Writer and Advocate Janet Mock Speaks at MLK Jr. Day All-School Meeting

Clear notes echoed off the arched ceiling of Cochran Chapel as Andover’s Gospel Choir sang out the final chorus of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The song, often referred to as the black national anthem, served as an introduction to the special Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day All-School Meeting (ASM).

Andover then welcomed “The New York Times” Best-Selling Author Janet Mock as the MLK Jr. Day keynote speaker at Monday’s ASM. Mock, author of the book “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More” and host of the MSNBC show “So POPular!”, spoke about her experiences as a transgender woman of color and why she decided to share her story with the world through her book.

“I thought, possibly, that me opening up in this way could touch some people… It just felt right. Telling my story was my first step towards living my truth – living it by sharing it,” said Mock during ASM.

Karissa Kang ’17 and Madison Pettaway ’17 introduced Mock, praising the work she has done in advocating for the rights of trans people and people of color.

“I think it was really important for [Mock] to come [to campus] just so that she can offer [her] perspective to us, and really highlight a group of people who don’t really get their chance to shine, especially at an institution as [cisgender] as this,” said Pettaway.

In her introduction of Mock during ASM, Kang said, “Before I read ‘Redefining Realness,’ I’d never read anything written about trans people that wasn’t either sensationalist or disdainfully clinical, much less written by an actual trans person… It also reminded me that trans people all have incredibly different experiences… I took something away from it, and so can everyone.”

Members of the Office of Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) said they chose Mock as the keynote speaker because of her vast knowledge of gender and race, as well as her experience talking about the intersections of identity. LaShawn Springer, Director of Community and Multicultural Development, said she was initially unsure of how the Andover community would react to CAMD’s choice.

“We’re all in a space of learning and growth. But that’s the beginning of the conversation. So to have Mock expose us to a more complicated and complex story, honestly I wasn’t sure how people would react… I thought it was important to talk about King’s legacy and the way I see it intertwined with current social movements,” said Springer.

“If you pay attention to the language used to discredit the work being done by advocates like Mock, it’s eerily similar to the language used to discredit the Civil Rights Movement,” she continued.

Springer hosted a moderated discussion with Mock during ASM, an idea suggested by Mock to allow for a more personal and informal interaction with the audience. Springer asked Mock to take students through the journey of her decision to be honest with her own transgender story, and to talk about what empathy means in her work as a writer and advocate for trans people’s rights.

In her conversation with Springer, Mock expressed her frustration with the slow progress of achieving rights for transgender people. “What’s difficult for me is that [trans people are] still fighting… for something so basic as, ‘What are you going to call me?’, ‘Will you please respect me and call me by my name and my pronouns?’ That’s the level that we’re at… How are we supposed to get protections for [trans] folks when we still don’t respect them as they come?” said Mock in the ASM.

Mock also emphasized the importance of empathy in creating a more understanding community. She acknowledged the difficulty of opening one’s mind to new ideas, especially in a space of excellence like Andover.

“You do not know everything. None of us do,” said Mock. “And I think that a lot of that comes from that sense of arrogance that’s built. A lot of times, when you’re in these spaces of excellence, that’s your way that you survive. You pretend that you know everything, and you might catch up later on, but when you’re in a space and a person is trying to bring you along and catch you up, you should appreciate that.”

Head of School John Palfrey agreed with Mock’s sentiments of recognizing arrogance and urged students to reflect further upon this concept as he closed ASM.

“One of the most important things I’ve heard from [Mock] this morning is to admit that you don’t know something. I will admit that this is a topic we’ve been talking about in which I don’t have a great deal of knowledge or experience… I think that those are the most important learning moments. The moments in which we are, in fact, uncomfortable, but we let our mind open,” said Palfrey.