Cheshire Academy hosted Morris H. Ervin Jr. as its keynote speaker on Monday for the school’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration.
Ervin kicked off the program with some popular music to bring out the energy of the Cheshire Academy students and faculty, as they stood up and sang and danced. He then shared his story which included his experiences as a high school student, converting to Islam, losing his 14-year-old nephew to suicide and his dream of opening a school for underprivileged children in Cleveland, Ohio. That opened up a thought-provoking question-and-answer session with students and faculty covering topics like race, social injustice and more.
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“For me, my goal is to get educators, students and administrators to reflect deeply beneath the surface and be personally aware,” Ervin said. “But also to be socially aware and be more understanding and impacted to the emotional lives of our students in addition to our academic lives. And I do that through music, movement and storytelling.”
Ervin is an educator, entertainer, motivational speaker and youth development professional who has provided assemblies, workshops and programs to thousands of students across the country. Ervin’s assemblies are interactive performances that tell stories about building character through the human experience. He was a public school teacher for 10 years in Los Angeles, California, and Cleveland, Ohio, at schools specializing in social-emotional learning and non-violent communication curriculum develop.
“In my work, I’m honoring Dr. King’s legacy,” Ervin said. “In a school that’s very diverse and honors kids in America and globally, to do this work is a dream, his dream.”
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Ervin had the attention of students immediately.
“As a white kid from a predominately white community it was eye-opening,” Tyler DiIenno ’19 said. “It’s hard for me to get in the shoes of an African-American in this country. His tactics of public speaking were very welcoming and I feel like it connected with every student here. And it was refreshing to see students interested and engaged.”
Later in the day, Ervin conducted a workshop with faculty and staff. On Sunday, English teacher Allison Bass-Riccio hosted a “Dessert and Conversation” event at her on-campus apartment with Ervin and about 20 students. They discussed identity, mindfulness and other topics.
“The conversations just started flowing,” Jaida Williams ’19 said. “We talked a lot about the struggles with identity, and as a black female, I do struggle with identity. He gave really good advice as to how to figure that out. And he talked about using writing as an outlet. That’s something I do and will continue to do to find my voice. It was very eye-opening.”
Also on Martin Luther King Day, Tasha Blackwell, a spoken word poet and professor at Southern Connecticut State, held a writing workshop for female students. Blackwell has taken the stage at events that included award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou.
Students on Saturday broke up into groups and took part in 26 different service opportunities – on and off campus – in honor of King’s legacy of being committed to the community. The service opportunities included cleaning campus buildings, a theater workshop for New Haven youth and a visit to retirement homes.
“When I first arrived at Cheshire Academy I felt like it was a community,” Ervin said. “A lot of folks say community, but don’t live it. I felt like this is a place where everyone gets along and sacrifice for a greater cause. And that cause is education. I felt the togetherness, the camaraderie, the love and the trust and the safety. We did a workshop last night with the students and their maturity and honesty, their ability to carry on a conversation were tremendous and outstanding. One word that describes Cheshire is a sense of community and a sense of home.”