The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a champion of racial and economic justice, famously saying, “No one is free until we all are free.”
On Wednesday, Clark University honored his legacy with the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. The event, held by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, centered around the theme of “Lessons from MLK: Seeking Solidarity in Times of Educational Inequity.” The commemoration kicked off with a community luncheon and speakers’ panel in Tilton Hall.
“When we consider the historical and contemporary landscape of education in the United States, it is clear that schools have been, and continue to be, critical sites to explore and reimagine the ideological behavioral and institutional patterns that uphold and challenge equality,” Michael Vidal, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, noted in his opening remarks.
Wednesday’s panelists discussed the persistent challenge of educational inequity in K-12 public school and university settings. The panelists included Chantel Bethea, president and CEO of Worcester-based Women in Action Inc.; teacher Nia Slater-Bookhart ’19, MAT ’20; and Nadia Ward, director of Clark’s Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise.
“The people on this stage are definitely in the trenches of doing our work,” said moderator Raphael Rogers, associate professor of practice in the Department of Education.
When asked what the biggest challenge to educational equity in the public schools is today, the panelists cited a lack of resources, diversity, and understanding.
“It’s not equal at all right now — one, because we don’t have teachers that look like our population, and two, because we don’t have the proper education being taught to our kids,” Bethea said, noting the ineffectiveness of standardized testing in Massachusetts. “If [testing] was out of the way, we could go back to actually educating — having civics, having home economics, teaching our kids about real life.”
Ward agreed, saying schools need to rethink the way they teach students of color. Dr. King was a disruptor, she said, and educators should have the courage to challenge the system and push boundaries. In her experience, Ward said, many students work better when presented with real-life problems to solve.
“They absolutely will rise to the occasion and ask the right questions and come up with creative solutions,” she said.
Slater-Bookhart pointed to her own experience, saying she went through nearly 12 years of school before ever reading a piece of literature written by a person of color. When a senior-year teacher introduced her to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” her world was changed.
“That’s what education can do — it can open your mind to a world you thought you’d never have access to,” she said.
The discussion also centered around the ways black students’ behavior is often misinterpreted. Slater-Bookhart said one of her students recently was placed in an Individualized Education Program because his mannerisms were often considered problematic.
“We’re labeling kids so early on when they have so many reasons to be angry with the world,” she said. “Their teachers don’t get them and don’t try to get them.”
As her class learns about Jim Crow laws, Slater-Bookhart said, she’s laying the groundwork for her students to learn what injustice looks like and to speak up for themselves and for others. Challenging biases is a daily struggle, she added.
Ward added that the bigger imperative is to look holistically at kids — not just in the realm of education.
“It’s bringing together a community that appreciates and values our desire to have young people have a life that is affirming of all of who they are,” she said.
The MLK event included a Wednesday night screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” with a post-film discussion.