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Lawrentians Study the Legacy of MLK

Beginning Sunday, January 16, Lawrentians will celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a new focus on his philosophy and teachings. Programming by the Community Service Office, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Artist-in-Residence, Religious Life leaders, and Hutchins Institute for Social Justice will include a religious service, keynote address, panel discussion, Big Red Conversations, and campus-wide art project. Students will examine King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as they study the civil rights pioneer through art, history, religion, and testimony from local leaders who continue his work more than five decades after his assassination.

Two years ago, Lawrentians approached the Director (Rachel Cantlay) and Associate Director (Elizabeth Ferguson) of Community Service with an interest in expanding the Day of Service. They wanted to know more about how systematic issues of social injustice were affecting those served by the nonprofits where they were volunteering. The disruption to in-person service activities due to the COVID pandemic presented an opportunity for Cantlay and Ferguson to “really look again at how we enter those spaces. What is our role and how can we help?,” said Ferguson. “This year, we’re excited to focus not only on the Day of Service but why we have this day to begin with.”

Celebrations will begin with a Service of Recommitment on Sunday in the Edith Memorial Chapel, led by the Rev. Dr. Greg B. Jones, Lawrenceville’s Hallelujah! Chaplain. The Service, which begins at 5 p.m., is open to current members of the School community.

On Tuesday evening, Executive Director of the Hutchins Institute for Social Justice Zaheer Ali will discuss King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which Ali calls “a significant piece of American history [which makes] powerful, prophetic statements about bringing transformative change in American society.” Following Ali’s talk, students will read excerpts from the “Letter,” formulating their thoughts and questions for later discussion.

“One of the reasons we chose ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is because it offers, in a really comprehensive and profound way, King’s philosophical approach to justice, his scale of analysis, his definition of justice, his defense of the tactics that he and activists utilize, and the sense of urgency of now,” explained Ali. “These are all things that we can inherit if we accept the challenge that he poses in this letter – a challenge that is timeless.”

On Wednesday, Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement Cameron Brickhouse will facilitate a conversation between Calvin King (Director of Residential and Student Life, Christina Seix Academy), Robt Seda-Schreiber (Chief Activist, Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice), and Natalie Tung ’14 (Co-Founder and Executive Director, HomeWorks Trenton). They will discuss how the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” influences the work that they do in building community.

“I’m very much looking forward to parsing out definitions of justice and what it really looks like to the folks doing that good work in our surrounding neighborhoods,” said Brickhouse. “This will be a wonderful opportunity for our students to learn more about activism, both current and historic, as well as the trends that have extended through the 20th century – trends that have created change and affirmed the personhood of folks in the United States.”

Lawrentians will move into Big Red Discussion Groups after the panel to discuss what they have learned and express themselves through a campus-wide art project, which will be displayed throughout campus. “Art is one of many different languages that we use to express the things we need to say,” explained Artist-in-Residence Stuart Robertson ’11. “You’ve learned to sing, you've learned to speak, you've learned body language, and this visual language is another tool for communicating how you're experiencing the world.”

Lawrentians will help to create a set of images that are relevant to King’s work, serving as a metaphor for the major role a single individual can play in a group effort, whether that project is an art installation or civil rights activism. “We're going to have students take part by providing them with the opportunity to build those images in small components. Those smaller components are distributed to the groups and they will be collected and reassembled into larger pictures. That large set of images will be a reveal that we want to have students come and discover.”

At Lawrenceville, Brickhouse noted, “Head of School Steve Murray has said, ‘We don't teach kids what to think. We teach them how to think.’ I haven't done my job as an educator if they don't know to ask incisive questions that get to the heart or the truth of something. That's what we want to do when we're talking about activism, community work, and community building. We want students to ask the right questions about how to create change that honors the full humanity of folks. How do you get to the best for all and what are you willing to sacrifice to build and improve a wholesome, life enhancing community?”

The time spent together will not only allow Lawrentians to explore King as a scholar and philosopher, but also really ground themselves experientially though Big Red Conversation Groups and the art production. “The visual and cultural landscape that comes out of this work will hopefully change the landscape of the School and remind us of the importance of doing this community work,” said Brickhouse.

For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.