UPPER EAST SIDE — Desirae Bartos, 14, stood in front of the crowd gathered at the Abyssinian Baptist Church Monday to give her speech. Although she held notes in her hand, she was telling a story she knew by heart.
In 2010, Bartos’s aunt, Althea Lewis, was beaten to death by her boyfriend of three weeks. When Bartos’s teacher told her she could write a speech about any social issue that mattered to her, she knew what to choose: domestic violence.
“I will continue to tell your story in the hopes that other young women won’t continue to suffer in silence or pay with their lives,” Bartos read.
Bartos is one of 21 eighth graders from the Manhattan Country School who organized and led a march through the streets of Harlem to honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The students wrote and gave speeches on the social justice issues that they believe matter most today to pay homage to the fallen civil rights leader. Topics included immigration reform, LQBTQ rights, stop-and-frisk and educational inequality among others.
It was the students' idea to write the speeches in the form or letters.
“It made the speeches much more emotional, which I didn’t realize until I read through their first drafts,” said 8th Grade English teacher, Tom Grattan.
Grattan helped the students to choose a theme and a route for the march, which is now in its 26th year. They chose to speak at locations that have significance to the fight for social justice, including the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building and El Museo del Barrio.
Some letters spoke to the victims of injustice, including Rebecca Sedwick, a teen who killed herself after being bullied and Sasha Fleischman, a transgender person who was brutally attacked on a bus. Other students called on political leaders such as the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Matthew Thaxton, chose to address Mayor Bill de Blasio in his letter on racial profiling and the city’s Stop-and-Frisk policy.
“You are our new mayor and I trust you to make these changes to our amazing city,” Thaxton said.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joined the marchers in front of the Harlem YMCA. In her comments, she connected one student’s speech on income inequality to another social activism event happening in the city today: a demonstration for low-wage airport workers.
“We’re headed right now to fight for airport worker because many of them barely make minimum wage, just as you mentioned in your speech,” she said.
She encouraged the students to “keep fighting the good fight.”
Manhattan Country School, located at 7 East 96th St, is a progressive pre-K-8 school that serves about 200 students. The founders envisioned a school that was racially, culturally and economically diverse. In order to maintain this diversity, school tuition is based on a sliding scale determined by each family’s income.
The school’s focus on social justice is a big draw for some parents. In sixth grade, the students study the history of the Civil Rights movement and write and perform their own play based on their research.
“The spirit of social activism and instilling a voice was very important to me,” said Judy Pryor-Ramirez, whose son is in the second grade. “We come to the march each year because it’s a chance for him to see what he can do in the future.”
Michele Sola, the school’s director, said she hopes this is an experience the students will carry with them as they move on to high school and beyond.
“We want them to see that young people’s opinions are valued,” Sola said. “To be able to pull a few hundred marchers to hear what they have to say shows that it’s not always about the adults. They can be leaders too.”