Students Give Voice to Values

Story by Leslie King // Video by Jesse Paddock

For five years beginning in 1951, radio listeners were enraptured by the CBS program This I Believe, in which essayists — both well-known personalities and everyday people — were asked to pen “a statement of your personal beliefs, of the values which rule your thought and action.”

Inspired by that broadcast, Durham Academy Upper School students shared stories centered around their personal beliefs and values in an annual assembly in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The values he stood for — justice, equality, perseverance and peace, continue to inspire us today,” said dean of college counseling and Upper School diversity coordinator Jazmin Garcia Smith in the assembly’s introduction.

Traditionally, their speeches would have been delivered in Kenan Auditorium, but this year’s speeches were recorded outdoors in K Family Outdoor Commons and shared with the Upper School via a virtual assembly. Upper School history teacher and diversity coordinator Paul Slack explained the guidelines for each student’s courageous story: Tell a story about yourself and one core belief, be personal and be vulnerable.

This is the fifth year that the Upper School’s MLK observance centered around This I Believe speeches. This year’s speakers included seniors Andria Shafer and Blake Smith; juniors Molly Hunter, Zoe Sinclair and Aaliyah Wines; sophomores Emerson Levin and Ash Granda-Bondurant; and ninth-grader Scout Ross.

Excerpts from several speeches are included here, but you can watch all of the This I Believe speeches in their entirety via

“I want to see change. I want to see a president who cares about his country and the lives of his people. I want to see Black Lives Matter and not just say it. I want to focus on coming together and building a foundation for a better future. I believe that this starts with an honest dialogue. But for this to happen, we have to be brave enough to share our beliefs in a respectful and productive way that helps us move forward together. In a world of imperfect people, it is impossible for there not to be something dividing us. And we are all faced with the challenge of seeing the best in each other, instead of defining one another by the worst. My friends’ or family’s political opinions are not the only thing that define them. My grandfather taught me to see the best in people, even when it seems so hard to find. I choose to see the best parts of people instead of defining them by the bad choices or the things I do not agree with. I’m standing here today, deciding to be brave and have the courage to stand up for what I believe. And I hope you will all think about what I have said and ask yourself what it is you believe.”

Scout Ross ’24


“When asked to write a speech for today, I was asked to highlight some of the qualities of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose strength and perseverance because to me, nobody exemplifies these qualities better than my parents. They have been through so much recently and the way they have handled it with such grace and strength has been truly incredible. … The way my mom has handled these events is amazing. Her strength through these tough times has been unparalleled and what I admired most. … She let nothing stand in her way when it came to taking care of her family. … My mom’s unwavering strength and love through everything we’ve experienced these past couple years has helped me to find strength to persevere as well. … My dad has always been my best friend and the person I aspire to be like. He is the most friendly, talkative, warm-hearted person I know. He’s taught me how to do everything I know and love. … Despite all of the emotional stress that both his condition and these procedures induce, he never lets it shake his spirit or personality. … His perseverance really shines through because even when faced with ALS, he continues to strive to do what he does best — bring joy to the people around him.”

Blake Smith ’21


“Upon completion of my Bat Mitzvah, I was able to take pride in my religion. It not only allowed me to celebrate my true religious identity with my friends, but also gave me a platform to inspire change and engage my friends in helping others. My Bat Mitzvah was a turning point for me. It allowed me to see that while similarities can be helpful in forming relationships that are in my comfort zone, being courageous enough to be different and to form relationships that embrace those differences are the basis of meaningful and trusting communities. I learned to not only embrace my distinctions, but to also be grateful for the pieces of my identity which make me unique. … By sharing my Jewish heritage with younger children here at DA, and connecting with Judaism’s ideals of helping others, I’ve come to appreciate this part of me, and not only accept it, but be grateful for it.”

Emerson Levin ’23