A longstanding tradition at St. Stephen’s is to celebrate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday by providing special programming about racial inequities in our country and the ongoing fight for civil rights. Rather than take the holiday off, we gather in community to share lessons and learnings about King’s endearing work toward racial equity and social justice.
“Leading up to MLK Day, the Chapel leadership team and student affinity group leaders planned activities to prepare our minds and hearts for discussions surrounding racial justice and building community,” explained Yvonne Adams, director of equity and inclusion. “Topics included how fear inhibits inter-racial connections, dialogue as the pathway to MLK’s beloved community and examples of courageous racial leadership.”
Then, on the Jan. 18 holiday, students and employees participated in a range of remote programs and Chapel services. The capstone events of the day were talks with Howard Stevenson, Ph.D., who teaches in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. A national expert on racial stress and trauma, his work focuses on resolving encounters that reflect racial profiling in public spaces, fuel social conflicts in neighborhoods, and undermine student emotional well-being and academic achievement in the classroom.
Stevenson spoke with our community about how we can all speak out against racism, manage in-the-moment racial stress and reduce the racial trauma that undermines the well-being of students.
“We are living in a very difficult time, reminiscent of our history in this country, navigating around race and violence,” he said during his morning Chapel talk with Upper School students. “We often think of racism as embedded in structural policies and systems. My work focuses on proximal racism — face-to-face and in-the-moment racism.”
Stevenson started his presentation by sharing an old African proverb: “The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.” He then noted, “We have to know and share our own stories. We need to know how to use our voice to speak to injustice.
“Racial moments are extremely stressful and overwhelming,” he added. “We need to develop racial literacy — the skills and tools needed to help us negotiate these moments. Doing so will give us the chance to read, recast and resolve racially stressful encounters.”
Stevenson explained that practice is the only way to get better at finding the power of our voices and being racially courageous. “A good way to practice finding your voice is to be an ally and speak up for others,” he said. “You also have to learn to be OK with a lack of resolution or rejection. Don’t carry hate and stress with you. The goal is not to lose sight of the other person’s humanity.”
A highlight of the day for Middle School students was participating in “At The Table with Dr. King,” a musical, visual and spoken-word performance that teaches students about King, the American Civil Rights Movement, and valuable life lessons on equality and respect for others.
Following the day’s events, the school community focused on applying the day’s teachings to life on The Hill and beyond.