AYER -- Students planned and hosted Ayer Shirley Regional High School's first Black History Month assembly to celebrate diversity and recognize contributions black people have made throughout history.
They prepared essays, poetry, artwork, presentations, and music about personal experiences with racial identity, the Civil Rights Movement history, and diversity for the Feb. 15 assembly.
"Diversity is not only in our actions, but our thoughts," said Katie Krueger, a senior who read an essay about her family who has lived in town for three generations.
She told the full auditorium about how people called her grandmother names for being in an interracial relationship and how her father, one of the first biracial students at school, was beaten because of his racial identity.
The assembly was a project by students in the school's Massachusetts Army National Guard Leadership Education Program.
Steve Tulli, a science and technology teacher, is the program advisor and helped oversee planning. He said the leadership program wants to continue to host the assembly annually.
Previously, the leadership students organized a Veterans Day program that highlighted social studies teacher Lt. Col. Sean McLaughlin, who is serving in Ukraine. Their next project is to sponsor a school in Ukraine.
Brian Levensailor, president of the senior class and leadership program, and senior Ryan Dupell presented a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. with highlights of some of his speeches, including "I've Been to the Mountaintop" and "I Have a Dream" from the March on Washington.
Mary Beth Hamel, assistant superintendent of the district, talked about work by white photographer William Bullard documenting everyday life of African Americans around Worcester in the early 1900s. As Bullard did, she encouraged students to approach others with curiosity, respect, and understanding.
Cpt. Mustafa Thompson, commander of the Western Massachusetts Recruiting Company for the state's National Guard, spoke about the need for leadership that connects, engages, and inspires others.
The best way to promote diversity isn't to create a separate program, he said, but to create opportunities for people of different backgrounds to challenge each other. That is what strengthens teams and the community.
"In this room right now, we have future leaders of this country," Thompson said. "As future leaders you should seek to practice good leadership."
Keynote speaker Rev. Kardell Woodson of New Hope Baptist Church in Ayer talked about King's leadership skills and how he encouraged others to overcome hate with goodness and persist in order to do the right thing.
He called on students to continue King's dream by challenging the status quo and striving to accept others and make sure they are afforded the same opportunities.
"In order to effect change," Woodson said, "you and I have to be changed."
At the end of the assembly, students gave flowers to former Ayer Shirley staff member Lucille DaCosta, who organized the school's multicultural program for 16 years. She was recognized for her leadership and service and received a standing ovation from the crowd.