Branson Explores "The Beloved Community" with Dr. Cornel West and Mr. Bakari Kitwana

On Tuesday, January 21, 2020, Branson welcomed renowned scholars Dr. Cornel West and Mr. Bakari Kitwana as keynote speakers for its annual Human Development Day, entitled “Branson – a Beloved Community.” 

Branson as Beloved Community

The term "Beloved Community,” first described by the American religious philosopher Josiah Royce, speaks to the interconnectedness between individuals within a community. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later popularized the idea, envisioning it as a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one's fellow human beings. Through a day-long series of workshops and discussions, Branson students and teachers explored this concept and the interplay between individual pursuit and community prosperity. 

Branson students, faculty, and staff began the day by building their capacity to engage critically in diversity dialogues. In morning workshops, students critically self-reflected on the diverse facets of their identity. In the afternoon, groups of students gathered in “affinity spaces” where they processed their experiences and also explored ways to increase their capacity to consciously engage in the communities in which they learn, work, and live. All members of the school were challenged to consider how the well-being of each individual is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

“In an increasingly complex world, it's more essential than ever before for young people to acquire an enduring set of diverse and relevant tools – skills that increase their capacity for self-reflection and their ability to consciously engage the communities in which they learn, work, and live,” said Dean of Students Meredith Herrera.

Challenging Us All to Love

The highlights of the day, however, were two presentations – for parents and for the student body – by guest speakers Dr. Cornel West and Mr. Bakari Kitwana. Dr. Cornel West is one of the foremost experts on social justice in our country and has been on the front lines of every major social justice event in the United States for the last 50 years. Mr. Bakari Kitwana is an internationally known cultural critic, journalist, activist, and thought leader in the area of hip-hop, youth culture, and Black political engagement. Both are known for never compromising on matters of principle, a quality deeply valued by all of us at Branson and right in line with the school’s mission, values, and strategic plan.

“I am here to unsettle the sleepwalking of my fellow citizens, to awaken them,” West orated with lyrical heft, quoting Thoreau and setting the stage for what was to come. And he made good on that promise. Through a compelling and thought-provoking Socratic dialogue, he and Kitwana captured the attention of the Branson audience and challenged them to new learning and understanding.

Speaking of their own life experiences, and calling out a diverse group of individuals including John Coltraine, Willie Mays, Hamlet, Socrates, Jesus, and Marvin Gaye, West and Kitwana seamlessly wove together a rich tapestry with threads of history, personal anecdotes, remembrances, literature, philosophy, music, and politics. The end result was a deeply provocative, richly hued, and unsentimental portrait of love and its power to change the world: 

"Love is the commitment to the betterment of others. Justice is what love looks like in public."

“The world is never a place where wisdom is predominant; there’s too much insecurity. Love forces you to examine who you are at your deepest level and see if you can get to something higher.”

"You are not self-made. I am who I am because somebody loved me. Martin Luther King Jr. was a love warrior; he believed that love was the key that unlocks the door and leads to ultimate experience. It can be love of the mind. Jeremaiah wept. Jesus wept. Socrates – he was of the mind, but he did not weep. He did not love.”

West and Bakari challenged Branson students, parents, teachers, and friends to follow the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to "cultivate wisdom, tenacity, and the courage to love": 

“Brother Martin Luther King, Jr. was humble but he was also tenacious, a fighter. But he wasn’t just smart. He was wise. And what about you? Let the others be smart; you’ve got to be wise. Courage… integrity… honesty… decency. You can’t always be the winner who conquers. Be the human being who serves.”

“Find your voice; don’t just be an echo. Your voice is distinctively yours. How do you find your voice? Learn to think critically for yourself.”

“What are the ways in which we have cultivated the courage to love? You can be as smart as they come, highly educated. But when it comes to love – opening yourself up, vulnerability, invincibility – what kind of person are you going to be? What kind of human being are you going to be?"

Reflections on the Day

Human Development Day beautifully exemplified Branson’s mission, where we work toward helping young people understand how they can "make a positive impact in the world by leading lives of integrity, purpose, learning, and joy." Students, parents, faculty, and even the speakers themselves, reflected on the power of coming together as a community and the unique experience:

One student shared: "After hearing [Dr. West and Mr. Kitwana] speak, I was for sure inspired. But after the affinity spaces, I came away empowered from learning I was connected to our Branson community more than I had realized."

A sophomore wrote, "For me, today was genuinely powerful and inspiring. The speakers were beyond fantastic, and every single word of what they said really struck me. Today was a great opportunity to help me and my friends connect with aspects of our identities we don't often think too deeply about, and I really appreciated the time we had."

Another student said, "Thank you for the power, passion, and inspiration of your guests Dr. Cornel West and Mr. Bakari Kitwana. I'm absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of this opportunity to attend the event AND to be a part of this community." 

Living the Lessons

It was a powerful and special day for the Branson community – but certainly not just a one-off. Each and every day, the Branson community engages in dialogue, learning, and self-exploration around diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is thanks to the efforts of devoted faculty and staff who have worked to build their capacity to bring DEI into the student experience, through professional development workshops. These initiatives are led by Branson’s DEI director, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz, who was also instrumental in bringing Dr. West and Mr. Kitwana to campus. 

As Head of School Chris Mazzola wrote in a letter to parents, “The concept of beloved community focuses first and foremost on love, because Dr. King believed that the only path to a truly healthy society is sowed through the seeds of love. I agree wholeheartedly, and feel that this is the kind of community we should be working to build at Branson – a community where opposing views can be expressed openly and with dignity, a community where difference is celebrated, a community where each person feels seen and valued for both strengths and weaknesses.” 

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Photos by SMG Foto FB: facebook.com/smgfotosf | IG: @smgfotosf.

with additional contributions by Nathalio Gray and Jenni Owen-Blackmon