GROTON -- A day of MLK Day workshops was held at Lawrence Academy on Monday, Jan. 21, coinciding with the national holiday commemorating the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I have a dream..."
Martin Luther King would be in his 80s now. He was assassinated more than four decades ago. But his image remains strong and his mission lives on. He preached equality, marched with supporters for the cause, famously dreamed of a country that would not be divided by racial strife and protested peacefully to get his message across.
In recent years, the holiday set aside to honor King has become an opportunity to promote human understanding through community service. That spirit framed the local event's theme: "Redefining Social Activism in an Independent School Environment."
Established about five years ago, Lawrence Academy's annual MLK Day event took a different path this year, with workshops facilitated by Lawrence Academy students and alumni of the private prep school.
The kickoff speaker was Taylor Sele, class of 2002.
Workshops went on all day, with some offered twice.
Topics and titles included microagression, cyber bullying, homelessness in Massachusetts and a couple in which actions spoke louder than words: dance and Sidy-African drumming experience.
Two movies were also shown, with repeat screenings before and after lunch. "The Help" was presented by student Janaijah Lloyd and alumni faculty member Kacey Schneider. "Skin" was facilitated by Sterling Clinton Spellman.
Workshop presenters included Kip Bordeloni, Zaneta Pinkney and Yen Lee -- alumnus whose graduation years ranged from 1996 to 2008 -- and several current LA students.
In a workshop called "MLK Unplugged," Bordeloni, LA class of 1996, spoke of a King as a "militant" man who espoused peaceful means to just ends and eschewed wealth and celebrity. "He was an average guy," he said.
In 1965, King won the Nobel Peace Prize, which came with a hefty chunk of cash, but instead of pocketing his windfall, he "gave away" the money and lived modestly, Bordeloni said.
Bordeloni called him a "cool cat," a "dude" of epic proportions who did not court fame for its own sake but cherished common blessings, who would want it said of him that he was a dad who loved his kids and cared deeply about issues such as equality, civil rights and social decency. Those things were what the famed activist was all about, he said. "But he was more militant than you might think."
King was no saint, Bordeloni continued. Like other iconic figures from history, Abraham Lincoln, for example, he was human and thus flawed, with good and bad in his personal makeup. But King was on a mission, make no mistake. Lincoln has been called "the great emancipator," but in his view, that title should be reassigned, or at least shared. "He was an emancipator," Bordeloni said of King.
But establishing this holiday in King's name was not easy, he said. It took many years. First proposed in 1968, it was reintroduced as a bill in Congress annually.
In 1971, presented with three million signatures calling for the creation of Martin Luther King Day, the Illinois legislature acted in 1973, followed by Massachusetts in 1974. Some states held out, but the bill finally passed at the federal level in 1983, making MLK Day a national holiday.
Seguing to his own experiences and accomplishments as an activist, Bordeloni, whose "day job" is in federal government and who heads a nonprofit called The Assi Group, recalled standing up and speaking out for equal rights and social justice as a Lawrence Academy student. "We made a stand, we did what we thought was righteous," he said.
Back home in Chicago, Bordeloni won an MLK activist award from the state of Illinois, he said. "But accolades mean nothing when people are suffering."
Tapping into the shocked aftermath of a recent school shooting in which 20 children and seven adults were killed, he said there were other tragedies, statistics just as dire but less known. Two years ago, for example, "60 Chicago public school students were shot dead," he said. Although not in a single incident, they, too, were innocent victims of violence, "but who thinks twice about that?"
Using the holiday as a catalyst, he challenged his young, attentive audience to care about issues and take action. "Find your voice, your passion, get into what you want to be active about," he said. "Have a great heart!" he concluded. "That's what Martin Luther King was all about."
Speaking with Trustee Greta Donahue and Assistant Head of School Rob Moore, Bordeloni said it was "bittersweet" to be back. Much has changed since he left and his old dorm is gone. "But the school is growing...that's cool."
"Thanks for making it real," Donahue said.
Later, in a library classroom, Zaneta Pinkney, LA class of 2007, cheerfully tackled a similar task, trying to "make it real" by sparking discussion among a mixed-grade, mostly male group of students and a few faculty members.
"This is a workshop ... I want you guys to get involved," she began.
At first greeted by silence, by the end of Pinkney's presentation, at least a dozen people in the room had posed questions and shared their views. It may not have been the lively round table discussion she'd hoped for, but her talk was engaging. She made good points and a lot of sense. Her topic was developing leadership skills while in high school.
Suggested strategies to that end included framing political discussions to avoid confrontation. Don't use "code words" aimed at denouncing the person you are talking to or belittling an opposing point of view. Instead, know your topic, learn about candidates. It's okay to ask where information touted as fact came from, she said. Rumor? Fox News? CNN? And consider whether your own source is reliable or had a skewed slant.
From a less angst-fraught angle, she suggested ways to get along and get involved on campus. For starters, take time early on to introduce yourself to teachers and administrators. Otherwise, when you go to them, say for help with something, they might not have a clue who you are, she said. And you won't know them, either.
More than once, an outreach effort like that had a serendipitous outcome for her.
In one instance, she was asked to interview a new headmaster, the first African-American to hold the post. Despite the generational gap, they found common ground and became friends, she said.
Another instance was even more surprising.
Describing herself as "half German, half African-American," by parentage, some of her ancestors were slaves, Pinkney said. When she extended herself to a teacher, Mr. Johnson, and shared her family history, he did some research and learned that members of his family had once owned members of hers in the days of slavery. "That's so crazy!" she said, conveying bemused amazement rather than resentment. A revelation to both teacher and student, the historic link helped them connect, she said.
Although the endgame is building leadership skills, getting to know other students has benefits in the here and now, she said, even if they don't all become friends. She suggested reaching outside your social comfort zone, from occasionally choosing a different table at lunch to chatting with new people when opportunities come up.
Similar strategies apply to advocating for courses or extra-curricular activities that interest you but the school doesn't offer. She offered practical tips, with helpful input from her audience.
A student named Connor, for example, said the curriculum offers a music theory course but nothing for musicians who want hands-on experience with their chosen instruments and to earn academic credit in the process, as is the case in other artistic areas.
A female student said her passion was horseback riding, but the sport, which involves travel, left no time for anything else outside school.
Pinkney said no matter how much time an activity or interest demands, whether it's music or horseback riding, students can find ways to open other windows of opportunity. Plan a specific time frame -- say, an hour a week -- in which to participate in something else, she said.
As for Connor's dilemma, it might not be resolved overnight, but he could begin by framing a concrete plan of action: approaching the music department, his class advisor or administrators with an idea in hand, and maybe a few fellow musicians in tow.
Inroads made now could create new opportunities later. In the meantime, he could make connections, try to get something going on his own. If not for credit then for personal enrichment and perhaps to benefit future student musicians. Once established, an organized group of on-campus musicians would have a voice, creating opportunities to pursue their passion. It's a start, she said. That's what leaders do.
A 2011 graduate of Boston College now working as a paralegal in Boston, Pinkney plans to go to law school. As a student at LA, she helped form a group aimed at giving minority students a voice, promoting diversity on a campus that she found resistant to change. It was called ABLE, which stood for Association for Black and Latino Enablement. At first eyed suspiciously, ABLE was "controversial," she said, eyed as a bunch of separatists, but she said the group's goal was just the opposite and they made efforts to become part of things by reaching out. Eventually, they were successful.
Today, the next-generation group has broadened its focus and changed its name, in the process zeroing in on what celebrating diversity is all about. The school even hired a diversity coordinator, which was a top item on ABLE's wish list.
Now, it's called Umoja, a Swahili word that means unity.