words by Cliff Cawthon
pictures by Alex Garland
In an impressive display of youth civic engagement, Friday morning saw hundreds of students from Orca K-8 School join their parents in marching through the Columbia City neighborhood to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The march began at the school’s location on 46th Avenue and S Dawson street in the Hillman City neighborhood with Seattle Police officers escorting the student marchers. The event was part of the school’s annual celebration of the holiday honoring the late civil rights leader.
That Monday’s official observance of Martin Luther King Jr Day will take place just days before the inauguration of a President-Elect who some have labeled racist and xenophobic weighed heavy on the minds of many parents in attendance.
“It’s really important for our kids to recognize the [political and social] climate they’re in, whatever grade,” said Ann Lee, an Orca parent who marched alongside her child.
Many of the young marchers did indeed seem attuned to the nation’s current circumstances.
“I didn’t like the outcome of the election” said Orca student Desi Maher, “I think Black Lives Matter is an [important movement] that many people still don’t care about…I hope within these four years we’ll be willing to change that.”
As the march continued down Rainier Avenue, one of Maher’s classmates expressed fears that Donald Trump would reintroduce segregation.
Another student, Emmett Bookwalter, said he saw the North Dakota Access Pipeline protest movement as an extension of King’s fight against discrimination. Bookwalter expressed his disgust at the mistreatment of Native American water protectors, including the excessive use of force by North Dakota law enforcement, as they attempt to halt construction of the pipeline.
All of the students who spoke on the record voiced one common theme: The memory of Dr. King’s fight for equal rights had inspired them to act.
Others responses were what might be expected from pre-teens excited to be participating in a collective demonstration through the streets of South Seattle with their fellow classmates.
Orca student Theopolis Bennett-Cummings called it “cool,” while Elia Baker, contrasted this year’s march with 2016’s, saying of last year’s that “there were a lot of drummers and it was a lot louder”.
Tonie Talbert, principal of Orca K-8 School, said Friday’s march was intended to “[reflect] Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and live that legacy through our actions, not just our words”. Part of that “visual representation” was also the students making donations of canned goods to the Rainier Valley Food Bank. And not just on this one day but, throughout the year.
Principal Talbert also responded to a question about education funding, an issue that is not often considered a civil rights issue but is currently seen by many education advocates as the most relevant civil rights fight taking place in the state. “I’m hoping that things will change within the next week or two” Talbert said, referencing a major march on the State Capitol Olympia on Monday, January 16 at 10:30am to demand that Washington State legislators fully fund education.
Another Orca staff member, ESL instructor assistant Osman Hussein, said that he hopes the Seattle School District’s $74 million budget shortfall won’t deeply impact his position but if it does it’ll effect “a lot of families who are [in need now]”. Regardless of the cuts, he said that he would continue to help the kids, “I’ll provide my services, I’ll keep helping the kids…I’m going to do my job.”
At the end of the march, Marletta Iwasyk, an Orca kindergarten teacher and an original founder of the school, shared the story of Orca’s establishment and it’s legacy in the South Seattle community:
“I think that people who overcame adversity to self-educate themselves, who want to learn, which, is a part of my message [can succeed]…we’re teaching them to make good choices, look at alternatives, and to think about the whole [society]”.
Clifford Cawthon is a Seattle based writer originally from New York’s queen city, Buffalo. Clifford has been civically engaged since he was a teenager in Buffalo and his advocacy work taking him to places as far away as Cuba. He’s also an alumni of the University of Manchester, in the UK, where he graduated with an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.
Alex Garland is a Beacon Hill based photojournalist and the founder of the Dignity Virus. He can be followed on Twitter @AGarlandPhoto