Persevere, Ivan Martin’s mother told him continually, when the Scottsdale student would beg to switch schools because of the discrimination he faced on campus.
Martin, a Scottsdale Unified School District senior, spoke of his experiences during the district’s MLK Youth Voices Living the Dream program on Jan. 13, at Saguaro High School. He was followed by Baraa Abdelghne, 11th grader, and Amutha Rajasundaram, 10th grader, who also gave speeches at the program that included dance and musical performances.
“Our students are truly impressive and I am grateful to be a part of this school district,” said Superintendent Dr. Scott A. Menzel.
The keynote speaker, Patricia Russell-McCloud addressed students from the area schools as they convened to recognize diversity and honor the man whose legacy had a global impact.
Counting down backwards and simulating the sound of an alarm clock, Russell-McCloud told the students about how they were receiving a “Wake Up Call.”
Detailing King’s contributions, she described how students can also make an impact while furthering efforts of diversity and acceptance. Noting King “proposed that race would be irrelevant to your progress,” she encouraged them to be the change and catalyst to make a difference.
“As students here in Scottsdale, you can make the dream come alive,” Russell-McCloud said. “This is your wake-up call and it’s later than it’s ever been.”
She reminded students to be civil, remember manners like saying, “please,” “I am sorry,” “Excuse me,” and “I didn’t mean it.” She advised them to get their education, be their authentic selves and accept others for their differences.
“Celebrate the differences. All of us, each of us, have talents, skills and expertise. See color. See the value that each color brings with their cultures,” she said.
Russell-McCloud added people are better together and to be intentional to get to know former new students like Martin, a Saguaro High School 12th grader.
He shared his experience about being a Black student in a school where he was the minority. He told his story of perseverance that started when he moved to Scottsdale from south Florida at 9 years old.
“In south Florida, I was surrounded by people that looked just like me. So coming to Arizona, it was a culture shock. My first day of middle school in north Scottsdale, I remember the stares I would get as I would walk from class to class. Talking to fellow classmates was hard as they would try to be funny about making some remarks about my skin color or have a physical advantage of being Black. And don’t even start on how much they would want to comment on my hair and try to touch,” said Martin, taking a sigh and deep breath.
“I was the only Black kid over the age of 10 and being a Black kid at the school made me feel like an animal at the zoo. Any racial questions was asked to me. I was expected to be the best at sports. And if they beat me at some sports event, they would look at me disappointed; and, be surprised if I knew a topic in school more than they did — acting like as if I was less than them. Every day I felt less of a person as if I wasn’t capable of doing the things like my white peers. I would cry to my mom and try to convince her to let me transfer, but she would tell me every time to persevere.”
His mother told him that he is strong and not to let people have power of him. She reminded him about great Black leaders who faced adversity throughout history and how he could decide his own history, Martin said.
“Black history is American history. I am proud that I am Black but being Black is not all that I am,” said Martin, who read a poem, “I, Too,” by Langston Hughes, to the audience before detailing his encounters with fellow students.
“It is no secret that in the United States today, being Black is a social struggle. Despite her short history, our country has not made it easy for Black people, forcing my ancestors to endure countless hardships, forcing blood, sweat, and tears from my people and those like them to help build this country,” Martin said.
He added how Hughes’ poem published in 1925, nearly 100 years ago, captures the plight of continued hardships in pursuit of equality through perseverance as it “still resonates today.”
“Being Black in America means you have to persevere. Persevere through the slick comments and smart remarks. Persevere through the injustice and segregation and racism developed by our own country. We grew beautiful, independent, cultural traditions,” Martin said.
Despite a long plight of perseverance from unwarranted discriminations based on skin color, after Martin shared the story about those brought to the U.S. whose hard lives and work “built the country,” speeches followed about immigrant students whose families sought refuge in the country for better life experiences.
“Both of my parents are first generation immigrants in the United States and I am their first child,” said Amutha Rajasundaram, a 10th grader.
“The importance of diversity cannot be overstated. What we have today, it’s not enough. Diversity must be intentional because it is not enough to have people of different backgrounds present. Their voices must be amplified and encouraged and their messages heard and echoed.
In today’s world, it’s not enough to be color blind when too many people see color as an indicator of worth and ability. It’s not enough to stop seeing someone’s gender when too many people see gender in its archaic confines as either a weakness or a strength. America is a country filled with diversity and differences and it is what makes us beautiful. We have to see that and recognize it,” she said.
With centuries of rallies, marches, protests and wars, she said hate crimes and violence toward women still happen. She recommended creating safe environments for those with diverse backgrounds to speak in, “be uniquely and unapologetically themselves.”
She encouraged people to empower and recognize the value in each other.
“We are here because it seems to be in human nature to breed pain and suffering but look around it is also in human nature to create and build beautiful things,” she said, adding there is hope. “The solution is to make our approach to diversity consistent, pervasive, determined and persistent.”
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