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Newfield community unites through words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Beginning in February, Newfield High School principal Barry Derfel seeks to unite the Newfield community using the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?.

In the January edition of the Newfield Newsletter, Derfel cited the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT as one of the reasons to start a dialogue in the community. Newfield High School English teacher Peter Pfarrer said Martin Luther King’s words, though written almost 50 years ago, are still relevant today, especially in wake of the mass shootings that have sprung out across the nation.

Derfel intends to promote communal dialogue on race, hunger and poverty among other issues mentioned in the book. Those wishing to participate in this event can sign up in the Newfield High School office, where they can also pick up a free copy of the book.

Pfarrer is distancing himself from his role as an educator to participate in the talk and  discuss issues of human rights within the larger platform of the community.

“I welcome the opportunity to step out of the daily requirement and the business of our lives to reflect on things, talk to colleagues…and get an opportunity to really engage,” Pfarrer said.

Derfel modeled the upcoming Newfield community readings after his involvement with the past MLK Community Build project in the Ithaca area. The original undertaking involved a number of projects such as Pre-K through adult lesson plans and other educational resources that can be accessed via the MLK Community Build website.

Non-profit organizations and educational institutions were involved in the Ithaca MLK Community Build from the start. Tompkins County Public Library Reader Services librarian Sarah Glogowski noted Derfel’s success in challenging and involving the community in the initiative.

“There were so many book groups that at one point I don’t even think we were aware of how many groups were meeting and discussing [MLK],” Glogowski said. “It was a tremendous response from the community.”

“The plan is to meet for about an hour and a half at the school, probably starting sometime in the middle of February,” Derfel said. “And it’s not too late for people to sign up, either.”

Derfel hopes to facilitate discussions in the Newfield community that broaden perspectives and cover issues that are not typically approached.

“I think any time you get different types of people together to have a conversation about issues of hunger, poverty, violence, racism –– there’s going to be healthy disagreement,” Derfel said. “People will see things differently based on their experiences and who they are. Finding ways that lead to common understanding, and common goals and finding common ground is healthy.”

Derfel said one of the many reasons violence is seen more frequently in communities is because such open dialogues have not been nurtured.

“In this day of man’s highest technical achievement, in this day of dazzling discovery, of novel opportunities, loftier dignities and fuller freedoms for all, there is no excuse for the kind of blind craving for power and resources that provoked the wars of previous generations,” King said in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?.

Pfarrer said students are a vital part of the community discourse. He sees them as the future of society, capable of engaging and addressing the issues that are integral to a democracy.

“I think it’ll be wonderful for students to see a model of how adults can come together and discuss complexities…and I think it’ll be a wonderful opportunity for them to see adults in a different light,” Pfarrer said. “[Not just] their assigned teachers but as people who are engaged in their own thinking, their own wrestling’s with what it means to be an American today.”

Glogowski feels the MLK reading in Newfield is very promising.

“I’m really glad that Newfield is doing it,” Glogowski said. “I think it bridges communities, and that’s one of the reasons why we chose the name ‘build’ instead of ‘read.’ We were really interested in building communities.”

Past community readings have spurred provocative conversations. Derfel hopes individuals will come to Newfield’s MLK readings eager to share their opinions, and leave feeling valued for what they contributed.

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