2019 MLK Seminars

Blair annually hosts MLK Seminars, organized by faculty members Dr. Higgin and Mrs. Ryerson, around the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The seminars provide an annual opportunity for Blair students and faculty to take a break from their usual classes and studies and delve into conversations and debates in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. This three-day program allows students to pick two one-day seminars or one two-day seminar of their choice from a list of various options. The seminars focus on issues involving ethnicity, diversity, minority groups, racism against African Americans, and the history of racism in America.

The one-day seminars varied greatly, even including a guest appearance from the Slam Poetry speaker, S.C. Says. There were various discussion-based seminars, ranging in topic from conversations around the All-School Read novel, Homegoing, to those about the lives of black athletes from the past and present.

Elizabeth Negvesky ’20 attended the Slam Poetry seminar by S.C. Says and the Who Are You Really? seminar. Elizabeth noted that she was looking forward to the seminars since she attended the last two years and “there were lots of interesting conversations and different perspectives.” After attending both of her seminars, she shared that she definitely enjoyed the Slam Poetry one the most: “S.C. Says was really interesting and cool to listen to.” Elizabeth continued, “Each student was given a chance to write their own poetry using two prompts provided by S.C., and then everyone had an opportunity to share what they wrote. We also got to hear a preview of some of S.C.’s more popular poems that he later performed at Chapel.” She follows him on Instagram now.

Who Are You Really? “was really insightful as well.” Elizabeth added that she especially liked the discussion part of the second seminar she attended, which was run by Jalen Roberts ’20, Kathleen Devlin ’20, and Miki Wang ’21. “I thought we addressed a lot of issues and openly expressed our opinions.” Elizabeth explained, “We discussed different aspects of our own identities and how we are similar and different from each other and what makes us each unique.”

The seminars seem to have achieved the goals of the faculty organizers, which Dr. Higgin shared was “for people to really think about issues of inclusivity and diversity, particularly as related to black American experiences.” She also hopes that students gained more insight into history through these seminars. Mrs. Ryerson explained that the seminars are not about people coming out with a uniform way of thinking because no one is ever going to agree with everyone they encounter. “It’s important,” she expressed, “to know how to engage in those conversations thoughtfully and cordially.” Mrs. Ryerson added that “the only way to do this is with practice and exposure, and that’s a major goal of these seminars.” Furthermore, Dr. Higgin hopes that students will be able to “think more deeply and critically about the world.”

Elizabeth’s response paralleled what Dr. Higgin and Mrs. Ryerson hoped students would get out of the seminars. She learned to be “more self-aware especially from [Who Are You Really?].” She gained more insight “about people who aren’t necessarily like me or from the same background as me.” She noted that there was a divergence of opinions among students during the activities and discussion, but that each individual seemed to get something meaningful out of it without any confrontation. This was a change from last year when she was in a seminar in which she was surprised by some of her peers’ comments which seemed “ignorant and racist” and felt counterproductive. Elizabeth described both experiences as “eye-opening.” She felt like students were much more respectful in expressing their divergent viewpoints this year.

Most of the two-day seminars showed movies or documentaries, such as Get Out, Hidden Figures, Selma, and Central Park Five, with follow-up discussions on how they were relevant to topics of racial identity. Evelyn Sharma ’22 chose the two-day showing of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, RBG, because it appealed to her the most out of the seminars that were left for the freshmen to choose (upperclassmen get the first choice). Evelyn said, “It interested me that it was a story about a strong, independent woman who was a trailblazer and that inspired me.” Her pre-seminar expectations were high and she looked forward to attending the seminar. Evelyn says, “I haven’t heard about her before and I wanted to learn more about her story and how she impacted women’s rights.”

The various movie showings attracted a lot of students, including Ally Kim ’20. She attended the Central Park Five seminar because she thought the movie would be interesting and relevant to today’s issues. She really liked her seminar because the movie lived up to her expectations and was followed by “some good conversations with people in my group.” Ally learned more about the Central Park Five case, which happened in the late 80s and early 1990s, and made her think about racism “and how it is still pretty prominent today.”

Many students were involved in creating and organizing the seminars with the help and collaboration of faculty members. Madeleine McNamara ’20 led the seminar Life as a Slave: The 19th Century Through the Lens of Homegoing, which was one of the several seminars that revolved around this past summer’s All-School Read, with fellow students Cece Sturman ’21, Avery Lehman ’21, and Mr. Moore as their faculty advisor.

When asked how she came to lead a seminar, the new junior replied, “As a member of the All-School Read Community, Mr. Moore asked me to lead a seminar. I was excited about it because I thought it would be fun and I liked the people I was working with.” Madeleine and her peers aimed to lead a deep discussion on topics such as the justice system, adding, “We wanted to have respectful conversations about tough topics.” Madeleine revealed that their two-day seminar was successful, saying, “everyone was engaged in the conversation and was willing to share their opinions, which was great.”

MLK Seminars once again raised awareness, prompted community members to think more deeply about various issues related to race and inclusion, and provided space for students to practice discussing sometimes-uncomfortable issues. “Even when conversations aren’t free flowing or even completely comfortable, it’s really important to practice having them,” Dr. Higgin added. “If students want to understand the world around them better, it’s important for them to think about race and justice, and to get comfortable asking questions about things they may not know a lot about, and learn about experiences that may be different from theirs.” This year’s seminars were the most successful to date, with Mrs. Ryerson reporting that there were particularly good reviews and enthusiastic responses to the offerings. Some people even requested longer seminars—a first.

(Copyright 2019 Jenna Park)

Jenna Park