Bernice King addresses West Chester School District symposium about structural racism, connecting across party lines

Bernice King taking part of West Chester Area School District’s 'Strengthening Community Symposium.' (DCIU)

Bernice King taking part of West Chester Area School District’s 'Strengthening Community Symposium.' (DCIU)

Bernice King, one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughters, discussed structural racism, connecting across party lines, and her parents’ legacies Tuesday as part of the West Chester Area School District’s “Strengthening Community Symposium.”

The free virtual symposium consisted of three other events, with local organizations, school leaders, and student groups discussing coalition building, community activism, and equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. The symposium was a collaboration between the school district, the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence and Equity, the Delaware Department of Education, and the Delaware County Intermediate Unit.

King, who is the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, offered advice to students hoping to fight racial and economic inequities.

To those looking to build coalitions, she said, patience is key. “You can’t give up if something doesn’t happen in the time frame that you think it should happen,” said King.

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She also suggested that groups that are coalition building should prioritize one issue at a time.

“You have to think about: What issue can we tackle that will give us early victories, not easy, but early victories?” said King. “Because people need victories along the way in movement work to stay engaged, to stay motivated.”

Dawn Mader, director of equity assessment for the West Chester district, brought up a sense of divisiveness in the Chester County community it serves. District families have been disputing COVID-19 school safety protocols since last summer. This week, two parents filed a lawsuit against the district for mandating masks.

Mader said it also seems that many people in the community misunderstand MLK’s messages.

“There are actually some people who believe that equity work goes against your father’s work,” Mader told King. “They think that your father marched and things are better now and that there’s not an issue, and the more we talk about things, the more we’re creating problems.”

King, after a pause, explained that racism and economic inequalities are still rampant in the United States. “Racism is embedded in the structures and systems in our society, and we hide it very well,” she said.

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It is the responsibility of those who know Dr. King to educate those who don’t, and to encourage people to actually read his work, she said.

That point led to another concern of King’s, the necessity of connecting “across party lines.”

“We spend a lot of time fighting each other, and these very issues that are strangling all of us, are not being addressed adequately,” King said. Instead, she hopes community members can work to find common connections and “agenda build” together.

Across Pennsylvania, parents, neighbors, friends, and others have engaged in heated debates that have led to threats against teachers and school board candidates. Disputes over school COVID-19 safety policies and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in schools have led to the disabling of Pennridge’s DEI task force, for instance, and removal of LGBTQ books from that Bucks County district’s elementary school libraries and books written by authors of color from the ninth-grade English curriculum.

King said she looks forward to the day when people are having more honest conversations in which they “talk with each other, not at each other.” In those conversations, she seems hopeful that people can find ways to fight together against the greater powers that are tearing communities apart.

In conversations with those you disagree with, said King, “you might find that there’s something there that you never saw.”

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