'I was floored': Central York activists to be honored by daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Central York High School's Panther Anti-Racist Union is no stranger to public scrutiny in the wake of the student group's opposition to the district's book ban last year.

After a bold stance against school board members who banned a diversity resource list in 2021, the young activists were met with interviews by CNN, articles from the Washington Post and a feature in Seventeen Magazine.

But when faced with an award presented by Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, it's hard to ignore the gravity of an accomplishment like this.

Panther Anti-Racist Student Union organizer Edha Gupta speaks at rally outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. District officials added formal discussion of the ban to Monday's agenda. Gupta is a Central York High School senior. Bill Kalina photo

"It's almost as if Dr. King is saying, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant,'" said Patricia Jackson, who advises the group. "When I heard Dr. Bernice King speak, she has the very cadence of her father. It's not just an embodiment or a ghost — he's there — but it's like someone's reaching across time."

For the four young activists who helped lead the effort against the book ban — Edha Gupta, Christina Ellis, Renee Ellis and Olivia Pituch — this might just be the biggest event in their young lives.

"It's just so surreal, and again I think we're all just trying to wrap our minds around it," Pituch said. "We need to have gala attire — my high school prom is the nicest thing I've been to."

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The Panther Anti-Racist Union will be part of the 2023 class receiving the Beloved Community Youth Influencer Award, an honor that has been shared by such icons as Simone Biles, Malala Yousafzai and Lady Gaga.

Members of the Panther Anti-Racist Union. From left to right, Patricia Jackson, Renee Ellis, Olivia Pituch, Christina Ellis, Ben Hodge and Edha Gupta. Photo credit by Panther Anti-Racist Union.

The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change will be flying and housing the PARU group in Atlanta for the duration of the award ceremony. Jackson will be joined by fellow adviser Ben Hodge and the four young activists.

"I was floored," Hodge said. "I had to read the email about three or four times. I remember walking down to Patty's room, we just kind of looked at each other and we were like, 'this is wild.'"

At first, Hodge thought November's email was an invitation for diversity training, since the school activist group had participated in events hosted by The King Center before. But once realizing what was actually unfolding, Hodge could only describe the feeling as shell shocked.

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PARU will be flying down to Georgia on Jan. 13 as part of the center's weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. The following day, Jan. 14, awards will be presented in a formal gala event.

While standing up against the resource ban has been rewarding for the activists, pushback and objection from those who disagree have also taken a toll.

Ben Hodge, a Central York District teacher, speaks during a rally outside the Central York Educational Service Center Monday, Sept. 2020, to protest the school board's failure to approve a social studies curriculum dealing with diversity.
The 100-person rally coincided with the board's scheduled meeting. Bill Kalina photo

For Christina Ellis, having the chance to be in a room with like-minded people and engage in conversations about social change is the true reward for her.

With little recognition from Central York School District, the group agreed that being honored in this way affirms their actions all along.

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"It makes me feel like they appreciate us," Christina Ellis said. "(The King Center) is still keeping up with us. They're still watching our moves. And that's refreshing to hear from someone who's so high up."

Central York School School District teacher Patti Jackson attached empty cans to her outfit to make the point to elected officials to "stop kicking the can down the lane," at Zion Lutheran Church in Manchester Township on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Jackson, who teaches language arts, was supporting candidates at the poll. Bill Kalina photo

Since spending much of 2021 in "activism mode," as Hodge put it, PARU this year worked to organize more interactive, personal growth-type events.

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"We are encouraging everybody to, in four slides or less, try to share a little bit about themselves," Hodge said, adding that the exercise also focused on each student explaining why diversity and equality is important to them.

Additionally, PARU partnered with the Central York Education Association to collect essentials for local families in need.

"The last year we spent a lot of time in activism mode last year because we were dealing with protests and things of that nature," Hodge said. "This year's group wanted to put together a practical activity where they could really share their story, connect, learn and celebrate."