'Imagining our future': A.L.E.S. celebrates 55 years

Alumni across generations gather for storytelling, performances and collaboration.

Sarah Pruitt '95
October 30, 2023
Conversation in Assembly Hall for A.L.E.S. 55th event

Sunshine and unseasonably warm weather helped to infuse campus with energy this weekend, as well over 200 Exeter alumni, guests, faculty and staff convened to celebrate 55 years of the Afro-Latinx Exonian Society (A.L.E.S.). Founded in 1968 as the Afro-Exonian Society, A.L.E.S. has served ever since as a vital place to support and share the culture and history of Exeter’s Black and Latinx students.

The anniversary programming kicked off in earnest on Saturday morning with a welcome from the event’s hosts, Academy Trustees Wole Coaxum ’88; P’24 and Paulina Jerez ’91; P’21, in the Class of 1945 Library. Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 offered opening remarks, followed by Academy Trustee Eric Logan ’92 and Magee Lawhorn, Exeter’s head of Archives & Special Collections.

“I submit to you that on Monday Exeter will not be the same school it was yesterday,” Rawson told the assembled alumni. “You will be responsible for how we are learning, growing and changing as an educational institution this weekend by being together, telling and hearing your stories, celebrating and reflecting on where we have been, what we have become, and imagining our future.”

On Saturday afternoon, a group of alumni spanning five decades, along with some current students, gathered in the Assembly Hall for a conversation moderated by Dean of Students Russell Weatherspoon ’01, ’03, ’08, ’11 (Hon.); P’92, P’95, P’97, P’01. The five panelists, whose professional expertise ranged from journalism, medicine and law to venture capital and public policy, were tasked with discussing how such core values as knowledge, goodness, truth and justice can be channeled to address the enduring and thorny challenges involving race in our society. 

“When we think about knowledge and access and goodness…it's complicated to break through those silos, to break through those attitudes, to break through those beliefs,” said Stephanie Neal-Johnson ’85; P'19, COO of the Massachusetts Department of Labor, near the outset of the conversation. “But at the end of the day, having those conversations as we are today [is] really what will make the difference.”

The conversation was wide-ranging, but a consistent theme that emerged was the importance of people of color in general, and Exeter alumni in particular, reaching across generations to support each other. Panelist Veronica Juarez ’00, a Houston-based social enterprise investor, spoke of forming her own venture capital firm to invest in companies headed by Latinx founders.

“It's critical for us — being a part of the game, playing the game, getting into this asset class of investing,” Juarez said. “Typically those opportunities have not even been presented to us because they're private… . You would only access this via your friends who tell you in a closed-door meeting. So, this is our closed-door meeting.”

“Journalism is important, but we're not always conveying all the information or all the truths to all the right people,” said Claudia Cruz ’96, director of internships and experiential learning at the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism. “If we did that, could we balance the scales a bit?”

Dr. Leroy Sims, ’97, head of medical operations for the National Basketball Association, spoke of the need for people of color to seek out — and to become — sponsors, rather than mentors.  “A sponsor has to know what your motivations are, what your capabilities are in order to be able to advocate and to be able to say, ‘I'm going to bring you along,’” he said. “It's just not an invitation… . You need to feel like you belong in that room.”

“There's more power in this room that can change the world that you wouldn't even believe,” said Mark McClain ’74; P’08, a Baptist minister and attorney from East Cleveland, who spoke eloquently of using the Chinese practice of Qigong to help regain physical mobility after a stroke. “We can put our minds together and we can really find out what truth is, what justice is. All of these things we talk about as ideas or ideals — we can bring them to reality.”  

During the Q&A portion of the event, Sophie Goldman ’25 thanked the panelists and other visiting alumni and shared her impressions of the event, eliciting applause and visible emotion from the panelists and many in the audience. “I've never been in a room where people who looked like me were able to speak these hard truths,” Goldman said. “I want to connect with the alumni in this room because it's important that…we can make sure the truth changes for the next generation and we're able to see our own truth.”  

At the end of the conversation, Coaxum offered a tribute to Weatherspoon, who is set to retire at the end of this school year after 37 years of service to the Academy. “For many of us, Mr. Weatherspoon played an essential role in our lives as students and continues as we navigate the world as an adult,” Coaxum said. 

To round out the weekend’s programming, attendees and current students enjoyed several appearances by John Forté ’93, the Grammy-nominated recording artist, songwriter, activist and filmmaker. On Saturday afternoon, Forté discussed his work composing theme music for the latest installment of Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning docuseries on the civil rights era. That evening, he performed on the mainstage of The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Theater and Dance.

Titled “Your Voice, Your Story,” the intimate concert featured Forté alone under a bank of spotlights on the darkened stage with only a guitar, amplifier and his own unmistakable voice. He sang and rapped songs from his two most recent albums, 2020’s Riddem Drive and 2021’s Vessels, Angels & Ancestors. “I want to thank you for showing up,” Forté told his fellow alums and current students seated in the theater. “I want to thank you for sharing space. I want to thank you for what is not a foregone conclusion for me, and that is you being in the audience.”

Following Forté’s performance, attendees gathered for dinner in Thompson Field House, featuring keynote remarks from Dr. Emery Brown ’74. The world’s leading physician-scientist in anesthesiology, Brown was honored in 2020 with the John and Elizabeth Phillips Award, the Academy’s highest alumni accolade.

Amid a packed slate of events that began on Friday afternoon, the visiting alums also had the opportunity to attend home sporting events as well as an A.L.E.S. club meeting with current students. On Sunday, Bryan Contreras ’91; P'24 officiated a “Morning of Remembrance” in the Forrestal-Bowld Music Center, in which attendees honored various individuals who have touched the lives of the A.L.E.S. and greater Exeter community over the past 55 years. Before leaving campus, alumni visitors got a last chance to connect at a community-building brunch with Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, director of equity and inclusion; Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, assistant director of equity and inclusion; and current students.

Throughout the weekend, visiting alumni were invited to share their memories as part of the A.L.E.S. Oral History Project, which aims to collect stories of how the club has impacted students’ lives at Exeter and beyond.