Activism and academics celebrated at 35th annual MLK community breakfast 

Stories told, awards given, souls commemorated

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(Will Katcher/Daily Collegian)

By Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg, Collegian Staff

For the 35th year, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Amherst hosted a community breakfast filled with storytelling, songs and awards in celebration of both Dr. King and those who have made academic and social justice contributions to the town of Amherst.

According to former state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, the event, held at Amherst Regional Middle School, is one of the largest in Amherst.

“I’ve been coming to this breakfast every year, and I don’t know most of the people in the room,” Martha Faison, an original member of the committee, said. Faison’s daughter, Jacqueline Faison, was one of the organizers this year.

Alexis Parent Gonzáles has been coming to the community breakfasts for 10 years. She and her husband are both alums of Amherst Regional Public Schools and their daughters currently attend elementary school in the district. Although she was never involved in the breakfast or applied for the scholarship while in high school, Parent Gonzáles had friends who did.

“With the amount of work put into the breakfast, the whole community gets involved,” Parent Gonzáles said.

Parent Gonzáles’ mother performed at the breakfast with the Goodwin Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Choir. Reverend Betty Lou Carthon of the Goodwin Memorial A.M.E Zion Church led the audience in an invocation. Students at Crocker Farm Elementary handmade the placemats for every seat, Atkins Farms provided donuts and pastries and Diane Powers, cafeteria manager of ARMS, managed the food preparation. Members of People of Color United (POCU), a student group at Amherst Regional High School, helped serve and clean up.

From 9 to 10 a.m., approximately 400 attendees ate a potluck breakfast together in the cafeteria, with the Amherst Regional High School Jazz Ensemble as musical accompaniment. After finishing their meals in the cafeteria, eventgoers filed into the auditorium, where music and stories were performed. Other musical performances included the Area Gospel Choir and the Crocker Farm Elementary School Chorus.

Eshu Bumpus, a nationally-known storyteller, performed five stories that were a mix of spoken-word and song. He encouraged the audience to sing and scat along with him.

“You are welcome, you are welcome in this place,” Bumpus and the audience sang together.

After Bumpus’ performance, awards were presented. Since the breakfast’s inception in 1984, 41 community service awards and 89 academic scholarships have been awarded, according to Rosenberg.

Joseph Smith, co-principal of Amherst Regional Middle School, received the Norma Jean Anderson Civil Rights and Academic Achievement Award from the Race and Discipline, Action, Rights Committee (RaDAR). Dr. Anderson was the first black schoolteacher in Springfield, IL, and also worked at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education and became “an advocate for educational access and diversity,” according to UMass News and Media Relations.

During her tenure as Associate Dean of Admissions and Alumni Affairs at the School of Education from 1970 to 1994, Dr. Anderson “addressed issues of institutional racism and instill[ed] values of social justice” across the University.

According to the event program, the award is given to a current teacher, administrator or staff members of Amherst Regional or Amherst-Pelham Regional public schools who “promotes the ideals of a just and respectful community built on compassionate relationships.”

Smith first began at the middle school as a teacher in 2006, when he co-created a district-wide training program for teachers, guidance counselors and other school professionals on how to support students of color with Dr. Russ Vernon Jones, the former principal of Ft. River Elementary.

He left in 2008 to become an assistant principal at Crocker Farms Elementary School and then the principal at Leeds Elementary School in 2010. Smith returned to ARMS this past year, and one of his focuses as co-principal is to build up black boys and empower them to take agency.

Having grown up with a “distorted image of masculinity created by media,” Smith also aims to provide a healthier image to his students of what it means to be a black man.

“It was comforting to know someone was there to understand the depth…as they are learning about themselves,” Sovann-Malis Loeung said.

Loeung’s son had Smith as an assistant principal at Crocker Farms. She said that she appreciates seeing black men in the school system, and as authority figures, who can understand what her son may go through.

Adwoa Ampiah-Bonney, who attends Belchertown High School, was one of this year’s two scholarship recipients. In her acceptance speech, she said that her father has encouraged her and all her siblings to pursue what they love and use it to improve the world. For her, it’s singing.

“As a member of the Amherst Area Gospel Choir, I am able to educate those on the struggle black people face, but also to bring joy to those who might not have experienced it otherwise,” Ampiah-Bonney said.

Judy Brooks, one of the committee’s founders who died in July, was also celebrated for her public service. Brooks had first come to Amherst with her husband and children in 1971 to run the “A Better Chance” house. As years went on, she served on the Select Board, the Amherst Housing Authority, organized the town’s annual Black History month celebration and attended the 2012 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for the Second Massachusetts Congressional District.

In a video of her acceptance speech for the Jean Haggerty Award in 2014 shown at the breakfast, Brooks said that she and Mary Wyatt, one of the other founders, imagined the breakfast as “bringing the hands across the valley together” in order to make the Amherst community “better for our children.”

Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @busybusybeckybe.