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At Norwich Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon, youth leaders provide the hope for the future

Norwich — Speakers addressing the theme of “Standing on a Legacy of Freedom; Fighting for a Future of Hope” at Friday’s Martin Luther King Jr. birthday luncheon turned to the youth leaders in the room as evidence there is strong hope for the future.

While the adult speakers at the event, held at Norwich Free Academy Sidney Frank Center, included some of the state’s top elected officials, the achievements of high school and middle school students present dominated the event.

NFA's record five recipients of the $20,000 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship reprised their fall award night speeches. They in turn focused on their potential successors, the several middle school students who on Friday offered their reflections on King's legacy.

Sheila Hayes, Norwich NAACP branch president, said the NFA seniors in the branch’s Robertsine Duncan Youth Council entered NFA in 2016, when long-time branch matriarch Jacqueline Owens was preparing to retire. Two years later, the youths realized their new adult NAACP leaders failed to plan anything to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

The students asked NFA Head of School David Klein for permission to run an event on April 4, 2018. With strong school support, it became a campuswide educational program with state and local participants. The event won recognition by the state and national NAACP, Hayes said.

She said the current NFA senior class “provided the leadership for the NAACP when leadership in the Norwich branch was lacking.”

Youth Council President Thsarny Pierre said the youth group members are doing what they felt King would have wanted them to do today.

“We are seeing change in the future,” she said, “and I hope to see even more change in 2020, because 20-20 is clear vision, so I hope you have a clear vision for what we want to do and what we want to accomplish.”

Scholarship winners Allen and Alexander Dufort, twin NFA seniors, described their feelings of isolation in lower grades as they pursued top level academic classes. Allen said an eighth-grade classmate called him “the whitest looking black kid I’ve ever met." Allen called it a myth and “utter nonsense” that black kids can’t be high academic achievers.

“To the middle schoolers here, and to everyone else, do not let anyone define you by the color of your skin, whether you are black or white,” Allen Dufort said.

His brother, Alexander Dufort, said he was a “black speck in a vast white ocean” in his higher-level classes. But he said he refused to let that stop him. He described a trip to Haiti, where he helped translate for families receiving medical care. He recalled a small baby covered with bloody blisters. The child, he said, survived and he felt he contributed to that success.

Scholarship recipient Laika Bertrand said as a child, she had lost her house, her father and her happiness and ended up living in a car with her mother, sister, "a pillow and a comforter.” But she didn’t lose her education.

“Eighth-graders,” she said. “You are a spark, a fire, a blaze. Ignite this world with your knowledge.”

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, the keynote speaker Friday, joked that she “drew the short straw” to have to follow the “articulate and eloquent” students.

Bysiewicz and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, both urged the young students to return to their hometown after finishing their education and run for office, both locally and statewide. Osten pledged to work on their campaigns if they did.

“We need your enthusiasm, your energy, your ideas,” Bysiewicz said.

Bysiewicz called the right to vote “the most basic civil right,” and noted that 2020 is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. She said the state will not let voter suppression and racism hinder people’s right to vote.

“We will use our voices, as those very eloquent young people have done, to call out racism, to call out voter suppression and to make sure we have equality for everyone in our state,” Bysiewicz said. “There is a huge election coming up, right? And some very lively presidential primaries coming up.”

She turned to the high school students and reminded them that anyone who is 17½ can register to vote.

“And every time you have the opportunity to do so, that you do (vote)” she said, “because that is what Dr. King lived for, fought for and died for. And that is the best way to celebrate his legacy.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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