Embracing the School’s mission “to be a power for good in the world,” the community gathered on Thursday, January 12, to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The annual celebration centered around the theme “Not Done: He Had a Dream, But We Are Still Caught in a Nightmare.” In the morning, students and faculty met in the Fonseca Center gym to take in speeches from student leaders and Head of School Laura Danforth. Sage Weinstock ’24 and Shaza Murigande ’24 performed a moving rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem, before the keynote speech from Dr. Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies at Princeton University and the founding director of the IDA B. WELLS Just Data Lab.
The student speakers were Kelsey Philibert ’27 and Ceriah Clarke ’27, co-chairs of the Middle School’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leadership group; Alexis Estime ’23 and Zahali Vauclena ’23, community government co-chairs; Elijah Brooks ’24 and Kimberly Quispe ’24; and Dara Akinwande ’27 and Aarav Singh ’27.
In her remarks, Ms. Danforth noted that “Martin Luther King passed us a light, a candle, and today is about carrying that light forward in our own brief time on Earth.” Referencing King’s famous quote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” she encouraged everyone in attendance “to see, to be, and to set free the light among us.”
Dr. Benjamin captivated the audience with a presentation on the intersection of race, justice and technology — and how we can identify, imagine and enact just alternatives to harmful technological racial biases. Using examples from academia, medicine and corporations, Dr. Benjamin explained what she has termed the “New Jim Code,” a modern version of Jim Crow that utilizes racially discriminatory designs in technology.
“If inequity is woven into the very fabric of society, then each twist, coil and code is a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices, politics,” Benjamin shared. “Its vastness will be its undoing once we accept that we are all pattern makers.”
Vauclena found the speech riveting. “Dr. Benjamin kept me on the edge of my seat,” he said. “I was in awe of the connection she made between advancing technology and how that affects our social progress racially. It was something I never noticed until she opened my eyes to that issue.”
Philibert echoed a similar sentiment: “Dr. Benjamin’s talk helped bring to light how people with darker skin colors aren't involved in the discussion of creating these products. Our society still has a long way to go, not only expanding our technology, but in our way of thinking and being more inclusive toward people who are not white.”
Associate Head for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Roland Davis, who planned the day’s celebration with Dean for Inclusive Excellence Selas Douglas, was thrilled with the community’s reception of the keynote. “The fact that Dr. Benjamin was able to connect with everybody in the gym from the fifth graders through to the adults was nothing short of amazing,” Davis said. “The content was phenomenal and relevant to our lives today.”
After Dr. Benjamin’s presentation, middle school students returned to their classrooms. Upper school students watched the film “RACE To Be Human” and participated in workshops addressing racial and social justice. The program concluded with performances by Dobbs 16 and Muse.
Estime, who led an afternoon workshop on the misuse and appropriation of AAVE (African American Vernacular English), described participating in the session as “a wonderful experience.” “I was given the opportunity to educate my fellow peers, while also learning more about the topic,” she explained.
Reflecting on the day, Akinwande expressed hope that students will be inspired to take action: “Having a discussion about the importance of Dr. King could've brought the realization to many students about past, present and future issues, enticing them to act.”
Clarke agreed, explaining that “It's important that the entire school gathers to celebrate and honor the legacy of Dr. King because although his achievements and impact on the world will always be unforgettable and extremely significant, we should also recognize his work is not done.”