Martin Luther King luncheon speakers talk of overcoming Trump's comments

Norwich Free Academy students Jessica Osagie and Sabina Samacau perform an African dance during the 33rd annual Norwich Branch NAACP and Norwich Free Academy Martin Luther King Jr., Birthday Celebration Luncheon Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, at NFA. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy students Jessica Osagie and Sabina Samacau perform an African dance during the 33rd annual Norwich Branch NAACP and Norwich Free Academy Martin Luther King Jr., Birthday Celebration Luncheon Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, at NFA. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — Several speakers at Friday’s 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Luncheon directly or indirectly referred to President Donald Trump’s controversial vulgar references to African nations, but vowed to rise above the slurs to assure that the American dream and King’s dream of equality prevail.

“This is what we like to see,” Norwich NAACP branch President Dianne Daniels said, watching the Norwich Free Academy cafeteria fill up with more than 80 people of diverse races at the start of the annual event.

But Daniels had strong words of reaction to Trump’s derogatory terms, reported by participants in a Thursday meeting, questioning why the United States would accept so many immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa.

NFA Director of Diversity Leo Butler reminded the audience that Friday marked the eighth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.

No speakers Friday used Trump’s name in their responses. Prior to the start of the event, Daniels said the comments made her “very, very angry” and said he is “sullying” the office she has great respect for.

“It’s a dangerous spot to be for someone who has his ego as his top concern,” Daniels said prior to the start of Friday’s program.

John Iovino, NFA director of student affairs and emcee for Friday’s event, announced the day’s theme: “Different American Realities, Shared American Dreams.”

“There’s probably no more appropriate title, given recent events in America, than that title right there,” Iovino said.

NFA senior Joleigh Yim, a recipient of the Martin Luther King scholarship in October, said if King's goal of equality was realized, there would be no need for the scholarship and the word “minority” would not be part of her identity. Kim said she wants to make major advancements in neuroscience in her future career. She said her younger sister, diagnosed as intellectually disabled, also bears a label that could cast her aside.

“It’s my goal to make this not a minority scholarship but to make it an inclusive, majority scholarship,” she said. “So I ask again, where do we go from here? My answer: the majority.”

Keynote speaker Elizabeth Gonzalez, board president of Centro de la Communidad in New London and an English teacher, referred to Trump as “our current leader” and said she was “very angry” that things seem to be “going backward.” She said she is bothered most by people who continue to support Trump’s behavior. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”

On Thursday, her English students from places as diverse as Peru, Turkey, Paraguay and Asian nations watched a documentary about King’s life, and the class discussed his goals and theirs.

“America is already great,” Gonsalez said. “We just need to improve in certain areas and move forward. I love this country. I was born and raised here. Yes, there are things that are negative, but we need to just move forward in unison, hand in hand, side by side."

Leopoldo Navarro, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, told the audience of the “walls” he encountered since he arrived in 2009 in efforts to learn English and earn his associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees to become a teacher at New London High School.

He said students in his English learners class cried after Trump was elected, afraid they would be deported. American students asked him if he would be deported. He said many people in the region know people brought to America illegally when they were young children, commonly called “dreamers.” He asked the audience to help support them.

“It’s sad we are closing the doors for them,” Navarro said. “They’re not criminals. They’re not here to take anyone’s jobs. They’re here to seek opportunities, opportunities that are open for everyone.”

Friday’s event was the first held since the death of 30-year former NAACP President Jacqueline Owens, who died in June. Daniels said she felt Owens’ hand on her shoulder as she honored two inaugural recipients of the Terell Wilson Memorial Scholarship Award. NFA seniors Dakota Rivera and Daisy Wang received the award named for the former NAACP Youth Council and state NAACP Youth and College Division president. Wilson, also a former Norwich City Council member, died at age 24 in May 2016 after a car crash.

Barry Shead, assistant vice president and branch manager of the Savings Institute Bank & Trust in Norwich, received the Robertsine Duncan Memorial Award for his work to promote ethnic diversity and youth services.

State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who has attended the Norwich luncheon each year since he was elected in 2011, also made indirect references to Trump’s comments.

“Like many of you, there are days where I just shake my head,” Lembo, a Democrat, said. “Some days I get angry. Some days I look away, because it is the only path to self-preservation. Some days I just block it out, and some days I get angry again.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Norwich Free Academy students Dakota Rivera, 17, left, and Alex Defort, 15, join in singing 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' at the opening of the 33rd annual Norwich Branch NAACP and Norwich Free Academy Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Luncheon on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, at NFA. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Norwich Free Academy students Dakota Rivera, 17, left, and Alex Defort, 15, join in singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at the opening of the 33rd annual Norwich Branch NAACP and Norwich Free Academy Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Luncheon on Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, at NFA. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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