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Keynote Speaker

As a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the university is not hosting in-person gatherings of any kind. This includes marches, service projects, lectures or other traditional programming. To support the health of our community, Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 celebrations have been streamlined and will be hosted virtually on Jan 18.

2021 Vanderbilt University MLK Commemorative Virtual Event

At Home in the World: Place, Identity and the American Dream

Via Zoom Webinar
Monday, Jan. 18, 5:15–6:30 p.m. Central time

Virtual program will begin with a vigil, followed by the keynote and moderated Q&A with the speaker.

<< Register here to attend the event virtually >>

2021 Keynote Speaker

Dinaw Mengestu

Award-winning author and novelist

Dinaw Mengestu is an Ethiopian-American novelist who has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his intimate depictions of the immigrant experience in America. The author of three novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, How to Read the Air, and All Our Names, Mengestu has received numerous awards, including the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award, The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” award and the 2008 Lannan Literary Fellowship. In his talks and keynote presentations, Mengestu explores issues of cultural identity and dislocation and challenges audiences to think critically about the reality of the American dream.

His debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned him comparisons to Saul Bellow, F. Scott Fitzgerald and V.S Naipaul and was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2007. The novel tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, who fled the Ethiopian Revolution and immigrated to the United States, where he owns a failing grocery store and struggles with feelings of isolation and nostalgia. Mengestu’s latest novel, All Our Names, is an unforgettable love story about a searing affair in the 1970s between an American woman and an African man.

Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978 and immigrated to the United States in 1980. His family settled in Illinois. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction, Mengestu was the recipient of the 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and received a 2012 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. Mengestu currently teaches at Georgetown University and Brooklyn College, and his fiction and journalism have been published in The New Yorker, Granta, Harper’s, Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal.


Karla McKanders, Clinical Professor of Law, Associate Director, Legal Clinic, Vanderbilt University

Karla McKanders is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Immigration Clinic at Vanderbilt University. A graduate of Duke Law School and Spelman College, she clerked for the longest-serving African American federal judge in our nation’s history the Honorable Damon J. Keith. Prior to teaching at Vanderbilt, McKanders was a visiting professor in the Civil Rights Clinic at Howard University School of Law – infamous for educating prominent African American lawyers during the Civil Rights Movement. As a clinical law professor, her students have successfully provided direct representation to humanitarian immigrants in their deportation proceedings and co-authored multiple Supreme Court amicus briefs.

In June 2019, the American Immigration Lawyers Association awarded McKanders a pro bono award for coordinating pro bono representation for immigrants arrested in the 2018 Morristown Tennessee immigration raid. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of immigration law and racial justice.