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Leading Voice on Racial Justice Anchors 4th Annual MLK Symposium at EHS


Historian and National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi headlined a daylong exploration of justice at EHS yesterday, calling for Americans to reject complacency and actively battle racial injustice as “antiracists.”
“No one is ever an outsider when it comes to the idea of justice and injustice,” Dr. Kendi said during his keynote address at Episcopal’s fourth annual MLK Symposium. “King was absolutely clear. He consistently throughout his career made the case that there is no such thing as a sideline to this struggle.”

More than 100 students and faculty from Washington-area schools joined Episcopal’s faculty, students, and staff for the symposium, which featured dozens of workshops and talks focused on the theme that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” — a famous part of King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” EHS faculty and justice experts from around the region led the sessions, with topics including protest art, diversity in sports, the influence of 1960s black culture on dance today, and the history of the LGBT+ rights movement.

Dr. Kendi — whose latest book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” is a New York Times best seller — led off the day and challenged the community to see even well-intentioned people and policies as effectively racist if they do not mitigate injustice and racism. “The consciousness of the policy maker doesn’t matter,” he said. “The intent of the policy maker does not matter. All that matters is the outcome. If a policy leads to injustice and inequity, then it is racist.”

Dr. Kendi said it’s unacceptable to do nothing more than declare “I am not a racist” and point to white supremacists and other extremists as the problem. “When we do nothing in a nation where inequity and injustice is the norm and is pervasive, that norm persists,” he said.

Other activists and experts shared with students a diverse range of perspectives on timely topics.

  • Shannon Foley Martinez, a reformed neo-Nazi, white-power skinhead, used research and her own experience to break down the stereotype of white extremists as poor and uneducated. She said she grew up in a comfortably middle-class family and excelled as an athlete. “It wasn’t like I grew up in a hate group,” she said. But the family’s move from New Jersey to Michigan, estrangement from her parents, and a sexual assault at 15 left her searching for her identity — a search that led her first to embrace counter culture and later white supremacy.

  • Azza Altiraifi of the Disability Justice Workshop discussed the history of the disability rights movement but also explored ways that blacks, gays, and women have been depicted as “disabled” to justify limiting their rights. “There was a lot of language about disability that was used to explain why women couldn’t vote, should not vote, should not be part of the system,” she said. “People said, ‘They’re too feeble. They’re too weak. They certainly could not handle the huge burden of participating in our political process.’”

  • Leaders of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, which organizes faith leaders to fight discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States, discussed misperceptions of Islam and gave students ideas about how to counter myths and stereotypes. “We don’t want to focus just on changing people’s minds,” said Catherine Orsborn, the organization’s executive director. “Sometimes it’s easier to shift someone’s heart than their mind.”

  • Ray Brown, who taught at Episcopal in the mid-1980s and was the School’s first black faculty member, returned to campus to discuss the impact of diversity in athletics. Though an All-American in track at the University of Virginia, Brown said he grew up looking at a track and sports world dominated by white men and didn’t see a place for himself. In recent years, he said, the hypercompetitiveness of sports has led executives and coaches to embrace diversity and inclusion faster than their counterparts in other industries. “There’s a resolve to bring about diversity in the sports world that doesn’t exist in many other professions,” he said. One example: Players from abroad now make up nearly a quarter of NBA rosters, a sign that teams will ignore even national boundaries in their pursuit of talent.
At the end of the day, the community gathered for a chapel service. Students read justice-related scripture passages and sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” King’s favorite hymn.
Dozens of students also reflected on the day, talking about painful or encouraging moments and lessons the discussions held for the EHS campus and society as a whole. Several students challenged viewpoints they had heard or asked for a deeper exploration of ideas presented. Others expressed hope that the day would inspire a new focus on justice on campus and an awakening to the fact that people of color daily face many of the issues discussed.

“It’s really hard for me to process all this, but ultimately, it’s good that we’re having all these conversations and working toward solving all this and becoming a more inclusive community,” said Natasha Wanjiru ’20.

The symposium has become a labor of love for Episcopal’s Office of Community and Equity, which brings together many people on campus to bring in speakers and create workshops that will appropriately challenge members of the EHS community to consider their positions and beliefs.

“When a student says that a workshop or presenter made them feel challenged and uncomfortable, I think we've hit the sweet spot," says Joel Sohn, director of the office. “That's where real growth and progress occurs, and that's what our Portrait of a Graduate calls on us to provide for students. If we don't give them these types of moments to practice intellectual and moral courage, then we're not doing the good work we're supposed to do as educators.”

See photos from the day’s panels and discussions at our Maroon and Black Flickr page.
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