The highlight of this year’s event is a readers theater with high school students from throughout Rock County reading stories from the book "Freedom’s Children." The book features stories of children who lived through the Civil Rights era and some of the things that they experienced during that time.
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"It kind of gives you a flavor for what people who were fighting for civil rights had to go through," Leslie Brunsell, member of the Rock County Diversity Action Team committee, said. "I think a lot of us don’t have that knowledge, so we thought that it would be a good way to show why Dr. King was so important to that era."
Edie Baran, director of the readers theater, said members of the diversity action team wanted to host an activity that involved local youth.
"We know a lot about the history of Martin Luther King Jr., and I think that it’s important that the history is brought up. It’s something we need to remember, that’s for sure, but I think we need to go beyond that, and this year the committee decided to focus on youth and youth involvement," Baran said. "So instead of a keynote speaker, we wanted to have the youth as the main focus."
Baran said, by participating in the readers theater, she hopes students will have a better understanding of King’s message and what some of the children who lived during that time had to experience.
"This is not the adult perspective. It’s very much the kids’ perspective. Some of these stories are from kids who were as young as 4 years old who remember (the Civil Rights Movement)," Baran said. "There are stories from kids who were in their young teens who just decided to get involved in what was called the Children’s Crusade. Through the stories, you can see the importance that these actions had on what was happening in the greater scheme of things. At the time, they didn’t think about their place in history, and these kids were relating these stories as something they did, not realizing, much later, the significance of what their actions really were."
Baran said earlier in the school year she met with school advisers to encourage students to participate. She said the students were required to audition by reading a selection from the book. The students are now required to edit the story they will read during the event and explain how that story has changed their life.
Baran has been working with the students individually to help them prepare for their presentation. She said there will be two group rehearsals before the day of the event.
"They don’t have to memorize it, but they do have to work on it," Baran said. "They’re presenting a character, and there has to be appropriate emotion involved. So, each of them are encouraged to read their story every day. I’m not sure if they are, but we’ll find out."
Baran said, even though she is not sure of the exact number, she is pleased with the number of students who wanted to participate in the readers theater.
"I was hoping to get six, and the response was a lot more than that," Baran said. "So, I have to make some changes to how I’m structuring the program, but I didn’t really want to say no to students who wanted to get involved."
Besides the readers theater, several awards will be presented during the event. The winners of the high school and middle school essay contest will be announced. One winner from each participating school will be selected. The students also will be asked to read a portion of their essay.
More than a hundred essays were submitted this year. The theme for this year’s essay contest was "What am I Doing to Make the World a Better Place?"
The recipients of the UAW Civil Rights Committee Diversity Service award and the YWCA’s Social Justice award also will be announced during the commemoration.
"Nominations come from all over the community. It’s just not a school thing. It’s through churches and other organizations," Brunsell said.
The event also will include performances from the Craig High School Women’s Choir, and artwork from local students will be on display.
"The artwork is really incredible,"Baran said. "Kids from kindergarten and all the way up have submitted pieces. It’s really amazing to see how involved they get and how much work the teachers are willing to do for this. It’s obviously important to them, because it’s extra work for the teachers. The submission of artwork, the submission of essays shows me how important our theme of peace and continuing peace in our lives really means."
Another highlight of the event is the ethnic food fest, which will feature foods prepared by local residents and restaurants.
"Let’s say you’re Norwegian, and you love lutefisk, you can bring lutefisk so everybody can have a little taste," Brunsell said. "The DAT committee brings the paper plates, and we set up tables and anyone can come and display, on their table, how they want to recognize their ethnicity. It gives people a chance to try something that maybe they haven’t tried before. Sometimes it’s a new restaurant that will come, and they will want people to know that they’re here."
The event is free and open to the public. About 300 people attend the commemoration each year.
"We want people to know that this is a real fun event," Baran said. "It’s very touching. There’s something for every single person, no matter how young or old you are. You may not get to everything, but you will find something that you can connect to in a very heartfelt, meaningful way."
Brunsell said the event gives people an opportunity to experience different cultures.
"People can meet in a safe place and learn a little bit about each other and become more friendly with people of other races, ethnicities and communities," Brunsell said. "I think, in the last few years, it’s been more focused on the students. The school districts have been major players, which is great."
For more information, call (608) 752-2100.