Melody Howe ’22 NEWS Reporter
On Martin Luther King Day, Mercersburg Academy created a virtual forum in which to discuss racial issues, featuring a webinar presentation and Google meet open to student-initiated opinions and ideas. Importantly, the celebration of MLK day continued whether students are on or off campus, regardless of COVID-19. Such events serve Mercersburg’s mission to foster inclusivity and pass the torch from one generation to another.
Mercersburg Academy dedicated the January 18 school meeting to consideration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, in particular as related to the Black student experience at Mercersburg. Front and center was a documentary, created by the Black Student Union, featuring Black Mercersburg students and alumni speaking of their lives on campus. Many of the comments included in the video originating from posts to the @blackatmercersburg Instagram account which emerged last summer in the context of the nation’s racial reckoning.
Members of the BSU collaborated on a piece that sought to “give Black students a safe space to be themselves and celebrate Black culture,” said Folake Okunsanya ’21, the vice president of the group. Not only did the documentary present perspectives from the current members and numerous alumni who have contributed to the BSU through its history, but it pushed for positive change and a unified community.
Head of School Katie Titus, in her introductory words, emphasized her belief in Mercersburg’s ability to construct this community together, while wrestling with tough racial issues. The goal of having the BSU and allies speak about harsh experiences was to begin to build awareness and sensitivity that will enhance confidence and connections within the school community and also around it.
Most students met for discussion in fall Rotation 2 class groupings so as to build on comfortable dynamics previously established. Additionally, planners offered extended training for students wishing to help facilitate conversation. In these groups, one or more students led a conversation about the ideas and circumstances expressed in the documentary. Students spoke about their perspectives and how they and others can work to support their peers. Dami Akingbade ’22, a member of BSU, said, “It is hard to understand people and their differences, but grasping it all together creates comfort.”
The history of MLK day is significant and poignant, but being online has altered the comfort with this experience for some students. Maddy Gillner ’22, a student facilitator, perceived the situation as difficult. “I think my group did care about what we were talking about, but [they] just did not know how to voice their thoughts.” Likewise, Ekow Daniels ’22 noted that the organization was efficient, but those without first-hand experience of racial discrimination oftentimes cannot sympathize. “I would not expect others to have much to say, because they do not understand how it feels to be a Black person on MLK Day.” Mercersburg wants to reinforce community and reassure acceptance for everyone. Consequently, students and faculty can not afford to be hesitant to discuss racial issues.
The Mercersburg community will continue the conversations begun on MLK Day in February, Black History Month. It is crucial to celebrate Black culture and recognize that there are more changes and progress that need to be made. Black students need to feel represented as valued members of the Mercersburg community. Titus emphasized the idea that Mercersburg condemns all forms of racism.
The BSU is coordinating a “Black Excellence Talks” series, including Black parents and alumni who are encouraged to speak virtually about any subject, including contemporary issues of race and racism. Addressing racism and confronting hurtful societal norms is the best way to contribute to a better and safer environment for all Mercersburg students.