More than 250 middle school students from 29 different schools gathered together virtually on March 11 for The Haverford School’s 13th annual Middle School Diversity Conference. The event, which is the largest of its kind in the region, seeks to foster understanding and inclusion among middle school students. The featured speaker this year was Nyle Fort, a minister, activist, and scholar based in Newark, N.J.
In his keynote address, Fort discussed the importance of stories and broadening one’s understanding of social narratives in the ongoing pursuit of social justice and equality. As an example, he discussed the ‘mythical’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is taught about in schools, with the ‘historical’ man and what he believed in.
“America’s most famous preacher was much more than the four-word sentence that we’ve reduced him to – ‘I have a dream,’” Fort said. “Dr. King cared about more than racial justice. He was deeply concerned with what he called the triple evils of racism, militarism, and poverty. The FBI called him - our beloved Dr. King who we celebrate - the most dangerous man in America."
Fort asked participants to consider letting go of “certain comforting lies” and instead to face “certain terrifying facts” concerning racial inequality, socio-economic gaps, and mass incarceration. He challenged participants to live their lives in pursuit of dreams of a just and equitable world.
If we want to complete and carry on, not merely celebrate or commemorate Dr. King’s dream, we’ve got to break free of the same old story we’ve been telling ourselves. We have to tell a different story - not only of where we’ve been, but of where we are and where we can go - and we tell that story not merely with the words that we say, but with the lives that we lead.
“If we want to complete and carry on, not merely celebrate or commemorate Dr. King’s dream, we’ve got to break free of the same old story we’ve been telling ourselves,” he said. “We have to tell a different story - not only of where we’ve been, but of where we are and where we can go - and we tell that story not merely with the words that we say, but with the lives that we lead.”
Fort ended his presentation with questions to the students and educators on the call: “What story is your life telling, and what story do you want your life to tell? What will people say about you when it’s all said and done? Will they say you were silent on the most pressing moral issues of our time, or will they say you spoke truth to power, courageously, and stood in solidarity with the most vulnerable? Will they say that you and I lived our lives in the service of others, that we struggled to make the world just a little bit better than we found it?”
After the keynote presentation, Brendon Jobs, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Haverford, led a professional development session for around 50 educators while 40 high school facilitators led the middle school students in breakout groups. The students were asked to discuss Fort’s presentation and to create hashtags of the information to share with the larger conference group and with their school communities.
Once the groups met for about an hour, students and educators gathered together again for a conference wrap-up session. Many students shared with the larger group their ideas for hashtags, about using their voices, taking action against injustice, and understanding the larger narratives Fort spoke to. Examples included: #knowyourstory, #bethechangedon’tjustseeit, #ourvoicesmatter, and #wearehuman. Students also read aloud original poems they had written for the conference’s second annual poetry contest.