Over 300 people attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Conference at Wexler-Grant Community School yesterday, participating in lectures, performances and workshops held in the name of making the holiday “a day on, not a day off.”
The event has been held annually since 1969, the year after King’s assassination, according to conference co-chair Sondi Jackson, a speech pathologist at Wexler-Grant. This year’s conference offered over 30 workshops for children and adults, ranging from “Politics 101” with Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, to “Crafts with King,” a chance for children to learn about King’s life through art. The Davis Street Magnet School band and dancers from the Hamden Academy of Dance and Music performed as well.
The conference theme was “All voices should be heard.” Jackson said the broad scope of the conference’s offerings reflected the universality of King’s teachings.
“He appealed to the masses,” she said. “At a time when he was fighting for the rights of African-Americans, he reached out to the public. We are paying tribute to the fact that he wanted opportunities for everyone.”
Among the opportunities available at Wexler-Grant were discussions about healthy eating, cyber-bullying, financial planning, home ownership and how to engage with the police. S.P.O.R.T Academy, a youth mentoring program that offers chess instruction in the Stetson Branch Library on Dixwell Avenue, partnered with local barbers to offer free haircuts and recruit new mentees.
Pearl McKee, S.P.O.R.T Academy’s secretary and one of its instructors, said the four barbers were good role models for young people at the event.
“The [barber shops] are black-owned, and they focus on the youth,” she said.
Among the barbers’ clients were Liz Cruso and Sade King, members of the University of New Haven’s women’s basketball team. The team volunteers at the conference each year, along with some fraternities and sororities from UNH.
Yale’s Black Men’s Union also volunteered at the event, setting up a table in the gym to meet attendees and talk about the union’s community service and outreach projects. BMU President Will Searcy ’16 said the organization always spends Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteering in New Haven, but this was the group’s first time at the conference. Twenty-two BMU members volunteered.
“We’re always looking for ways to give back,” Searcy said. “We understand how critical service was to [King’s] dream.”
Conference co-chair Jason Odums said about 100 people volunteered at the event, running workshops, serving food and providing directions.
The conference operated on a smaller budget this year, Jackson and Odums said, with just $3,300 to spend instead of as much as $7,000 in years past. The conference relies on corporate and nonprofit sponsors, as well as a grant from New Haven Public Schools. Jackson said the reduced budget forced the conference planning committee to be more frugal than usual. Nonetheless, attendees and volunteers received free lunch and free breakfast, and activities filled every classroom.
Mayor Toni Harp stopped by to talk with vendors, who set up booths in the gym bearing hats, jewelry, cosmetics and other products, and to sit in on a panel discussion called “Ebola On the Front Lines.” The discussion, sponsored by the 94.3 WYBC radio station, focused on the development of the outbreak in Sierra Leone and addressed media coverage of the disease. Panelist John Nwangwu, a professor of epidemiology at Southern Connecticut State University and a consultant for the World Health Organization in West Africa, emphasized that in an increasingly globalized world, distance from disaster does not guarantee safety.
“The world has become so small that you can no longer say, ‘It is their problem,’” Nwangwu said. “Microbes don’t need visas.”
Mahogany Hutchinson, 14, volunteered at the conference after attending it for three years. In past years, she participated in arts and crafts workshops and bullying prevention discussions. Yesterday, she offered directions and hung visitors’ coats. The experience was different, she said, but still fun.
“I think it’s really good for people to come together and see everyone get along,” Hutchinson said.