On Thursday, January 19, GFA was honored to welcome Dr. Donovan Livingston during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Program. With inspiration and electric artistry, Dr. Livingston brought an energizing keynote to GFA’s Middle and Upper Schools. To kick off the assemblies, Director of Equity and Inclusion Shanelle Henry reminded the GFA community the importance of MLK day.
“Today's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Assembly is dedicated to the ways in which counter narrative storytelling through hip hop and spoken word poetry, provide pathways to community building, identity development, communicating across difference and social justice,” said Henry. “Dr. King said The struggle to eliminate the evil of racial injustice constitutes one of the major struggles of our time. That struggle did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The fight for equality, belonging, and social justice still exists today. Dr. King also said human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle. The tireless, exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
After Class of ‘25 student Tyra Stevenson engaged the audience in an introductory rap, Dr. Livingston took the stage in the Hartwell Performing Arts Center. As a hip hop artist, poet, scholar, husband and father, Dr. Livingston is someone who's very dedicated to the work of ensuring social justice and equity by any means necessary.
“I came here to talk about a version of Dr. King that we often take for granted, that we don't often respect, admire, and appreciate in the same way as his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech - a message about love and tolerance and turning the other cheek and nonviolence,” he said. “I really wanna lean into the uncomfortable version of Dr. King that we often neglect for the sake of sanitizing his legacy. I want us to get into what it means to really disturb the peace, to unsettle what it means to be comfortable in the face of incessant injustice.”
Dr. Livingston’s favorite quote by Dr. King echoes, “Peace is not merely the absence of tension, it's the presence of justice,” meaning a peaceful moment doesn't mean turning away from the realities of the world or what’s happening to our friends and neighbors who might be suffering. “Peace is commitment to doing what you can, to using your power and privilege to solve really, really tough problems,” Livingston said.
He tells the GFA community that justice is an ongoing effort and commitment to caring about someone beyond yourself. While Dr. King is an example of that commitment, Dr. Livingston reminded everyone that he wasn’t favorable to the public prior to his murder, “The way mass media talked about Martin Luther King in the sixties was very similar to the ways in which we talk about the insurrectionists from January 6th. Dr. King was seen as a pariah. He was one of the most hated figures in the country at the time. And he wasn't hated because he was not violent. He was hated because he was trying to upset the establishment.”
Throughout the assembly, Dr. Livingston lifted voices with the mantra, “Flood the streets, disturb the peace,” a constant reminder of Dr. King’s dedication to standing up for what he believed in. While Dr. King’s protests were peaceful, they disrupted the “peace” for a lot of people. Then, even though civil and voting rights acts passed, he went on to press for further equity. Dr. Livingston explains that his movement shifted from social justice to economic equality, which is when the height of the vitriol against him grew.
“What he's asking us to do now is to make more meaningful, more substantial, more financial investments in equality beyond just saying, oh, black people get into this restaurant too.” he says. Dr. Livingston explains that later in that same year, MLK poses the question, “Why are there 40 million poor people in America?”
“When you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. This disturbs the peace for a lot of people who have committed to a certain lifestyle, a certain way of living, a certain economic system that provides us with comfort, with wealth, with financial security.”
For Dr. Livingston, everything Dr. King fought for is personal. His mother attended her first sit-in at the age of nine, his aunt witnessed Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and he attended and led several peaceful protests in college and beyond.
Dr. Livingston shared two moving poems about his grandfather, a World War II military veteran, who was failed by a broken system, and his mother, who shares his likeness and dreams. Coming from a family that put social justice first, Livingston encouraged GFA students to do the same.
“I see a beautiful swath of high school students who can change the world in a very meaningful, very powerful way. A lot of the folks who rolled up their sleeves and got dirty during the civil rights movement, the black power era in the sixties and seventies were not much older than you. They were your age or in college trying to figure out what contributions they can make to society that would be meaningful, that would change the world so that the one they grew up in would not be the one that their children inherited. No matter how old you are, where you come from, what you look like, who you serve, and who you worship, you have the ability to give back in a powerful, meaningful way,” he said.
Reflecting on how experiences related to social justice have evolved over time, Dr. Livingston invited the assembly to reflect on more recent events, specifically during the summer of 2020 after the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
“I want you to reflect on that. And what compelled you to feel unsettled? What stirred within your spirit that made you feel uncomfortable? What did you think? What did you think you knew in 2020 that made you question everything you didn't know? What changed within you, your peers, your families?
What conversations were you having that really challenged you to see the world in a new way, in a new light?” he asked, followed by a short poetic piece honoring George Floyd.
As the assembly came to a close, Dr. Livingston encouraged everyone to continue to have conversations and ask questions with family, friends, and peers about equity and social justice, and invited all to stand and recite a mantra that he shared with students when he was a teacher in the Bronx:
“Sharpen your eyes, tune your ears, so you know what you see. Understand what you, hear minute by minute, hour by hour as we know our story, we know our power.”