MLK Day assembly calls for equal education opportunities

This year’s Martin Luther King Day assembly, celebrating the lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, had an intense focus on creating educational and societal changes for people of color in the United States. Four panelist speakers shared their experiences with the students and faculty of St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

One panelist was John Hunter. Hunter is a direct descendant of the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska and the White Earth Nation. Hunter studied at Stanford University and used his skills in science to help clean toxic waste sites. He is currently running his own renewable energy lab in Minneapolis. Through his lab, Hunter helps educate Native American youth in Minnesota. As a student, Hunter often found himself as an outcast among his schools.

“It felt like I wasn’t acknowledged…I was unable to express myself and my culture,” Hunter said.

Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable; that’s where change happens.

— John Hunter

Hunter spoke about opportunities that often are given to the white population but not the Native American population in Minnesota. He also mentioned the pushback that Native American students go through while attending school. Hunter seeks to go to the Native American communities and give them new opportunities.

“[Native communities] are waiting. People view tribal areas as a dangerous place, but these people also want education,” Hunter said.

Finally, Hunter told students to seek out and embrace differences in conversations.

“Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable; that’s where change happens,” he said.

Another panelist was Bo-Thao Urabe. Urabe was a child refugee who immigrated to the United States after the Secret War in Laos. Urabe, like Hunter, faced many challenges going through the different steps of education growing up. Urabe served former President Barrack Obama as a Commissioner to the White House Commission for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and currently serves as the Network and Executive Director for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders. Urabe stressed the importance of working with the community.

“When the world doesn’t look like this room, you have a problem,” Urabe said.

Urabe connected to the feeling of having to put in more work and doing things differently.

“I was the first to do everything for my family…I had to do everything from my own experience,” Urabe said.

Educators of color are lacking.

— Duchesne Drew

Sandra Vargas was another panelist. Vargas, born in Minnesota, formerly served as the CEO and President of the Minneapolis Foundation and currently serves as the Senior Executive Leadership Fellow at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Vargas attended a Catholic school as a child, then went to St. Katherine University and Harvard University. Vargas considers herself to be a public servant.

“I promote changing education for the less fortunate,” Vargas said.

Vargas strongly advocates for giving people of color in low income areas the same chance for education as the rest of the population: “Students can’t be held back by stereotypes. Look at the stats, they’re not equal at all. [Minnesota] can’t lose out on good potential…White people on top need to make good decisions on poverty and low income,” she said.

The final panelist was Duchesne Drew. Drew formerly worked as an editor and reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Dallas Morning News. After this, Drew worked as the President of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. Drew currently serves as the Vice President for Community Network at the Bush Foundation. Drew went to a New York high school before attending Columbia University and Northwestern University for journalism. Drew put an emphasis on trying to change Minnesota so that more people of color decide to remain in the state.

“We’re trying to get people of color to stay. I hope kids move back to Minnesota,” Drew said.

Drew, like Urabe, spoke of the vast difference in the steps that people of color in the United States need to take.

“There are many hurdles. There aren’t great chances of making it [for people of color]. [People of color] succeed when whites are comfortable, so we often run into walls,” Drew said.

Cohesion is always important.

— Sandra Vargas

Drew also commented on the lack of people of color that are represented in education.

“Educators of color are lacking. Kids look up to them. There’s a lot of education that goes only to certain people, how does that affect everyone else? There needs to be re-imagination,” Drew said.

Both Vargas and Urabe spoke of bringing the community together.

“Cohesion is always important,” Vargas said.

Urabe echoed Vargas’ point: “Solidarity [between communities] needs to be built.”

The MLK Assembly was hosted by Intercultural Club. Moderators were seniors Ellie Findell and Olivia Williams Ridge, and junior Olivia McCauley.