Accomplished poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo opened Episcopal’s third-annual MLK Day Symposium
with a captivating mix of personal narrative and poetry that wowed a capacity audience in Pendleton that extended to remote viewing locations throughout campus on January 21.
At one point, Acevedo spoke of the experience of being the only person of color in her graduate writing program and the feeling of imbalance of expectations separating her from others, as her cohort expected her to explain or remove her cultural references and use of Spanish phrases from her poems.
“Coming from where I come from, I have never had the privilege of being the ignorant one in the room. I had to Google everything,” she said. “When I didn’t understand something about geography, when I had to know how to pronounce something, when I just didn’t know something that maybe I should’ve known but didn’t learn in school, I had to make sure to do my research, because when I got into that room, I could not afford to not know. Because there’s already so much bias about what a body like me can hold.”
When her professor assigned the class to write an ode to an animal, while others suggested blackbirds and sea anemones, Acevedo chose the animal she knew best.
“Coming from where I come from, there’s one creature I know really well. It haunts the streets of New York,” she said. “Like a lot of you, my professor laughed, but unlike you, he was laughing at me. In a space where I often felt alone, where I felt isolated, here’s this professor who tells me, ‘Rats are not noble enough creatures for a poem. Liz, you need more experiences.’”
The encounter inspired her to write an ode to rats that she read to the audience.
“We make assumptions about what lives people have lived, or who they are, without knowing them for more than two or three weeks,” she said, introducing the poem. “And even then, only knowing the pieces of themselves they show us. Yet we imagine we have a great sense of their ignorances and of their knowledge base.”
Pushing beyond assumptions and seeking understanding became threads weaving through a day filled with almost 40 sessions bookended around lunch. Students and faculty from nine other schools (Norfolk Collegiate, Virginia Beach Friends School, Collegiate, St. Christopher’s, St. Catherine’s, Georgetown Day School, Madeira, Highland School, and St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School) were invited and participated in the symposium as well.
The sessions included 18 led by guest speakers and EHS faculty members, three by Episcopal students who attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) last fall, and seven by SDLC cohorts from the four of the other participating schools.
“Our school’s program has become a model for other schools to follow,” said Joel Sohn, Director for Community and Equity. “Not only has Molly Pugh presented at the TABS Annual Conference about our program, other Virginia and D.C. schools look to Episcopal as the model for programming on this day. We have, essentially, become a center of courageous conversation on this day and exemplify the stated mission of the school.
“What I hope our students learn from this experience is that the messages they hear from diverse voices must be valued and validated, and not simply cast aside as liberal propaganda. I know that many students want to celebrate Dr. King as an individual, but our focus is on practicing the ideas Dr. King exemplified in his life. The civil rights movement was largely not about Dr. King, but about millions of people coming together for justice. I hope we don’t mythologize a single person into a superhero narrative, but rather see that we’re all supposed to do this hard work together.”
Sunny Miller, a junior from Richmond, noted how impressed she was with the poets who opened and closed the day’s events and appreciated the added power of including students and faculty from other schools in the experience.
She especially appreciated her morning session. “While we celebrated MLK Jr. in his beliefs, I personally learned about other vital leaders and ideas in the movement, especially women in Mr. Reynold's workshop, ‘Jim Crow and Women in the Civil Rights,’” she said. “Even in an extremely progressive movement, there remained a hierarchy of power. Even Martin Luther King Jr. possessed prejudices regarding women, which I found to be extremely intriguing, but also reflective of the time.”
Episcopal’s student chapter of TableTalk hosted a luncheon for visiting students and guests from the Virginia Diversity Network. A dozen of the group’s members joined nearly 100 students and faculty from the other visiting schools for an hour of communion and conversation, discussing the sessions they had attended in the morning, the complexities of Dr. King’s sometimes-whitewashed legacy, and the “real and imagined power students hold to create institutional change,” noted Olivia Tucker, a senior from San Francisco who founded the organization at EHS.
“As a facilitator, I experienced the lunch differently than previous ‘caTTered’ dinners because I had taken for granted the natural comfort of talking with EHS students, even if I didn’t have anything in common with them otherwise,” Olivia said. “Facilitating an event with students from all over the state forced me to truly lean into the TableTalk mission, and I think the EHS TT officers appreciated the experience for its discomfort. I hope the VDN participants got as much out of the lunch and the symposium at large as we did!”
Cuban immigrant and heralded poet Richard Blanco, best known for delivering the inaugural poem for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, closed the day by sharing his own experiences of growing up an immigrant in Miami, Fla., and reading a selection of his poems.
“Both of the guest poets also allowed me to see that all people possess certain kinds of prejudices that have shaped many communities and stereotypes across the country,” Sunny noted. “It is these prejudices which we must overcome as an EHS community, as the United States, and as the world.
“This is why I feel that we celebrate MLK day: to remember the strife of the past, as well as the strife of the present, in that we must continue to move forward.”
At the end of the opening session, the EHS orchestra and choir joined to perform a commissioned arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” and the new EHS Gospel Choir closed out the afternoon with its debut performance.