Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium 2017

The community gathered for a slate of speakers, films, and workshops.
For the second year, the Thacher community took time out from its typical schedule to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a rich symposium of speakers, films, and workshops Sunday evening through Monday (Jan 15-16). History teacher Donald Okpalugo played a lead role in developing the robust program and many students and faculty members collaborated with one another to create dialogue-focused workshops on a variety of topics.

“Putting a program together like this isn’t easy or straightforward, but I see it as my duty to my peers and students,” said Mr. Okpalugo, who invested significant time and energy into the program. “I believe that the Thacher community is committed to inclusion, equity, and social justice. It’s just a question of us being willing to step back from our positions of privilege, look each other in the eyes, and ask the difficult, sometimes uncomfortable questions. I think we took steps forward this past weekend.”

The biennial Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium began Sunday evening with a special keynote from Dr. Valorie Thomas, associate professor of English and Africana studies at Pomona College, who gave a lecture entitled “Can I Live?: Afrofuturism, Creative Maladjustment, and the Politics of Being Black in Public Space.”

On Monday morning the community watched a screening of Spies of Mississippi, a documentary about a secret agency formed to spy on civil rights activists and maintain “the Mississippi way of life” during the 1950s and ’60s. A conversation between Dawn Porter (mother of Eli Graff ’19), the film’s director, and Frank Soracco, a field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights era, followed.

“[The film] was, hands down, the best part of the day,” noted one attendee. “Unbelievable film of an unknown story and the following discussion was powerful.”

“I thought the film was phenomenal and the conversation fascinating,” said another.

After the conversation with Ms. Porter and Mr. Soracco, participants broke into small groups for workshops on a variety of topics, which a number of students played an active role in developing and leading. Topics included:

  • Musicians of the Civil Rights Movement
  • Affirming Diversity in the Thacher Bubble
  • Navajo Mining and Other Indigenous Rights Issues
  • A Discussion of Police Brutality and Violence Against Police
  • Japanese Internment Camps
  • LGBTQ+ Representation
  • Breaking Binaries: Deconstructing Gender in the 21st Century
  • and more…

“[The leader of my workshop] did a really good job presenting the issue and then giving everyone time to share what they thought,” one workshop participant observed, echoing the feedback of many others. “I felt like she listened to all perspectives and guided a successful discussion.”

The community then attended a screening of a 21-minute short film, directed by Bradford Young and executive produced by Ava DuVernay, that was made to accompany the album Black America Again by hip hop artist, actor, and film producer Common. The day concluded with a panel conversation featuring Dr. Thomas, Mr. Soracco, Ms. Porter, and John Aaron and moderated by Mr. Okpalugo.

In discussing the weekend, Mr. Okpalugo noted the importance of connecting past to present. “Last week, testifying at the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions, John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights hero, said, ‘We’ve made progress, but we are not there yet. There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward.’ Thacher’s 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium serves as a reminder, all the more urgently needed this year, that the march of progress can be made even in the face of forces pulling us back.”
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