Groton School remembered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, January 21 with a provocative talk by activist Rosa Clemente, student music and dance performances, and afternoon workshops that encouraged deep discussion on difficult topics.
Clemente prodded students to take action to repair a broken political and economic system, sending the message “to speak truth to power” in both her speech in the Campbell Performing Arts Center and in a smaller question-and-answer session afterward.
Part history lesson, part plea for justice and equity, the talk covered topics ranging from slavery and the Jim Crow era to white supremacy and fascism. Clemente, who was the vice-presidential candidate for the Green Party in 2008, seeks dramatic change. The "revolution" she described would include, among many goals, student debt forgiveness. “Everybody has a right to a good job," she said. "Everybody has a right to affordable housing—college being free, health care being free as a human right. We have to demand that.”
Some of her comments generated controversy, which students unpacked in workshops and meetings with advisors later in the day. In the well-attended Q-and-A in the black box theater, students more than once pressed Clemente on how to effect change without reaching out to the other side. In her speech, she had said: “In this moment of history, we’ve got to make a choice. There’s no middle line. There are not two sides to every story. We’ve got to reject a narrative that says we can work with our enemies.”
Student pushback was not surprising given Groton’s frequent discussion of inclusion and understanding. “It’s a reflection of how salient inclusion is as a core value in our community,” said Assistant Director of Admission and Director of Inclusion Outreach Carolyn Chica. “This was meant to be thought-provoking and spark conversation, and it’s doing that. We're now having interesting conversations about free speech and who speaks at Groton.”
In fact, some afternoon workshops focused on gaining understanding by listening to other people’s stories. Upper Schoolers attended two of the thirty workshops offered, while Lower School students participated in one workshop and one group discussion for their age group. The workshops covered everything from law to language, from housing to Hollywood. A few examples: In the “Living in the Hyphen” workshop, students focused on immigrant stories and how national and racial identity can conflict. In “But That Doesn’t Affect Me!” attendees explored how to approach issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism as allies, when they’ve never experienced the “isms” firsthand. “Appropriation versus Appreciation of Asian Culture” looked at popular culture, discussing whether a non-Chinese girl who wore a traditional Chinese dress to her prom was appreciating or appropriating; they also discussed Indian clothing that Beyonce wore during a performance at a wedding in India and Coldplay’s culturally confused “Princess of China” music video.
Another workshop, “Of Pigs and Pollution: Environmental Justice Through Case Studies,” demonstrated the inequitable impact of environmental problems, while “Mass Incarceration and Family Structure” addressed the history of mass incarceration, what some call “the New Jim Crow,” and its connection to disenfranchisement.
Other topics in the student-led workshops included minority representation in movies, the stories told through weaving, gender identity and gender expression in media, reproductive justice, colorism, political activism in sports, “redlining” (discriminatory economic policy that stymies inner-city neighborhoods), masculinity, affirmative action in the college process, the complexities of being Latino/Latina/Latinx, and more. Workshop options included several movies as well: I, Tonya; White Like Me;
and King: Legacy of a Dream
Earlier in the day, student performances introduced the speaker: a dance by a Groton step group known as Essence, revived from the 1990s; a rendition of “Man in the Mirror” by Groton’s jazz ensemble; and a student-choreographed dance to a soundtrack composed of student comments about diversity and inclusion.