As a young woman raised in Arkansas, Kimberly Harper grew up in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.
Her uncles and mother joined the protests and pushed for change that would eventually let her be the first of her generation to go to integrated schools.
“It just really instilled a sense of confidence that really fortified that belief that it’s not what people call you. It’s what you answer to,” she said.
That inspiration pushed Harper to earn a chemistry degree and, later, to mentor dozens of teens during more than two decades in the Tri-Cities. That work earned her this year’s Columbia Basin College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award.
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She’ll be given the award at 11 a.m. today in a ceremony that starts at the MLK statue outside the T Building at CBC.
The prize is given each year to someone who exemplifies King’s work in equality and social justice and whose contributions to society reflect his spirit, philosophy and teachings.
“Kimberly has worked tirelessly to advocate for equity and inspire countless people to aspire to Dr. King’s legacy of leadership and service above self,” wrote Deb Bowen, executive director of the Washington State STEM Education Foundation. “She embodies the same grace, determination, clarity of purpose and dignity exhibited by Dr. King.”
Harper is a physical scientist at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. She works at the Pacific Northwest site office where she reviews proposed projects from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
In King’s shadow
Harper grew up as the oldest of six children in Forrest City, Ark. The city named for a confederate general is about 45 miles from the Lorriane Motel where King was assassinated.
But despite the South’s ongoing struggles with integration, her parents focused on making sure she had a safe home and instilled the importance of education, and made her home a place where the entire neighborhood could stop by.
She went on to attend college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where she learned that her life experiences could be used to encourage others.
It’s also where she was married, had a daughter and was divorced in the span of slightly more than a year. While it derailed her initial plans of pursuing a medical degree, Harper work with the Department of Energy.
“People used to ask early on, when I was in my 20s, ‘How did you move all the way across the country from your family?’” she said. “Moving wasn’t really hard, because my family had already given me a sense of who I was. ... That’s always been my guiding post.”
She discovered a new support system in the Tri-Cities, making friends through her church, many of whom also grew up in the South.
“Those people are still some of my closest friends today,” she said. “I was able to focus on being a good single mother.”
Helping the next generation
Harper is not quiet about her love for teaching. She took some classes in college and between graduating and starting work for the federal government, she taught.
“It was something I was super passionate about,” she said. “If I could have made the wage I make at the Department of Energy and taught, I would have stuck to teaching.”
That passion propelled her community engagement efforts soon after moving to the Tri-Cities.
Her outreach includes work as a STEM community coordinator, with United Way, Tri-Cities Young Leaders Society, Junior Achievement and as president of the local chapter of the National Association of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.
Her latest project is a STEM-focused mentorship program called e-Merge that helps middle- and high school-aged girls.
Much of it is passing on her lessons and others sharing what they’ve learned that have helped them succeed.
When she began all of the sixth graders talked of going to college, but it was questionable how many would make it. Some came from homes where their parents didn’t go to college.
This year, those girls are now high school seniors and she is busy writing recommendation letters for colleges and scholarships.
“They can see themselves in that setting because they’ve been around people who have told them that they can be in that setting and it doesn’t matter what the obstacles in their lives have been,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you started. It only matters where you’re setting your feet.”
Coming full circle
When she got the word that she would receive the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award, she was speechless.
She said she was struck by how many ways the slain civil rights leader’s life had touched hers, whether it was hearing the stories of relatives working in the cotton fields or watching her parents go to work each day.
“His life’s work was about seeing people’s humanity,” she said.
“I think it’s a full circle back to the legacy to Dr. King,” she said. “It’s really what he was all about.”