By Jim Sullivan
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Sometimes a tradition needs to be broken and the Newburyport YWCA is doing just that Monday night when, after 20 years, it will be holding a dinner instead of a breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The program, “Martin Luther King Jr., a Celebratory Evening” will be held at Newburyport City Hall from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The program is cosponsored by the Newburyport Commission for Diversity and Tolerance.
“Every year we have tried to find a way to make it more accessible and inspiring to more people,” said Ellie Davis, YWCA director of programs and community relations. “So we have changed all along.”
A popular event for the past two decades, this year’s celebration will be open to middle school students as well as high schoolers. The evening will feature a light supper. Students can attend for free.
“We have gone from having it in catered facilities to holding it in the high school,” Davis said. “We have changed the type of presentations that we do, looking at what is really going to capture people’s interest in the community, and we have been hearing from the students and the community members who work on that day that an early in the morning breakfast is a bit challenging.”
Or, as Newburyport High School junior and member of the student-led Racial Justice Committee Leah Petty put it: “We are making it in the evening so that more students can come, because students don’t really want to wake up in the morning.”
Education has always been a key element of the MLK celebrations and Petty enjoyed her first breakfast last year.
“Last year was really good,” Petty said. “We had Harlem 125 and he was really good. He was a slam poet and he made you think about things but entertained you at the same time.”
Hoping for the same experience this year, Petty went to Marc Clopton, executive director of the Actors Studio, who suggested storyteller Valerie Tutson might be a great contributor to this year’s celebration.
“We want to be able to talk about the past but also bring up more current issues,” Petty said. “So we thought storytelling, just to make it more relevant to now, especially for the students.”
A seasoned performer, Tutson has been a professional storyteller for over 20 years.
“We wanted an event that would really engage people,” Davis said. “We really wanted something that would be thought-provoking. We want people to think differently about an issue they may not have yet before. We wanted there to be some sort of feeling overlay, where they could not only think but also feel something different about the issue.”
Assistant rector at St. Paul’s Church, the Rev. Oliver Jones, will also be on hand to receive this year’s Nancy Peace Action against Prejudice Award.
“It kind of feels like, ‘wait a minute, you should give me a few more years to do something,’” Jones said, with a laugh. “But it’s a credit to the congregation that I serve because they have given me a place to engage with this passion I have for getting people from different backgrounds to communicate with each other.
“Dr. King was maybe a little bit more confrontational than it is my habit to be, but sometimes you can learn from him when the confrontation is worthwhile or it is going to be counterproductive,” Jones added. “Sometimes you have to stand up and say, ‘No, this just isn’t right.’ And other times you have to say, ‘Let’s figure out a way to move ahead quietly.”
Jones was nominated for the award by St. Paul’s rector, the Rev. Martha Hubbard, and he currently volunteers at Newburyport Educational Enrichment Center where Nancy Earls, who was the recipient of the Nancy Peace Award last year, is the executive director.
“He has a wonderful way of advocating for racial and economical justice, through his preaching and through his other service ministries that he takes part in,” Hubbard said. “Ollie often volunteers as a cook or a server at our Among Friends meals that we offer to the community every week and he is also in the process of providing other assistance to the people that come in for those meals.”
Hubbard said that, to her, racial and social justice are about all people having enough and that Jones has a particular knack for communicating that.
“We live in a fairly homogenous town,” Hubbard said. “We have some racial diversity but not a lot. And Ollie is particularly good at delivering the message that, just because we don’t have a lot of racial diversity doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be involved in racial justice issues and trying to have a positive impact on racial and economic inequality. Often, those of us who have enough, or more than enough, can turn a blind eye to the needs of the people in our midst.”
IF YOU GO What: "Martin Luther King Jr., a Celebratory Evening" When: Monday, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Where: Newburyport City Hall, Pleasant St., Newburyport How: $25 for adults; $20 for seniors. Tickets to the dinner can be purchased at the YWCA's front desk. For more information, contact Ellie Davis at 978-225-6210 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Students attend for free.