Last year, when I discovered that people wanted to skip MLK Day and use it as an excuse to leave for a weekend holiday, I was shocked. Some people complain about the lack of choice they have in workshops, while others make excuses about how race issues are no longer relevant today. Either way, it seems to me that MLK Day workshops have always been seen as an unnecessary burden. Although there are other logistical reasons that Deerfield celebrates the day on a Tuesday, as someone who strongly identifies with a Nigerian background and a Black American background, this holiday has never been optional for me.
Because of this often negative attitude towards MLK Day at Deerfield, when I hosted a workshop last year called Learning the Language of Social Justice with other students who had attended a diversity conference with me, I wasn’t quite sure how it would go. Prior to hosting the MLK Day workshop, I don’t know if I had expected it to be a life-changing, deep conversation, or if students would suddenly begin singing kumbaya around a circle, but I definitely did not anticipate the silence that would follow many of the questions we posed to the group. Although the subjects we discussed, such as racial discrimination and mental health, do take time to process and consider, it was evident that the lag in discussion stemmed from the fact that some students simply did not want to be there.
There is a problematic trend of people not “buying into” events here at Deerfield. Two years ago, when we hosted the Defining Deerfield Day, in light of the then increasing amount of Disciplinary actions, we used a piece of paper to reflect on improvements we could make to our Deerfield morale. Two years later, we are still talking about the same issues of inclusivity and positive change on campus. Yes, a whole school and its culture cannot change overnight. However, do we still want to be talking about these same issues in twenty years?
We often conform to the mindset that one student’s opinion will not matter or, key word, change any situation: the mindset of “Why should I care about what conservative students have to say?”, “Why should I care about Black Lives Matter?”, “Why should I care about terrorism in the Middle Eastern countries?” It’s a perpetual cycle of ignorance. While we don’t condone partisan bias, racial discrimination, or terrorism, we brush them aside with all the other issues of the world that are too distant for us to connect with. We say that we will deal with the issues later and that they are too complex to grapple with now. This cycle needs to end because when we don’t look at the world in a larger social context, we run the risk of reducing complex human beings and situations to a single narrative.
Deerfield’s mission statement states that the Academy prepares “students for leadership in a rapidly changing world.” However, will we be ready to take on jobs as the next doctors, the next lawyers, the next leaders of a new generation if we lack the empathy for one another? The empathy that would allow us to emotionally connect with one another in times of distress?
As Nia Goodridge ‘17 said in her recent announcement for the Student Action Team, “What we have in common is that we all chose Deerfield.” It’s our responsibility as a so-called family to care about the problems that affect even the smallest proportion of our community. We’re a special community precisely because we have people with different opinions. It is natural that our perspectives will be challenged by others through necessary, but difficult, conversations. However, these discussions will stretch and sustain the empathy we want to foster for current students and prospective students.
Of course, I don’t expect students to feel passionate and motivated to take radical action for each conflict that raises headlines in national and global media. However, as we mature in our years at Deerfield and encounter increasing adversity, we should learn to listen and listen to learn from one another.
There is also a misconception that listening to someone share their thoughts is the equivalent to agreeing with their thoughts. I believe that it is important to understand that not everyone’s interactions with the world outside of Deerfield are the same. In fact, they may not even be similar at all. No perspective is wrong or right; it’s not that simple. No one’s experience can be invalidated. Think about your favorite memory–would someone ask you for proof that it happened? Similarly, saying that issues such as sexism do not exist on campus because you have never experienced or witnessed it will always be an illogical argument. Moments of pain or happiness are relative.
So when we think about the theme of MLK Day this year, “Letting His Dream Shape Our Reality,” these lessons of empathy and care should not be lost on us. While we have made strides towards the elimination of racial discrimination in America, his dream extends to all ways people can be marginalized: gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and more. Whether students want to voice conservative, feminist, or religious opinions, there should be no stigma that follows their beliefs.
In the fast pace of life here at Deerfield, it is easy to get caught up in our academic, athletic, and social problems; this should not be anything to be ashamed of. We only have four years at Deerfield: a fleeting moment that should be regarded as one of the most influential times of our lives. To ensure that everyone has this experience, one in which they feel understood by a community, I encourage you all to think of yourselves as part of a collective unit rather than a single block. This means taking the time to listen to someone with whom you might have thought you’d never agree. You might be surprised to find that their experiences are just as valid as yours.