Dozens of teens who spent Monday’s National Day of Service at the community orchard were not there to prune trees or harvest a crop. They gathered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to cultivate a better understanding of one another, despite their differences.
More than 40 people came to the orchard near the intersection of Jarvis and Avery streets to take part in a “talking circle,” a forum hosted by Love A Sea Turtle.
“We chose to take this dialogue approach going into 2021 as a way of embracing diversity,” said LAST member Abby Yoon, a senior at D.H. Conley High School. “We wanted to honor Martin Luther King, who also advocated for peaceful change, and I believe dialogue is critical in achieving peaceful change.”
Volunteers with LAST, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental stewardship and youth leadership development, have typically spent this day working on various community improvement projects. For more than a decade, as many as 100 or more students have turned out the third Monday in January to help clean streets, parks or waterways.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the organization continued many of its traditional volunteer functions in 2020, including water quality testing, repairing and repurposing bikes for underprivileged youth and harvesting and donating produce from the community garden and orchard. But Dan Sokolovic, co-director of LAST, said members wanted to have something different for MLK Day of Service.
“This is what we’re calling service to ourselves,” he said of Monday’s gathering. “A lot of these young kids, they’ve been suffering. We have noticed it.”
LAST member Makayla Harris, a South Central High School graduate who is now a junior at East Carolina University, said isolation brought on by COVID-19, coupled with current social and political unrest, weigh heavily on students.
“(Some students) are on lockdown,” she said. “They cannot go anywhere. They cannot spend time with their friends. Everything has to be virtual.”
Harris is a family and community services major at ECU, where spring semester classes are scheduled to begin today. While she has moved back into the dorm, her classes will be online.
“When you go to an online class setting, you don’t get the opportunity to socialize,” she said. “… I feel like the pandemic has really increased the levels of anxiety or depression that people feel.”
Sokolovic said several high school members of LAST had been planning to return to campus for classes this semester before the county’s public school system moved to two weeks of all-virtual instruction.
“They’ve been looking forward to going back to school, and now all of a sudden they’re not,” he said. “This (event) is an opportunity for them to see each other. These kids need connection. They want it.”
Students, who were required to wear face coverings for the event, brought lawn chairs, which they arranged in a circle, modeled after a traditional way native Americans have gathered to communicate and solve problems.
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Monday’s event did not include the passing of a “talking stick” or “talking feather” from one speaker to another.
Participants were invited to share their thoughts on any topic without argument from others.
“No one is allowed to interrupt,” Sokolovic said. “No one is allowed to boo or hiss.”
Students talked about a variety of concerns from the pandemic to pollution and from immigration to inclusion. Racism was a common theme, although students spoke of tensions beyond black and white, discussing prejudice against Asian-Americans and other minority groups.
Yoon said diversity among its members is one of the strengths of LAST, which was created in 2005 by Sokolovic’s daughter, Casey.
“As we volunteer, we help cultivate empathy for each other and we learn from each other,” Yoon said. “We recognize that there’s power in all of our diverse perspectives.”
Sokolovic said engaging in civil discourse is a fitting way to pay tribute to King.
“Martin Luther King was about love kindness, courage and unity,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing with the talking circle is getting people to come together and to understand it’s OK to have differences.”