As a child growing up in Iran, Fariborz Davoodi looked to the world outside of the Shah’s borders for inspiration. He wanted to find the kind of change he felt would bring “stability and improvement” without aggressive or radical action. He found that inspiration in two people: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
At 15, Davoodi would leave Iran for the United States to pursue higher education. It was a successful pursuit; Dr. Davoodi now practices family medicine in Flower Mound, Texas. Davoodi never forgot the teachings outside of the medical field that inspired him along the way, however. He never forgot how strongly King’s message resonated with him.
It may be no surprise then that this family doctor from Iran is now the chairman for MLK of North Texas. He’s helped take the celebration from humble beginnings in his 25 years of service and turn it into one of the most noteworthy and celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in the region.
“When I got involved in it, I thought that the subject matter was so important, and I felt it was so relevant to me in high school, that I wanted to have the students be more involved in the process,” Davoodi said of MLK of North Texas’ yearly event. “And so, we did kind of a brainstorming session about it and decided that the best way to do that would be to start a contest.”
That contest, the Dr. King essay contest for the best report on how King’s teachings apply to daily life, is now just one of the many held by MLK of North Texas today. From photography to 3D art, MLK of North Texas has gathered thousands of submissions across a wide range of contests with the winners of each celebrated at this year’s event at the Lewisville High School Auditorium.
Davoodi explained that the event, now in its 30th year, began with the “foundational organizations” of the Baha’is of Flower Mound, a local religious organization, and the area Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. As a member of the Baha’i faith, Davoodi began volunteering with MLK of North Texas just a few short years after its formation and subsequently began his efforts to expand its scope, starting with the essay contest.
Davoodi began calling local English and language arts teachers to gain support for the annual event and entries into the contest. He believes the top prize at the time, around 1997 by his recollection, was $75. He found one middle school teacher interested in joining the event that year who proceeded to submit around 200 entries.
“By the next year, we had like three middle schools join,” Davoodi said, already a sign of the steady growth the event would experience in the years following.
At the same time, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority held an art contest for middle schoolers with the shared goal of honoring King’s legacy. According to Davoodi, the two groups then decided to “join hands” to host both contests together, eventually expanding the contests to include submissions from six or seven area middle schools.
From there, the event only continued to grow with local high schools added to the mix.
“As the program grew and we were attracting larger numbers of students, then the leadership of the Lewisville ISD also came to an event one time,” Davoodi said, noting how impressed the leadership were with the event. “That then allowed us to slowly grow to where now we normally have about 700-800 attendees at the event and last year, we gave away about $7,000 in prizes,”
In fact, there was almost a point where the event’s growth became overwhelming as the essay contest swelled to include grades 4 through 12 and mountains of submissions.
“Six or seven years ago, we would get like 2,500 entries,” Davoodi said. “It basically grew too much.”
According to Davoodi, MLK of North Texas and its committee simply didn’t have enough volunteers to read through all the essays, so they began asking teachers to select their top 10 entries from each class for submission into the contest which now gives out individual prizes for winners in each grade.
Similarly, the art contest grew to include individual prizes for grades 4 through 12 as well. Its scope expanded to the extent that MLK of North Texas needed to create a new category this year for the sake of properly comparing the entries against one another.
That new category, 3D art, includes mediums like sculpture and ceramic work and received around 15 submissions, according to Davoodi. Much like the recently added photography contest, which has grown to around 100 or more entries over the course of its five years at the event, Davoodi expects this new category to continue to grow in size as well over the years.
The amount of money given to students has also grown with the scale of the event. Prizes for the essay contest now range up to $150. Additionally, MLK of North Texas has begun delivering a scholarship to a graduating Lewisville ISD senior who participated in the annual event or one of the contests in years past.
“Every dollar that we raise is given one way or another to the students,” Davoodi said.
This year’s winners submitted art and essays centered around the theme Living the Dream: It Takes a Team.
“The kids’ art is really quite amazing,” Davoodi said, adding that the city of Lewisville displays the winning pieces at Lewisville Grand Theater following the event. “As many years as I’ve done with it, every year I’m still amazed and impressed by the quality of work that they do.”
The winners will be honored at the event which begins at 6:00 P.M. on January 16 with opening interfaith prayers that Davoodi says represents King’s message of unity.
The event then continues with local performances by the Durham Middle School orchestra and a yearly rendition of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Local Reverend Robert Paul delivers the iconic speech each year from memory before the event’s guest speaker takes the stage. Then, awards are handed out to the winning students to cap off the night’s proceedings.
Altogether, it makes for a community event which honors Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and helps teach younger generations about his message. A decades-old event which, perhaps appropriately, began with such humble, multicultural beginnings and now continues to make an impact in the community to this day.