Two students honored for social justice work

  • Sojourner Truth in 1864. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

@DHGCrosby
Published: 5/26/2016 8:48:16 AM

FLORENCE — Two Valley high school students will receive scholarships for their work in social justice Sunday at the Sojourner Truth statue.

Olivia Kan-Sperling, from Northampton High School, and Lanre Thomas, from Amherst Regional High School, the scholarship recipients, have both tackled issues of inequality and injustice in their communities through innovative projects and volunteer work.

Both will be recognized at 2 p.m. Sunday as part of the 14th annual Sojourner Truth Memorial Celebration at the corner of Park and Pine streets in Florence.

Sojourner Truth, who lived in Florence during the 19th century, was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist following her escape from slavery.

“We are talking about two scholarship winners working on equality in different spheres,” said Terry O’Toole, chairman of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee, a nonprofit based in Florence. “By focusing on areas or issues that are negatively impacting groups of people, the self-initiative both took is really hallmark of how (the committee) perceives that Truth lived her life.”

Kan-Sperling used art to begin dialogues on women’s issues at her school. Gathering inspiration from her involvement with First Generation and other theater groups, she started a theater project which seeks to provide a safe space for girls to use their experiences with injustice to develop a performance piece.

Her project culminated in a play called “An Itch in Her Teeth” which was performed Thursday through Saturday. Kan-Sperling plans to study theater and gender studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Thomas participates in social justice organizations at his school, including People of Color United, Minority Student Achievement Network and Black Lives Matter. He has used these roles to educate elementary students and lead community dialogues relating to issues of race, gender and identity.

Thomas plans to study political science and psychology at St. John’s University in New York City, and hopes to “break down the psychological barriers that prevent students of color from high achievement at education institutions,” according to a statement about the scholarships.

Each student will receive $1,000 from the committee to support continuation of their work.

“We are hoping that these two students take the spark of this work they’ve been involved in and continue it in some way in college, as well as into the future,” said O’Toole.

He said there are many awards celebrating merit and goodwill, but he is proud that the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee acknowledges “people working to address an issue from a broad stance.”

Sunday’s celebration will include a keynote address by Trevor Baptiste, chairman of the Amherst Regional School Committee and biology teacher at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield.

There will also be a performance by the Amandla Chorus, a Greenfield-based group that sings about peace and justice using songs from around the world.

Before the celebration, visitors are invited to join a noon walking tour of “Sojourner Truth’s Florence,” stopping at 18 locations that relate to the mid-19th century. The tour starts at the Truth statue.

O’Toole said the stops are connected to the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, which was a utopian experiment in the community which Truth joined when she moved to Florence.

Both events are free and open to the public.

Sarah Crosby can be reached at scrosby@gazettenet.com.




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