Campus assemblies honor MLK Jr. legacy by building skills in allyship

Campus assemblies honor MLK Jr. legacy by building skills in allyship

For many, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a time to call attention to the story of this history-maker and the wrongs he was trying to right. For Thayer, the celebration offered another opportunity for students to gather and build the skills that will help create the world that King dreamed of. 

A Boston improv team visited both divisions of the Academy ahead of the holiday for an interactive exploration of what microaggressions are before role-playing constructive ways to respond to them. The skill-building workshop equipped students with practical methods to address racial injustice in a nonviolent but courageous manner in keeping with the goals of the civil rights icon. 

According to its website, Rehearsal for Life uses the improvisational form of theater “to strengthen young people’s social and emotional skills for every stage in life through dialogue, creativity, and performance.”

At Thayer, the improv performers started simply with a “preferences” game, asking students to sit or stand based upon their preferences for apple juice or orange juice, Beyonce or Rihanna, Apple Music or Spotify, etc. After that warm-up, the questions got more serious; the actors polled audience members about their across-the-spectrum experiences with aspects of identity  (religion, gender, sexual orientation, and race) and microaggressions. 

The group then staged a few simple scenes — eager young actors auditioning for career-making roles; two people passing on the street; friends going to a movie; and a music teacher working with his students — to discuss stereotypes, power dynamics, and the role of advocacy. The performers emphasized two points in their post-scene discussions: one, that a microaggression is defined as a subtle, indirect, and unintentional form of racism; and two, that the best way to deal with microaggressions is to first understand the perspective and needs of the person who experienced them. 

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Rehearsal for Life kept things fun, fast-paced, and collaborative. One highlight occurred when the improv group asked Thayer students to join in a replay of the scenes but this time improvise their own responses to the situations. The students did not disappoint. In the friends-going-to-a-movie scene, where one person unknowingly insults another’s native language, one Thayer student stepped in to reassure the victim, stand up for that person, and broker an understanding to move things forward. In the music class scene, where the teacher incorrectly assumes a student’s music preferences because of her race, several Thayer students spoke first with the student before advocating on her behalf to the teacher. 

“We were thrilled to welcome Rehearsal for Life back to Thayer this year after a long hiatus,” said Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Director Matt Ghiden. “Their engaging presentation allowed members of our community to learn and actively practice skills aligned with Dr. King's message and the legacy he left of being an upstander rather than a bystander.”

The federal holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first celebrated in 1986. Observed annually on the third Monday in January, it celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was born Jan. 15, 1929, and would have turned 95 this year. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the civil rights leader was assassinated April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee; King was in the city to support striking sanitation workers. 

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