Becraft Scholars Director Alana Bell spoke at the Eastside Catholic School Martin Luther King Jr. Assembly on Wednesday, January 11. The following is a transcript of the inspiring speech Alana gave to the students, faculty, and staff.
When I was the director of equity and inclusion at a high school, a large component of my job was to plan the annual MLK assembly. To date, I have planned a total of eight MLK assemblies and each year, I wanted to do something different and more inspiring than the last.
It’s a tall order to engage communities with information they’ve heard over and over. How do we inspire students, teachers, and staff to see themselves in the words and work of Dr. King, while illuminating new elements of the same story?
It’s not easy, but I have found (and science backs this up) that our personal stories are the connective tissue we need to feel a deep sense of empathy and understanding for others, while providing validation for our own experience.
So in that spirit, I would like to begin with a story.
Rewind to 1997. In 1997, I was a 7th grader and preparing to go to a new school. I cannot express how I loved and still love this school. I remember it being the perfect fit, and I was super excited and a little anxious to attend our overnight back-to-school retreat. I was grateful to have met a few kids prior to this trip and had already made a few friends.
Somehow, over the course of our retreat, I found myself in a conversation with my peers about skin color. One student, whom I had become close with, asked me, “When you get a cut, what color is the skin underneath?”
I thought to myself, “Interesting question, but not a bad question. We don’t have the same skin color, so it kinda makes sense.”
But before I could answer, another kid jumped into the conversation and said, “Yeah, so, like, what color is your blood?”
What color is your blood?
And here’s an important detail for me to share: I was the only Black student in my class and the only Black student in the entire middle school at that time.
I can’t remember what I said, but I certainly remember how I felt. Alone, devalued, and dehumanized.
At the time, there were no teachers that looked like me. So I told no one. And to this day, 26 years later, my body has kept the score. My brain, my heart, and my spirit remember the wound inflicted. Perfectly.
I share this story to illuminate why Dr. King’s legacy is important for us to uphold and live out. We are celebrating 40 years of this day becoming a national holiday and Dr. King’s values will always be the guiding light for our communities to feel a true sense of belonging.
When I decided to work at the same school I attended, my personal mission was to ensure that no student experienced what I felt on that late summer day back in 1997. I wanted everyone to know their inherent value. Even when they’re different. Even when they’re not perfect.
I am reminded of how Dr. King’s message of love and equality still reverberates all these years later. Take a look around. Do you think your school would be this beautiful and vibrant had it not been for Dr. King’s legacy of love and humanity? Probably not.
Would I be who I am without the ultimate sacrifice of Dr. King? Absolutely not.
I often find that as we lift up Dr. King as one of the most important figures in our global history, we often forget that he was a human being. Just like me. Just like you. And just like us, Dr. King was filled with unique gifts, talents, and challenges.
In order for us to live the work of Dr. King, we must humanize the man that made extraordinary choices to change our world. According to MLK’s closest folks, as a kid, Martin hated doing the dishes (I imagine many of us agree), but loved ice cream, playing Monopoly, and occasionally popping off the heads of his sisters’ dolls and using them as baseballs.
Yes, you heard that right. Word on the street was that a young MLK was quite the prankster. But all and all, Martin, the child, was an ordinary kid. But what makes Martin, an ordinary kid, an extraordinary human is that he answered the call of his spirit.
You may not hear a call now, and that is ok and totally normal. But you may know what lights you up from the inside out or what you are just naturally good at. Pay close attention to those things, as they often lead to your purpose. For instance, Martin Luther King competed in his first speech competition at 15. Of course, he won, and it seems that he never looked back.
But answering the call of your spirit is not a linear or easy road.
Yes, there were times when it must have been exciting and exhilarating for Dr. King. But I bet there were more times that felt scary and lonely, especially when the path ahead was unknown. To say yes to your purpose isn’t always an easy choice, but it’s the right choice. We are blessed to be the beneficiaries of the choices Martin, the student, and MLK, the man, made every single day.
We are living in a world with so much noise. Everyone is clamoring for our attention—in particular, the attention of our most precious, our most valuable. And that is you, our youth. From TikTok to Snap, you are constantly inundated with ideas of what you should do, look like, or feel. And that is hard.
Most times, we never feel like enough in comparison to what we see online. And that’s the same for us adults. Scrolling through fancy vacations and “perfect” relationships. It doesn’t get easier as you get older. But, Eastside Catholic community, your job is to answer the call of your spirit, despite the noise. Your job is to trust that you have unique gifts and talents that our world needs if we are going to shift from surviving to thriving.
Your generation will solve the complex problems of the world. The problems you inherited, but did not create. We need you to tap into your gifts, accept your assignment, and to share those gifts with the world.
We are all part of the social justice ecosystem and we each have a distinct role to play. Some of you will bring people together through art. Some of you will develop life-saving technology. And some of you will bring remarkable social innovations to life. But there is one universal thing that we all can and must do. It’s not fancy and it don’t cost a thing.
We can all choose to be deeply kind to ourselves and to one another, even when it’s hard. We can be respectfully curious about the experiences of our community members, with the intention of deepening connection, empathy, and understanding.
When we seek to get proximate to one another, especially to those with a different lived experience, we are invited into a sacred space in which loving and authentic relationships can bloom. We don’t always have to agree, and we shouldn’t, but we should always seek to learn first, move beyond shallow stereotypes, and move toward radical compassion.
Today, I challenge us all to move beyond the words we hear each year and begin the process of allowing our lives to be a living prayer for Dr. King. Many years ago, an elder in my life shared a simple equation with me: knowledge + application = wisdom.
We have the knowledge of who Dr. King was, what his values were and what he fought for. And, if you ask me, 2023 feels like the time to apply some pressure, actively using that knowledge in our daily interactions with our peers, students, and teachers.
Every day we consciously choose to follow that equation (knowledge + application = wisdom), we are one step closer to living embodied, purpose-filled lives that honor the unique beauty and innate goodness that lives inside all of us.
I can only imagine that type of world is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wildest dream.
Thank you for your time today. I am deeply honored to be in community with you, Eastside Catholic. And, if you will have me, I promise I will be back to visit.
The Fulcrum Becraft Scholars Program is a relationship-centered, equity-focused scholarship program. Becraft Scholars provides a pathway of access to Catholic education while partnering with archdiocesan schools to foster a culture of belonging with a focus on Black American students and families.
To learn more about Becraft Scholars, click the links below: