Exeter embraces life, legacy of Dr. King

Slain civil rights icon honored in 32nd annual day of discussion.

Patrick Garrity and Adam Loyd
January 17, 2022

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman served as the keynote speaker for the Academy's 2022 MLK Day observance.

Exeter’s MLK Day 2022 programming was confined to Zoom for a second successive year, but neither the keynote speaker’s enthusiastic message nor the day’s overriding intent could be dampened.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman’s challenge to Exonians to foster an inclusive community and question injustice in the face of obstacles channeled both the messages of the slain civil rights leader for whom the day is dedicated and the Academy’s goals for celebrating him.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are not just buzzwords,” Opoku-Agyeman told the Exeter community in her remarks. “They are principles that prompt us to honor and dignify the humanity of all people regardless of where they come from and what they aim to become.”

Since 1991, Exeter has dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to studying his legacy. Ordinarily the event centers around community gatherings, but this year’s observance again was pushed online because of health and safety concerns resulting from COVID-19.

Diversity, equity and inclusion .. are principles that prompt us to honor and dignify the humanity of all people regardless of where they come from and what they aim to become.”
— Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

Opoku-Agyeman, 25, was born five years after Exeter first celebrated Dr. King, but she has already made an impact on how the emerging generation embraces his message. While an undergraduate at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, she co-founded a nonprofit organization called the Sadie Collective to increase the number of Black women working in quantitative data fields, including economics, data science and public policy. Now a graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School studying public policy and economics, Opoku-Agyeman edited a collection of essays by Black experts across a spectrum of fields that make up the book The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System, due in bookstores in February.

Her remarks Monday were directed at students not much younger than herself, and her messages were powerful in their straightforwardness: show up for others, especially those outside communities of which you are a part; establish a culture that fosters diversity organically rather than worrying about it after the fact; leave a legacy to make the path easier for those who follow in your footsteps.

Asked in the ensuing question-and-answer session if the effort is worth it, especially in the face of slow progress, Opoku-Agyeman replied, “One hundred percent,” citing the social-justice protests during the summer of 2020 as evidence. “Just ordinary folks, everybody and their grandma, was out there, and it shifted things. You had corporations that, a year prior would never have said ‘Black lives matter,’ tweeting it and putting it in their banners. Granted, a lot of it was performative, but even just the shift in conversation has prompted so many more Black folks being recognized.

“The conversation is happening, people are talking about it — even if they don’t want to.”

The day continued with a series of virtual breakout workshops featuring speakers and discussion across a variety of topics.

In the “Advancing Justice and Insuring Inclusion in Tech” workshop, Bie Aweh explained her role in ensuring equity and inclusion are a part of the ever-growing landscape of the tech industry. As a leader at the online food delivery platform DoorDash, Aweh works to connect underrepresented communities to the tech world. Aweh stressed the importance of creating pathways for minorities to break into emerging fields. A valuable tool in that pursuit, she explained to the around 80 students in attendance, is mentorship.

“The lesson here is being able to identify what your personal North Star is and connecting with people who help you to get to the next level and challenge you to get outside your comfort zone.”

While Aweh’s workshop looked to the future, another explored the past. Students in the “Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire” breakout session learned about Black history in the Granite State dating back to the 1600s. Speaker Nur Shoop runs the “Thirst for Freedom” tour out of Portsmouth, which focuses on the impact Blacks have had on the Seacoast from the time of slavery through the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

In a conversation moderated by Xavier Ross ‘22, Shoop explained how some of the historic buildings in the town of Exeter once housed enslaved people and touched on other unsavory moments from the area’s more recent which includes marches by the Ku Klux Klan as recently as the early 1990s.

“This is not something that was 100 years ago, 200 years ago, this is current,” she said.

Shoop also talked about the 2003 discovery of an 18th century freed enslaved person burial ground in Portsmouth. The city reburied the dead as part of the Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial Park which opened in 2015.

Other workshops were built around creating healing art; how the principles of yoga have encouraged the discipline of non-violence in social justice fight; the religious and interfaith communities’ role in the civil rights movement; and chemistry and its service to the community.

In introducing the day’s programming Stephanie Bramlett, Exeter’s director of equity and inclusion, encouraged the students to challenge themselves and to “dream as a community, dream big,” she said. “As we learn our history, how can we use it to build, to be a better a future?”