Courage, Conscience, and Coalition

The Thacher community celebrates MLK Day with speakers, workshops, and a youth summit.
We believe that by understanding ourselves and others, we can move with purpose towards the greater good. To be a community of excellence and authenticity, we work to raise awareness around differences of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics, religion, family structure, sexual orientation, and geographic origin. - Excerpt from Thacher’s Diversity Council Philosophy Statement.

Toward that end, on January 20 and 21, Thacher celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with its first annual youth leadership summit on diversity and inclusion, titled Courage, Conscience, and Coalition. Other Ojai schools—Oak Grove, Ojai Valley School, and Villanova Prep—along with Saint Ignatius and Sonoma Academy from northern California, joined Thacher students, faculty, and staff for the two-day conference. The event consisted of two inspiring keynote speakers, small breakout sessions with discussions, and a variety of hour-long workshops for both students and faculty. Since the Summit was designed primarily for students, we asked two Thacher students to share their impressions of some of the proceedings.

Trevor ’19 on the Keynotes
“Sunday’s speaker, Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson, a professor at UCLA, talked about Ida B. Wells and her experience growing up in a world post-slavery. Johnson spoke about Wells’ difficult life that was filled to the brim with activism and advocacy. Years after slavery had ended, black Americans continued to struggle with unequal rights and segregation. However, although history paints a morbid picture for the oppressed, Dr. Johnson left the audience with a hopeful message. She made sure to say that oppression of any kind isn’t inevitable, and those who believe people will always be mistreated or discriminated against ‘mask their inaction with cynicism.’

Dr. Michael Benitez, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, gave the Monday morning keynote address in which he shared an array of anecdotes about his life growing up as a Latino in New York. Dr. Benitez’s talk was witty and inspiring, with heartfelt stories and even had a bit of his own poetry sprinkled in. He was the first in his family to go to university, which in and of itself was a staggering accomplishment. Even though his mother didn’t know what ‘college’ was, she pushed him to work hard for a goal that she knew would be fruitful. College did come with its own challenges, though. Dr. Benitez talked about his transition to the Northwest where many of the people were ‘honest and nice,’ which often times contradicted each other.”

Reflections on the workshop, Voluntourism or Volunteering? by Isabel ’19
“The word voluntourism has always intrigued and in a sense, frightened me. I hear stories of privileged school groups that go to different countries to build wells or schools and I wonder to what extent their work comes from a selfish desire to serve themselves. In an attempt to learn how to be a conscious, global volunteer, especially in places where I do not know the culture or language, I decided to take Shannon Vanderpol’s workshop on voluntourism. We analyzed the mistakes of well-intentioned volunteers, who more often than not, do not engage with communities of poverty; they do not communicate to discover what the people they are helping actually need. While Ms. Vanderpol cautioned us not to villainize these do-gooders, she stressed the difference between help and relationship ... A relationship means that those volunteers are helping the community feel comfortable asking for what they actually need. Ms. Vanderpol’s workshop has opened my eyes to the unintentional errors of many volunteers. I now feel more equipped to create genuine relationships in my future volunteering in order to leave a positive impact on the lives of others.”

Trevor also wrote about the breakout sessions which gave attendees a chance to share what stood out for them, what surprised them, and what challenged them about the speakers and workshops. “These breakout sessions were a great way for every student to connect with and meet people who went to different schools,” wrote Trevor. Students also had a chance to get to know each other at the meals and at the student social, which Mr. Balano organized for Sunday night.

The workshops were facilitated by guests, faculty members, and friends of Thacher. Thacher Fischer Fellow Ali Rahman offered a workshop entitled Enacting Identity through Creative Writing. He reflected, “During our workshop we focused on the power of writing as it is inherently linked to our racial, ethnic, religious, ideological, gender, and sexual identities. The students and I were able to engage in some short writing exercises and then reflect on the various aspects of our identity and how they often change over time, be it from internal reflection or our surroundings. We also explored creative writing (from novels and short stories to movies and television) and how identity is expressed. Often times these portrayals can suffer from inauthenticity, while other times they fail to resonate with us even when they are true enough to those writing them. I was really pleased to see the complicated way in which the students understood the expression of identity, and how it is important to further complicate dominant narratives by adding more voices.”

The conference ended with a lively performance by the band Luv Phenomena which bills itself as delivering education, entertainment, and love. The group combined hip-hop and jazz with call-and-response participation from the audience for an energetic, fun, musical experience.

Thacher’s first MLK youth summit was a important step toward reaching the ultimate goal of understanding and dismantling systemic oppression, first within ourselves and our institutions, then within society. Looking forward, Trevor wrote, “For us to continue to stay connected to King’s message, these conversations should come honestly and often. They could manifest themselves in dorms, in classes, and in the dining hall. As Ms. Pidduck put it at the start of the conference: ‘This isn’t the beginning or the end. This is the work we have in front of us.’”
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