MLK Day at Brewster

MLK Day at Brewster
Suzanne Morrissey

On January 18, the day our nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Brewster held a virtual All-School meeting devoted to reflections on Dr. King’s legacy, message, and the road ahead. After a welcome from Melissa Lawlor, Director of Equity and Inclusion, Head of School Craig Gemmell began the program. He noted that almost a year of living in the pandemic has taught him that life can be short, and even cruel and fragile. “Even though I had that recognition of life being fragile,” he said, “I’ve witnessed so many moments of grace in this community.” He went on to say that finding grace in the midst of cruelty was Dr King’s quarry, and that grace came from truth. Seeking truth in the face of cruelty is not easy, he noted, and asked the community to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings of others and ourselves in the evening meeting. “Learn from each other tonight to understand yourselves better,” Gemmell said, adding that discussions of race, inequality, and injustice are hard, and we will only be more fully whole if we dig in together, with kindness, gratitude, and respect. 

With that, Lawlor played a video of Dr. King’s 1967 speech “The Other America.” She then spoke to the group, saying the Civil Rights movement was a struggle to “make two Americas one,” and that we are still engaged in this struggle today. Lawlor acknowledged that “shutdown” feelings like fear, anger, guilt, or shame hinder our progress to social justice, inspiring students with her call to action: “We need to get moving. We think being nice to everyone is enough, but it’s not. We need you in the fight. That’s what it means to be a true love your country so much you're willing to fight for everyone in it.” Charging the community to “choose equality and humanity over politics…to stop judging and starting listening,” she introduced senior Tuke Murch.

Student Voices
Murch ’21 was one of three Bobcats who attended the virtual Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) this year. SDLC is a multiracial, multicultural gathering of student leaders in Grades 9–12 from across the U.S. and abroad. The conference focuses on self-reflecting, forming allies, and building community. Participating students developed cross-cultural communication skills, designed effective strategies for social justice practice through dialogue and the arts, and learned the foundations of allyship and networking principles.

“To me, the whole SDLC experience is a feeling of joy,” Murch began, “because of the smart and authentic individuals who attend it. To see my peers talk about issues that are normally not talked about made me think about the things we can make happen if we all can start toward this goal.” He explained how his SDLC African-American affinity group discussed the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement. Murch explained that we all must be active in noticing moments of racism that occur in our daily lives—jokes that people think are harmless or posts on social media. “We have to understand how to be mindful of those actions because we were all put here for one reason only, and that is to build and not destroy,” he said. “We have talked all year about making lemons into lemonade—why not start now?”

Another SDLC attendee, Elisha-Grace King ’23, spoke next. She shared the personal story of being on a playground as a preschooler and falling off the monkey bars. A white woman ran over to help, and asked if the lady standing across the playground was her nanny. The “nanny” was actually King’s mother, who is Filipino. “That night my parents had to explain to me what made my [multi-racial] family out of the ordinary, and why that white woman didn’t believe my mom when she told her I was her daughter.” King went on to describe the difficulties of being multi-racial in a society that depends on labels, and how she has facilitated the comfort of others by withdrawing parts of her individuality, forcing herself to “fit into a singular box.” She also described the SDLC experience as life changing, and said she was challenged to look critically at the systems she lives in, including school. “Brewster has undoubtedly taken measures to address the systemic racism brought to light by BLM this summer. From supporting protests, bringing discussions of race into our classrooms, and creating spaces where students can learn how to be respectful and empowered global citizens, it is clear our community has aimed to position itself to be on the right side of history. “However, we must show that we understand injustice doesn‘t fizzle out as the media coverage about it does.” Her call to action was for privileged people, like those attending a private school, to use their privilege for good. “Don’t settle for simply being non-racist, be anti racist and be loud about it.”

Kendall Proulx then walked the entire Zoom group through an activity to identify actions they have (or have not) taken against racism. Through a series of specific questions, like “Have you ever heard a person use the N word and told them to stop?”, the exercise shed light on how we can each do better in the work of anti-racism. 

Hunter Divirgilio ’21 read his searing and eloquent essay first explaining how the attack on the Capitol Building, with a mob wearing racist emblems and messages, was in no way the same as the BLM protests of this summer. Then, like Elisha-Grace, he made a call to act and not let our urgency in Dr. King’s fight drop to a simmer as our attention is drawn elsewhere. “Martin Luther King has been dead for more than 50 years, and, in many ways, we’ve gone backwards,” Divirgilio said. “His dream was not colorblindness. He spent the last two years of his life fighting for a multiracial coalition; a workers movement; a series of systemic changes—considered more radical now than they were half a century ago. And we continue to ‘honor’ his memory by cherry picking our favorite quotes and ignoring the command for action.” He closed his essay with a personal plea, “So…this is my request. Start listening, start learning, and then take some action. If you need help finding the resources, I got a website, a public Google doc, and my DMs are always open. I’d be happy to help. Even if you just want to tell me that I’m wrong.” 

Poetry and Song
Sylvie Skibicki ’23 read Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird,” with its powerful closing line, “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.” Faculty member Rob O’Blenis then appeared with his guitar, and before singing Andrew Peterson’s “A White Man's Lament for the Death of God's Beloved,” he described his belief that white people need to speak the names of black men and women who have died because of injustice. “One of the lines from the song that I’d like to point out to you is ‘I’d rather be exposed to what is killing than to hide from what’s to blame’.” Later in the program, Morgan Johnson ’22 recited “If We Must Die” by Jamaican poet Claude McKay, whose sonnet of brave political resistance was first published in 1919.

Powerful Closing 
Dean of Faculty Dolph Clinton joined the meeting to read a story he wrote earlier this year for his personal blog, describing his reaction to the murder of George Floyd. Intensely personal, at one point he asked the listeners to think about what the public’s reaction might have been if that police officer had knelt on the neck of a 12-year-old white girl for more than eight minutes. Or even a black lab’s neck. Even in a Zoom call, the thought-provoking power of those questions could be felt. Toward the end of his presentation, Clinton asked the community, “If he were still alive, Dr. King would have celebrated 92nd birthday recently. Would he be amazed by how far we’ve come, or would he be dismayed at how far we still have to go?”

In the perfect final note to an emotional, enlightening meeting, Jade Knowles ’21 sang publicly for the first time, offering her gentle rendition of “Amazing Grace.” You can enjoy listening to her moving performance below. 

The Work Continues
On January 25 and 26, more than 40 Brewster faculty members are focusing their lesson plans on topics related to MLK Day and social justice activism. Look for details about this important work in future coverage. 


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