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West Valley City Journal

Black excellence celebration

Mar 07, 2018 01:55PM ● By Jet Burnham

Kenneth Hopkins performs an impersonation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Granite School District)

Strutting across the stage in a line dance were Black and African-American college students from Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) and Westminster College. The Unity Stroll, a tradition of Black Greek organizations, was to demonstrate unity between the schools.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from — we’re all black and we’re all African-American and so this brings us together as a whole,” said Rael Styles, co-president of SLCC’s Black Student Union (BSU). 

The dance was just one of the performances at the Inaugural Black Excellence Celebration, organized by Granite School District’s Department of Education Equity, held at Taylorsville High School on Jan. 29.

Community members contributed with a variety of performances to celebrate black culture. Students from Granite Park Junior High, Silver Hills Elementary, Mill Creek Elementary and Utah School for the Deaf, Bonneville Junior High School and SLCC participated through song, dance, poetry and video presentation. 

Glory Johnson-Stanton, BSU advisor at SLCC, started the evening by singing the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Kenneth Hopkins, teacher at Granger High School, performed a portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech in an impersonation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“The speech, to this day, still rings true. And, to this day, is as important as it was back then,” said Hopkins.

Dr. Jackie Thompson performed a character portrayal of Bessie Coleman, telling the inspiring life story of the first female black pilot. Imani Stott, a seventh grader from Bonneville Junior High School, performed an “Expressions of Praise” dance. Westminster students also performed a step dance, another traditional dance with African roots.

“The step is about showcasing school pride and coming together as a whole, as African-Americans, to lift each other up,” said Styles.

That was the purpose of the performances — to stir emotion and pride in black community members.

Iman Ibrahim, a junior from AMES Academy, said Dee Dee Darby-Duffin’s performance of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song to remember victims of lynching, gave her chills. She said the evening’s performances were impactful and empowering. 

“I want to see more of these happen in other districts,” she said.

The keynote speaker for the evening was Brittany Johnson, reporter for ABC4 Utah, who worked tirelessly to achieve her dream of being a news reporter. 

She spoke to give hope to others, as she shared the story of her difficult journey. She said she was put down, overlooked and belittled because of her skin color.

“I’m here to tell you to keep your head held high,” she told the students in the audience. “I want you all to have the confidence to never give up.”

Her advice to others in similar frustrating experiences was to continually improve themselves. 

“It’s your excellence that can be the best deterrent to racism — I know that for a fact,” she said. “Some of you will have to work 500 times harder than one of your peers to prove that you are excellent in what you do.” 

Junior Gnoulelein Tako from AMES Academy said he could relate to Johnson’s message.

“I feel in everything I do — not to complain or anything — but I feel just naturally I’m at a disadvantage so I have to try harder to prove myself,” he said. Johnson’s story made him feel empowered to pursue his dreams. 

Johnson encouraged students to look to inspiring leaders such as King, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks for courage.

“We have to get there together,” Johnson said. “We need to promote leadership practices, deepen awareness of race differences and value relationships, making change possible. We need to uplift our brothers and sisters in our community instead of diminishing everyone.” 

She challenged students to befriend people who are different from them, citing that socially diverse groups tend to be more innovative.

District Superintendent Martin Bates said the evening was organized to illustrate how much the district values diversity.

“We strive to create an environment where students are celebrated for who they are, as Dr. King said, ‘not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’” he said.

Michelle Love-Day, associate director of the Department of Educational Equity, said events like these help students feel safe and supported in being themselves.

“Because our history is so intertwined with American history, it was important to have students and families celebrate the contributions and recognize the achievements of African-Americans and the hurdles they’ve overcome to get there,” said Love-Day.