Students Steer MLK Day Assembly

Words matter.
That point was made passionately at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly, held on Monday, January 14. In his introductory remarks, faculty member Bruce Taylor said the gathering was “an opportunity to address the ongoing presence of hateful language.”

Head of School Ned Parsons called the assembly “one of the most impactful school meetings I’ve ever been part of. The presence of authentic voices at the front of the room enabled students and faculty in the audience to hear and understand some difficult truths. It reflected our ongoing efforts to be a community that leans into these conversations—without fear, and without losing our core of civility.

“The world is full of divisiveness right now. Rivers wants to be better than that,” he continued. “It’s something we’ve explicitly promised to our students—that we would work at all times to be better than what they were witnessing in the larger culture around them—and today was a chance to come through in one important way on that promise.”

Parsons noted that the assembly was just one example of the school’s commitment to achieving that goal. Over the past couple of years, he said, students and faculty have participated in multicultural training, the school has launched the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, and the curriculum has been reassessed through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He looks forward to continuing and building upon those efforts, empowering the Rivers community to face tough questions fearlessly.

This year’s presentation was planned by the African Diaspora affinity group, one of several groups formed on campus within the past two years to support and bring together students who share an identifier such as race or gender.

In the program’s first half, several students of color took to the stage to describe their experiences and feelings around the N-word. One student spoke of hearing the word during a visit to a local college campus, and the chilling effect it had; one was horrified to read it on a fellow patron’s shirt at a restaurant (“I didn’t know racism could be so blatant,” she said); another was pained and bewildered to hear it in a Rivers locker room, from a white teammate singing a song that included the word in its lyrics.

The audience watched a video of author Ta-Nehisi Coates explaining why the word should be off-limits for white people, even when singing along to hip-hop. “The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use [the N-word] is actually very, very insightful,” said Coates. “It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do. … So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”

A video excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech followed.

The students on stage then spoke of their own hopes and dreams for a world offering greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how Rivers could reflect that world. “I have a dream,” said one, “not to be code-switching at school.” Said another, “I have a dream where I won’t have to jump between worlds.” Yet another dreamed of a day when diversity “isn’t something we say, but something we do.”

According to Rayha McPherson ’20, one of the student organizers, the idea for the assembly “arose during our African Diaspora affinity group meeting. In a predominantly white community such as Rivers, this affinity group is so important to the students of color.” She noted that the support and encouragement of the group helps students—particularly the younger ones—speak their truths in public forums.

Voicing those truths at the assembly proved to be an emotional moment for the students. “At the end,” said McPherson, “we all walked off of the stage and hugged each other. Standing on that stage, voicing our realities that so few of the other students in the crowd share with us, was so powerful and really brought us together,” said McPherson.

John Bower, assistant middle school head and director of diversity and inclusion, said, “I was inspired by the courage I witnessed on that stage Monday. It took tremendous strength and vulnerability for those students to share their truths to a predominantly white audience.” Bower appreciated the positive response from the community but added, “I encourage folks to recognize that we cannot always rely on the voices of the marginalized to educate the majority. The work starts with self-reflection and acknowledgement of our own personal biases and privileges, and I am proud to be working at an institution that is challenging all of its constituencies to do that work.”

After the assembly, all students debriefed in their advisories, discussing the impact of the day’s program and how it might help them understand the power of hateful language.

“The assembly brought to life the real struggles regarding racism and hate speech that our students of color still experience today,” said math department chair Dan McCartney. “We spent our advisory time after the assembly trying to process what we heard and discussing ways to move forward. I wish we had had more time to continue the conversation.”

It’s easy, said Parsons, to feel as though we’re protected from issues of racism in communities like Rivers—which is what makes events like Monday’s assembly so vital. The response from his advisees, he said, was overwhelmingly positive. “It made the issues urgent for many of us. We understand that they impact everyone in our community and impact the culture we live in, and therefore need to be front and center for us.”

McPherson noted that next steps are key. “Now we have brought that awareness, we have bonded together, and the question is, ‘What next? What can we do to keep up the momentum we created from this assembly?’ I hope that as a school we will hear what has been said and really begin to take action in terms of diversifying Rivers and making students of color who are already here feel like this is a place we belong.”
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