To honor the legacy of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History held its 23rd annual environmental and social justice celebration last Sunday and Monday.

The weekend’s splintering cold temperatures dampened turnout to the two-day event, which drew 3,000 attendees this year instead of the usual 6,000 across both days. Despite the weather, the celebration went off without a hitch. The museum was abuzz with activity throughout both days as attendees enjoyed music and other performances, all while strolling through the museum’s galleries where numerous local organizations had set up tables to educate visitors.

“I think one of the things that isn’t really clear to people is that the Peabody is also a museum that celebrates human culture and diversity, as well as being a science and natural history museum,” said Peabody Director David Skelly. “One of our largest collections is anthropology and cultural artifacts, so in addition to being focused on material culture, we’re also focused on living culture.”

The event began two decades ago when the Peabody joined with other outside individuals to search for a way to bring the greater New Haven community together within the museum. They decided that celebrating King’s legacy in the context of environmental justice, and later social justice, would do the trick.

“My hope would be that people feel like we are starting to look at the complexity of King’s legacy and of his work … and that folks’ curiosity piques in thinking about different civil rights leaders who maybe they aren’t familiar with,” said Jesse Delia, the event’s head organizer.

When it came to teaching visitors about environmental and social justice, the Peabody left it to experts: the New Haven community. The celebration hosted a swath of local organizations from New Haven and Connecticut, which set up tables scattered around the galleries to engage visitors in conversation about justice.

Delia said she believes that relationships are the stepping stone for making positive social justice changes and hoped that the event brought people in the community together.

The celebration also included a Youth Summit at Kroon Hall that welcomed all teens to discuss social justice and learn how to organize movements within New Haven.

To Delia, input from youth has driven recent social movements and the way communities come together to organize for social justice.

“Their energy and ideas have been infused in the whole event,” she said.

Several performances from local bands, dancing groups and others took place at the makeshift “World Stage” within the Peabody’s Great Hall. Among the lineup was Yale Steppin’ Out — the University’s first and only step team — whose performance at the event sparked intense interest and drew a large gathering of attendees into the Great Hall.

Other popular events at the celebration included a poetry slam that focused on environmental and social justice themes. Organized by Ngoma Hill, a famed New York City–based poet, the slam brought together artists from across the country to compete for a $1,000 first place prize.

“It has become one of the most popular parts of the event,” said David Heiser, director of student programs at the Peabody.

Brian Cook, who lives in Bridgeport, said that he and his wife brought their two children to the event so they could understand King’s legacy and be exposed to different cultures. Cook said the overall event was wonderful, but he particularly enjoyed the poetry slam.

“The poetry slam was absolutely, hands down, amazing,” he said.

On both Sunday and Monday, admission into the Peabody was free for attendees of the celebration.

Marisa Peryer |