Almost 50 Years after Martin Luther King Jr. led the march from Selma to Montgomery, that resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the landscape of civil rights has changed. There are new faces tackling modern issues and in the city of Sitka, 30 of the youngest were honored this week at an awards ceremony at Blatchley Middle School.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Skylar Wright is a junior at Pacific High. And on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, standing in the middle of the Blatchley Middle School Library, she had a message for the man with a dream. “Martin Luther King,” she said. “We’re still going up that mountain, but your dream has changed and it’s become the dream of a lot more people than just yours.”
The many shapes and sizes of that dream were on display at the MLK Day ceremony at Blatchley Middle School. Teachers from each school in Sitka nominated students whose actions demonstrated a commitment to service.
They ranged from a pair of girl scouts, Allison Winger and Ari Strickland-Neal, who purchased shopping carts for special needs children for all three grocery stores in Sitka to kindergartner Lexie Kennedy. About Lexie, teacher Faith Lee said, “She helps any peer who is in need, whether it’s to tie a shoe, zip a coat, or to help remember the directions, or to solve a math problem.
Mikey Parsly is a 7th-grader at Blatchley who has begun a gay-straight alliance for students. Mikey wasn’t at the ceremony to accept his award, but Lee read this message in his stead: ‘I just want everyone to know that it’s okay to be LGBQT that it’s normal and not everyone will accept you, but there are people who do.’”
Taking a stance. A hard work ethic. Someone who comes early and stays late to help clean up. These were some of the traits the honorees shared in common – with each other and with Dr. King. And that’s no accident, according to the teacher who started MLK Day at Blatchley Middle School 15 years ago, Elvia Torres.
“The legacy is for the young to take over,” said Torres. “And what better way is by recognizing the role models in our community.”
Over the years, the day has evolved into a ceremony to recognize students for their community service work. This year, 30 were given certificates edged with gold.
“And not to say that that’s all the role models, because we have lots of students in all the schools that do great things,” said Torres, adding, “But it’s nice to take some time out of your day and say, ‘You’re doing a great job and keep up the good work.’”
For Skylar and her family, MLK Day is a time to reflect on the work of Civil Rights leaders. “My mother particularly likes Martin Luther King and my father particularly likes Malcolm X,” said Skylar. She takes both their legacies with a grain of salt and just wants her fellow students to know that black culture is not the same everywhere.
Skylar: Like a lot of people think I grew up in a rough city and it’s like, ‘No, I grew up in the country. I grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina.
KCAW: What kinds of things did you do growing up?
Skylar: Like we ran around gardening and mud bogging, like on four wheelers.
And she’s not a huge fan of rap music. Skylar is the only student who identifies as African American in her entire school and some of her new classmates couldn’t quite understand this.
“A lot of people were coming up to me thinking it was okay to say the “n-word” whenever you’re talking,” said Skylar.
“And so I’d get in trouble in class because I’m talking to someone about the situation and that, ‘You can’t say that to me and I’m not okay with that.’ And they’d be like, ‘Why aren’t you okay with that? Rappers say that. Why can’t I just say the “n-word” whenever I want?’ And it’s like, ‘You can’t because there is cultural context that you’re not aware of!’”
Skylar said those kinds of issues don’t happen as much anymore and as you can probably tell, she isn’t afraid to go there – to walk with others through thorny issues and to come out the other side with some kind of mutual understanding.
Part of the reason she earned this award was through her involvement in Youth Court, a justice system that allows kids to be tried by their peers. And when she first came to Sitka two years ago, she gave a Sitka Tedx Talk about making Internet culture less hostile.
“I know that I’m going to make the Internet a safe place for my younger sister to exposed to. We need to talk openly about online culture in a way our parents won’t understand because this is who we are now. My generation redefines entire cultures and belief systems faster than ever before because we literally have all of the minds of the modern world at the tips of our fingers. Thank you.” – Skylar in her Tedx Talk
Sarah Ferrency is the co-principal of Pacific High School and nominated Skylar for this award.
“I mean everything that she does is looking at those big ideas and I see that in her school work, in the topics that she chooses to write about,” said Ferrency. “Everything she does is really looking at making a difference, opening up all of the possibilities for people to live their dreams and really live in the spirit of what Martin Luther King stood for.”
In a more integrated, but still unequal world, Skylar thinking about taking what she’s learned in Youth Court and applying it. She wants to become a lawyer one day.
“I just…I want to see a change in the world that isn’t happening as fast as a lot of people thought it would have happened,” said Skyler. “There’s a lot of other factors in place.”
There’s a lot to be done, but that has not stopped Skyler and her fellow award winners from making ripples.