BreAnna Liberto was invited to be the Keynote Speaker for PennWest Clarion's 11th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast on January 16th. This is a transcript of her speech.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is BreAnna Liberto and I am the Founder and Director of Clarion Center for the Arts. I graduated from Clarion Area High School in 2011 and from Penn West Clarion in 2014. A year before graduating, I opened Clarion Center for the Arts, which is now celebrating its 10th season.
I am completely humbled to be standing before you today celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve given many speeches before and I talk in front of crowds on a regular basis, but I’ll admit that the invitation to speak for this event is the most daunting one I’ve ever agreed to because of the magnitude of this great man. I pray that my words here this morning will honor the memory of Dr. King and, to put simply, make him proud. It is not a task that I take lightly.
This morning we are gathered specifically to remember Dr. King’s legacy when it comes to creating peace through art. As Dr. King famously stated, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice." Dr. King and the great men and women of his time made incredible strides toward achieving justice, but it is no secret that injustice still exists. So what do we do about it now?
"True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fighting for justice requires us to first have a solid answer about life and the dignity of the human person. Dr. King believed that as males and females created in the very image of God, our dignity does not come from our physical appearance or from the value we produce for society. Our dignity comes from being signatures of the Divine and as such we all have a right to life and possess intrinsic worth. With this in mind, we should judge all institutions by how they threaten or enhance the life and dignity of every human being.
We all possess our own individual worth, but because we are social creatures our social structures matter to the flourishing of each individual. At the center of our social institutions lies the smallest societal infrastructure, the family. What we do to support and strengthen families has a direct impact on society at large and we have a responsibility to ensure that all families, especially the poor and vulnerable, are taken care of and guaranteed their fundamental right to life and human decency.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. understood, social justice is a foundational principle of the Christian faith and way of living. I’m a bit of a Bible nerd and love diving deep into the Scriptures, so bear with me while I share something that I think is really cool. The Old Testament Hebrew word that is translated to justice is Mishpat. Mishpat can refer to retributive justice, which is the rightful sentencing of someone who has done wrong. But most often Mishpat used in the Bible refers to restorative justice, which is actively seeking out those who are more vulnerable and helping them through charity, advocacy and working to change social structures in order to prevent future injustice.
The Scriptures show us that we must stand in solidarity with those who experience injustice and whose lives and dignity are threatened. As the Christian faith teaches, "we are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers and our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict." (Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)
But again, how do we do that? How do we promote peace? One powerful and effective way to do it is through art.
While we are signatures of the Divine because we are image bearers of God, G.K. Chesterton once stated that, “Art is the signature of man.” No other creature has the capacity for creating art. And it makes sense really when you look around at God’s creation that we, who are made in his image, would be given the ability to also create. But with great power comes great responsibility. If we want to create art that has a lasting impact on the world, then we must create art that reflects the transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty.
As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman said, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” Since storytelling is an artform, it’s easy to connect the dots between art and its ability to persuade. But the potential to change a person’s thoughts and beliefs about a particular subject is not where the deepest magic of art lies. Yes, art has the power to inspire people to examine their own lives and the institutions they’re involved with to see how they can better uphold life and human dignity. We should tell true, good and beautiful stories through our art that persuades people to seek the welfare of the poor and vulnerable among us. But beyond persuasive storytelling, art has the power to change a person’s heart, to penetrate their very soul and affect a change of their whole being, mind, body, spirit and emotions.
You see, art that is true, good and beautiful elicits a sense of awe and wonder and there’s a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when human beings experience awe. Whether from nature or music or some other work of art, these awe-filled moments carry with them some incredible benefits. On a personal level, experiencing awe can improve your mood, make you more satisfied with your life and even lower physical inflammation. It can help you think more critically so you're less likely to be persuaded by weak arguments and it can decrease your desire for material things. These benefits alone can assist you in becoming a better citizen. But even more relevant, experiencing awe-filled moments can actually shrink your sense of self, making you more humble, generous, cooperative and connected to the rest of humanity. (Source: Greater Good Magazine)
Sean Laurent from Pennsylvania State University recently conducted a study that highlights the effects that awe-inducing experiences can have on global citizenship. In reference to his group’s findings he states, “Awe helps you realize that you’re a small piece of a larger universe, [leading] to a realization that people elsewhere are relevant and worthy of concern.” By shrinking our sense of self, awe helps us to identify with the global human family. Laurent goes on to say that, “When we feel as if we’re all connected, it can make us a lot more tolerant and understanding of other people’s situations and have more appreciation for diversity.” (Source: Greater Good Magazine)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly understood the importance of expanding our appreciation for the global human family. In a Christmas sermon in 1967 he said, “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective." Without a proper understanding of just how vast the world is, it can be difficult to overcome our own desire for comfort and security in order to make sacrifices for the betterment of mankind.
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, it’s no wonder that so many of the heroes of Dr. King’s faith spent significant time in the desert before embarking on their mission. Abraham was called into the desert before being made into the father of many nations, Moses spent time in the desert before being called to lead the Israelites out of slavery, the entire Israelite nation spent years in the desert before entering the promised land. Even Jesus spent time in the desert before starting on his earthly ministry. The desert is a piece of God’s artwork, if you will. It inspires an incredible sense of awe where all that is superfluous is stripped away and we are left to gaze upon the stars, realizing just how small we truly are. And as we humble ourselves and acknowledge our own insignificance, we open ourselves up to see the rest of the world and our fellow humans for all that they are truly worth.
Art has a uniquely powerful way of helping us expand our worldview simply by eliciting a sense of awe and wonder. As we become more connected with the rest of humanity, we begin to understand the intrinsic value of all human life. We become motivated to structure our society in a way that strengthens and supports families, especially the poor and vulnerable ones. We find the courage to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are facing injustice.
Dr. King spoke often of our common humanity. He shared with students at Cornell College in 1962 his conviction that “men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other.” As the awe-someness of art expands our worldview, we start to identify the experiences and interests that we have in common with our fellow human beings. The appreciation of art transcends and breaks down cultural barriers. We are all able to enjoy and be moved by art that is created by people who, on the surface, are not like us. But by consuming their art we get to know them better, fear them less and love them more.
“… I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one."
...it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.”
This striking realization that we have something in common is exactly what art has the power to facilitate. In addition to transcending cultures, the self-shrinking effect of awe-filled moments primes us to recognize the most important thing we all have in common… that each of us is only a small piece of a larger universe and yet each of us is made in the image of God.
At Clarion Center for the Arts, we are committed to helping our students build character through dance, music, theatre and circus. It is more important to us that our students grow up to be compassionate, confident and creative as opposed to professional performers. By surrounding children with art that is true, good and beautiful, we generate awe-filled moments that help them discover a large universe full of people who are relevant and worthy of concern. We center our dance recitals each year around a local cause and raise money and awareness for it throughout the season. We also focus our entire week-long Project Ignite summer camp around the idea of using the arts to make a difference, utilizing songs and prompts to facilitate conversations about how to be more compassionate toward ourselves and toward others.
Obviously, I love the arts. In line with Dr. King’s vision, I truly believe the arts have a powerful way of creating peace by evoking awe and wonder, expanding our worldview and helping us see our common humanity. Through the awe-someness of art we can find the motivation and the courage to fight for life and human dignity and stand in solidarity with our more vulnerable brothers and sisters. We can continue the legacy of Dr. King and help make his dream more and more a reality. We can allow our loyalties to transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. We can create true peace by bringing forth justice. So in honor of Dr. King, let’s make this world a more peaceful place by creating awe-some moments through the power of art.