Dr. Kandice Sumner was unfazed when scores of participants in Saturday’s African American and Latino/a Tenacity Challenge broke into spontaneous dancing on the Bedford High School stage where she was about to deliver the event’s keynote address.
“Anytime you can have joy for the sake of joy, who cares who’s watching? Light your light!” she declared.
The 12th annual Tenacity Challenge was “an amazing day,” said the overall coordinator, Akil Mondesir, the Bedford school’s METCO and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion director. The scholarship competition for student teams from high schools throughout the region featured competition in four arenas: art, history, literature, and mathematics. More than 25 teams from 17 school districts participated.
At one point during the day, four Bedford school superintendents were together: Joseph Buckley, for whom the auditorium is named; Jon Sills, who spearheaded the Tenacity Challenge when he was BHS principal; retiring Superintendent Philip Conrad; and incoming Superintendent Cliff Chuang.
Mondesir noted that Chuang, an assistant commissioner in the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, served as a math bowl judge at last year’s Tenacity Challenge. Saturday he was on the scene the entire day and took part as a history judge.
Sumner, the keynoter, is an author and consultant on issues of race, achievement, antiracism, culture, equity, and activism. She attended Weston Schools under the METCO program, graduated from historically Black Spelman College in Atlanta, and now teaches humanities in the Brockton public schools.
Her presentation was invigorating and compelling, segmented into components that she labeled “Learn Yourself;” “Take up Space;” “Nothing Is New;” and “Unapologetically You.”
“Learn yourself for now so you can love yourself for now,” Sumner declared, explaining that statistics show black and brown people in the U.S. experience higher levels of many physical and psychological disorders. “Learn your identity as an exercise of living your identity.”
She continued, “Learn the history of colonization of the Caribbean – the only thing that separates us is your colonizer. Love yourself as a way to reclaim what the world is trying to steal from you. The world wants you literally to not learn about yourself. You are descendant of kings and queens.”
Sumner explained “internalized racism – that’s the part of you that says, ‘I should straighten my hair,’” or “the impostor syndrome, wondering, ‘Should I be in this AP class?’ The way to fight that is to study every detail of your identity so you can learn it and love it.”
She explained what she meant by “take up space. This world wants you to become smaller. Take up every inch and multiply it times 10. Speak up. Share your story. What you do when you wave your flag is you give license for everybody else to do the same.” Social media provides “access quicker to people saying the same thing.”
Sumner reminded the students to “realize I am a descendant of people who were fighting this fight and I am standing on their shoulders – and people are standing on my shoulders. None of this is new; we are just new to it. It can be humbling, and empowering.” She noted that her grandfather, Carnell Eaton, was a founder of the predecessor to METCO.
“I literally represent the ancestors because I’m fighting for the same thing,” she asserted. “What are they saying to you?”
The speaker also urged the participants to “be emboldened” and contest “the people and the systems of oppression that stand against you – anything that says you can’t have because of who and what you are.”
The theme for this year’s Tenacity Challenge was, “The Controversy over Racism in Education.”
Mondesir’s post-challenge agenda was replete with praise and gratitude – for the student participants, custodial and food service staff, and volunteer alumni from several historically Black fraternities and sororities, who served as judges.
He also thanked high school staff members, noting that Sean Hagan, visual arts program director for the Bedford schools, recruited staff members from the Massachusetts College of Art to judge student projects.