Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Yale Peabody Museum

by Joshua Stearns, SCA Board Member and Alumnus

You walk in the door, and the elegant stone arches of this old building tower above you, cathedral-like, interrupted only by an enormous replica of a giant squid hanging, tentacles outstretched, over your head.  Past the lobby, children race around the Alien Earths (http://www.alienearths.org) multimedia displays which invite them to investigate worlds as far away as distant galaxies and as near-by as the bacteria on their hand. To your right, dinosaur skeletons tower up around you, and the children are a bit quieter, staring up in awe of the ancient bones. In the corner African drummers lead an inter-generational group in a dance.

On the next two floors the usual museum displays are hidden by a layer of tables and presentation boards. The hallways are lined by local community groups and state agencies with hands-on activities and piles of information about environmental and health initiatives around New Haven and Connecticut. Kids learn how to identify local birds, pull invasive species, and what can be recycled and what cannot. Meanwhile teachers and parents talk to an anti-racism organizing group, and sign petitions to call for action in Darfur. In a corner someone has pulled a curtain around a sitting area and there are folks telling stories. Meanwhile, the third floor auditorium has been turned into a “Hip-Hop Café” and people are dancing on the stage, shouting playful insults at each other, while people slowly filter in for the afternoon lecture.

The event’s keynote speaker is Peggy Shepard. Ms. Shepard is executive director and co-founder of West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. She was the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. EPA. Currently, she co-chairs the Northeast Environmental Justice Network and is on the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In 2003 Ms. Shepard won the prestigious Heinz Award for the Environment. Ms. Shepard spoke extensively about the profound impact her organization WE ACT has been able to accomplish through grassroots community organizing. However, the resounding message I took away from her talk was the vital role of partnerships. Throughout her work she has built lasting and vital relationships with museums, colleges, labor unions, politicians, housing groups, libraries and others. Some of the most important changes she and her organization have been able to achieve have been due to their willingness and flexibility to work with nontraditional partners. To see some examples of these partnerships check out the WE ACT website: http://www.weact.org.

Throughout the museum, staff had posted colorful plaques, 17 in total, one for each of the principles of environmental justice, adopted by the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, in Washington DC. The intersection of community, creativity, song, dance, music, science, stories, lecture, learning, activities, and activism made this a wonderful way to celebrate Dr. King.

How did you recognize MLK day this year? Did you make it to any MLK events? Did you take a moment a listen to his speech? Use the comments to share how you spent your MLK day or weekend.