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For Newton students, a ‘chaotic’ trip to D.C.

Tierney McAfee

As soon as President Barack Obama was elected to office, the members of Newton North High School’s Black Leadership Advisory Council (BLAC) decided they would be at his inauguration. But the group’s path to D.C. was not an easy one.

First, they tried to secure tickets from U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., but to no avail. Then they wrote to Oprah Winfrey for financial assistance, but they had no luck there.

Finally, the members of BLAC realized they would have to pave — and pay — their own way.

“When none of that stuff worked, we knew we had to keep it local and be intense with the fundraising,” said BLAC advisor Adam Carpenter, an English teacher at North.

It started with cupcakes, candy apples and cookies. The group held weekly bake sales to raise money, averaging about $60 per sale. But they quickly realized those efforts wouldn’t be enough.

So the BLAC decided to fundraise the old-fashioned way. They went door-to-door, visiting Newton residents and giving presentations on their history, mission and goal to attend the inauguration.

They explained how the group was founded 15 years ago by North English teacher Inez Dover in response to a race riot at the school. It started with just a few members; today, it has expanded to about 40 students.

“It was decided that black students needed a voice and a sense of educational encouragement, and BLAC serves as that voice,” Carpenter said. “Now it’s more the voice of all diverse students.”

Newton residents decided to help the BLAC’s voice be heard. Many members of the community made donations to the group’s cause.

 “They were really inspired and they helped us a lot. It was very rewarding,” said Sophie Dover, a senior at North and self-professed “token white girl” of the group.

Dover said she is a prime example of the BLAC’s openness to members of every color.

“I’m not black, so at first I wondered how I would play a role,” she said. “But after a while, I just fit right in. It’s caused me to examine my own roots. It’s a fun way to be cultural.”

The rest of the trip was funded through a parent-teacher-student organization, or “PTSO,” grant written by Carpenter, as well as donations from the Newton Democratic City Committee and Newton North.

In less than three months, the group raised about $3,000, enough to cover more than half of the costs to attend the inauguration, including bus transportation and a hotel stay.

On Jan. 20, 2009, 30 members of the BLAC and seven chaperones woke up at 4 a.m. and took a bus from their Maryland hotel into D.C. They parked at 7 a.m. and started walking.

They didn’t stop until several hours and six miles later when they were as close as possible to the president — which was still very far. Along the way, they lost a member who fainted and had to be taken to the hospital by one of the chaperones, and another chaperone to a back injury.

By the time they arrived, the student’s spirits were fading.

“It was hectic. It was tiring. It was cold,” said senior Kendra Dolor, one of the BLAC’s leaders.

Dover had a slightly different perspective.

“It was chaotic and inspiring,” she said.

And at noon, it was suddenly worth it. The members of BLAC had reached their final destination, where they witnessed Obama officially become the president of the United States and deliver his inaugural address.

“It was the end of an epic journey,” Dover said. “We couldn’t even see his Obama’s face when he made his speech, but we could still hear his voice and that was the best part. I just looked up at the sky and listened. What struck me was that even though there were millions of people there, when he spoke no one made a sound.

“I was just so full of hope,” she added. “To me, these were the words of our savior. He just embodies everything America can be.”

Dolor said it was moving to see and hear a president of her own race in person.

“It’s history,” she said. “It was so different from reading the speech or hearing it on TV. Hearing it live, you get to feel his vibe and hear his tone and voice.”

For Carpenter, it was just as inspiring to see his students learning and being a part of such a historic moment.

 “It was important for the students to experience first-hand the redefining of what it means to be black in America. For students to see such a positive African American and also to see other people seeing him in that same light was a transformative experience,” said Carpenter. “The best lessons often happen outside the classroom. We try to prepare them for the real world, but sometimes the world is the best teacher.”