCUs, and the hundreds of thousands of students who attended them.
“So here we are today, 80 years later. We have raised over $5 million, and supported more than 500,000 students in their college journey. Basically, HBCUs have built Black America’s middle class.
“UNCF scholarships, which we raise money to provide, have helped students pay for their college degree and help them move up economically, which helps our society. Here at UNCF, we believe that higher education institutions have an important role.”
According to UNCF Twin Cities most recent data for Minnesota, the organization has awarded scholarships to 171 students and supported about 127 students. “The total amount awarded was just under a million dollars—$977,000 to be exact,” said McCartney Knighton. “The average scholarship amount is about $5700,” she added.
The impact of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action decision on HBCUs and UNCF member institutions has not gone unnoticed.
“We’ve seen an increase in enrollment and requests for enrollment at HBCUs,” said McCartney Knighton. “It puts a burden on the funds that are needed for college and our efforts to raise money to help these students get to the college of their choice,” she added. “That’s the big impact—increased enrollment at all of our HBCUs.”
Like many Black organizations, UNCF has its fair share of challenges.
“In terms of fundraising, it’s always a challenge to be in a space where everyone is trying to raise money to support their organization,” said McCartney Knighton. “We’re fortunate to be in a community where we have a lot of Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered here and are very supportive of UNCF’s efforts,” she said. “They understand the need to recruit students of color and that it is important to their bottom line—creating more diversity and equity and inclusion,” she continued.
“The other challenge is trying to make sure we provide funding to our HBCUs that need infrastructure support, IT support, all those things that help create a thriving campus for our students,” said McCartney Knighton. “Also, we can help build endowments, so that schools can have that ongoing support that they need.”
The MLK Breakfast will be held at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Jan. 15, 2024, from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Doors open at 7 a.m., and tickets are available at MLKBreakfast.com.
UNCF is the nation’s largest minority education organization serving youth, the community and the country. By supporting education and development through scholarships and other programs, the organization helps strengthen its 37 member colleges and universities, and advocates for the importance of minority education and college readiness. Today, UNCF supports more than 50,000 students at over 1,100 colleges and universities across the country. To learn more and contribute to the organization, visit UNCF.org.