In Review: Speaker Day 2015 stays true to theme

March 11, 2015

On Friday, March 6, there were no classes in lieu of the biannual Speaker Day. This year’s theme was Immigration and Diversity. The day started with CAIR-MN director Jaylani Hussein and University of Minnesota Professor Ryan Allen who spoke about Somali immigration and immigration statistics, respectively. The day ended with John and Lonna Hunter, who spoke about Native American perspective on immigration, followed by a Native dance performed by Larry Yazzie. Sandwiched between the morning and afternoon keynote speakers were many breakout sessions from a wide variety of speakers, ranging from teachers to Holocaust survivors.

Tony Sanneh

Emily Thissen

Tony Sanneh

A man of many talents, retired pro soccer player and St. Paul Academy and Summit School alum Toney Sanneh talked to students about leadership in the community and his foundation, the Sanneh Foundation.

His presentation included videos of of his soccer career and engaging go-arounds where student athletes had the chance to share their perspective on racial an gender issues within high school sports. “Sports and education are a way to culturally and socially include people and combat inequality and violence,” Sanneh said.

Wilhelmina Wright

Amodhya Samarakoon

Wilhelmina Wright

Justice Wilhelmina Wright serves on the Minnesota Supreme court and is the mother of sophomore Kathryn Schmechel. Justice Wright has served on the Minnesota Supreme court for four year, previously she was a prosecutor and served as a trial judge, and on the Court of Appeals. Wright is the first African American woman to serve on the Supreme Court but stated “I am too young to be the first anything.” During her session, Wright talked about how her identity and experiences growing up in Norfolk Virginia in the shadow of segregation influences her role as a judge. Wright attended school in Norfolk and spoke about her experience commuting across town to get to the primarily white school that she attended commenting that though it was not a traditional immigration experience, she felt that commuting to school in a drastically different neighborhood than her own was a type of immigration. Wright spend a year living in Switzerland with her family, an experience that has greatly affected her role in practicing law. Wright and her family did not speak German or French making communication complicated in Switzerland. It was this obstacle that influenced Wrights theory that the law should be accessible and easily understandable for everyone. “Every person with a basic education should be able to read a supreme court opinion and understand what it is saying,” she said.

Sasha Aslanian

Noor Qureishy

Sasha Aslanian

An MPR award-winning journalist and correspondent, Sasha Aslanian has reported on issues relating to immigration, same-sex marriage, and child welfare alike. She loves the insight radio journalism offers: “radio has the power of the human voice, which is an incredible asset,” she said. During her session on Speaker day, Aslanian played a few clips of video stories she’s created about teenagers who are immigrants, and living in the US. Recently, Aslanian worked on stories relating to the Hmong population in Minnesota. “I loved being able to hand a microphone to someone who was living a story,” Aslanian said, referring to her love of learning about the intricate, diverse perspectives of the MN population.

Sushmita Hodges and Poonam Arora

Diane Huang

Sushmita Hodges and Poonam Arora

Sushmita Hodges, a St. Paul Academy and Summit School teacher, and Poonam Arora, the Dean of Diversity at Grinnell College, shared their experiences as South Asian women that have immigrated to the United States. Arora and Hodges diverged from the stereotypical South Asian immigrant story in that they both pursued the humanities in higher education, rather than math or science degrees.

For Arora, in addition to her uncommon choice to learn film studies, her relationship with a woman estranged her from the South Asian community: “They don’t accept me — I don’t care,” she said.

Hodges also noted biases against immigrants, “I to prove myself over and above what a normal American has to do,” she said.
Both women were initially denied to begin studying for a Ph. D in the United States despite already having Master’s degrees from Delhi University. Arora fought for her eligibility and was able to start her first year as a Ph. D. student, but Hodges was delayed by one year.

Both women also contrasted being a professional in the U.S. and being a professional in India. “[In India,] you’re a professional first, and then a woman. Here, you’re a woman first and then a professional,” Hodges said.

Arora attributed this cultural difference to the history of integration in India versus the one in the United States.

At the end of their session, Hodges and Arora addressed the ways in which they retain their cultural identity through their dress despite the cold.

Eva Gross

Meghan Joyce

Eva Gross

Eva Gross, a holocaust survivor, came to speak to a group of 20 students during Speaker Day. Gross spoke to students about her journey during the Holocaust. She had experienced numerous crimes against her and her family. Despite this, Gross emphasized a deeper message. “I want you to be aware of what hate can do. If we could eliminate hate imagine how much better the world would be,” Gross said.

Lucy Polk

Javier Whitaker-Castañeda

Lucy Polk

In her speaker day presentation, Upper School English teacher Lucy Polk talked about her immigration from the Netherlands and the culture differences she experienced between the United States and the Netherlands.

Her family of five at the time planned to move to South Africa but was redirected to the United States by the South African Apartheid. Polk has returned to the Netherlands many times since her immigration and speaks Dutch to her grandson.

Ronaldo Castellanos

Javier Whitaker-Castañeda

Ronaldo Castellanos

Many students know Señor Rolando Castellanos as an Upper School Spanish teacher but on Speaker Day he shared the story of how he got there. Castellanos was born in Cuba right only a few years before Fidel Castro’s communist regime took control of the country and it impacted his life dramatically. His family first moved to the United States without him and after ten years of separation he rejoined them on the first immigration visa to the U.S. from Cuba since the Cuban Embargo. After being part of it’s history, Castellanos welcomes a new chapter of Cuban-American relations with reform policies that have come in 2015.

Many students know Señor Rolando Castellanos as an Upper School Spanish teacher, but on Speaker Day, he shared the story of how he got here, alone, from Cuba.

 

Wilhelmina Wright

Justice Wilhelmina Wright serves on the Minnesota Supreme court and is the mother of sophomore Kathryn Schmechel. Justice Wright has served on the Minnesota Supreme court for four year, previously she was a prosecutor and served as a trial judge, and on the Court of Appeals. Wright is the first African American woman to serve on the Supreme Court but stated “I am too young to be the first anything.” During her session, Wright talked about how her identity and experiences growing up in Norfolk Virginia in the shadow of segregation influences her role as a judge. Wright attended school in Norfolk and spoke about her experience commuting across town to get to the primarily white school that she attended commenting that though it was not a traditional immigration experience, she felt that commuting to school in a drastically different neighborhood than her own was a type of immigration. Wright spend a year living in Switzerland with her family, an experience that has greatly affected her role in practicing law. Wright and her family did not speak German or French making communication complicated in Switzerland. It was this obstacle that influenced Wrights theory that the law should be accessible and easily understandable for everyone. “Every person with a basic education should be able to read a supreme court opinion and understand what it is saying,” she said.

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