This year's Martin Luther King Day keynote speaker Annika Lescott ’06 felt the safety of her world rocked when, as a 12-year-old in a Brooklyn school, she witnessed the horror of the Twin Towers burning on 9/11/2001. For long afterwards, Lescott, now the Senior Advisor for Finance at the New York City Housing Authority, felt overwhelmed by fear.
“The days and months that followed were a blur,” she said in her address to the community in Walker Auditorium on Jan. 19. When her parents drove her over the bridge from Brooklyn into New York City for Saturday classes at Prep for Prep, “My anxiety and my fear rode next to me.” But, she learned, “Each time I faced my fears, it got easier.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about fear, too, she said. “One thing that we don’t often mention when we tell the stories of these great men, women, and gender non-conforming individuals that have changed history is their innate humanity,” she told her audience. King, the influential minister and activist and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was “like you and me … the recipe for each human is the same,” she said. “He faced constant retribution and was attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses, jailed in Birmingham, his life and that of his family were constantly threatened.”
Dr. King spoke about fear in this quote, she said: “First we must unflinchingly face our fears and honestly ask ourselves, ‘Why are we afraid?’ This confrontation will, to some measure, grant us power… for the more we attempt to ignore and repress our fears, the more we multiply our inner conflicts..”
Lescott chose to attend Hotchkiss through the Prep for Prep Program. “Looking back,” she says, “that decision was my way of confronting fear, advocating for myself, and prioritizing self-care. At Hotchkiss I found myself, and I found a community without fear.”
“I will be the first to admit, Hotchkiss was no utopia,” she said. When a popular student on campus posted insensitive content on Facebook, she responded. “At the time, I didn’t have the right language, like micro-aggression or racially insensitive, but I used the language I had. I spoke up and learned the power of my own voice to advocate for myself and for others. You have a responsibility to each other and this community to add your voice to the dialogue,” she said.
From Hotchkiss she took her voice and a strong desire to be an advocate for those who are powerless. The daughter of Trinidadian immigrants, Lescott received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina and her master’s degree from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Her career in government began when she was selected to be Presidential Management Fellow. She worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget, doing non-partisan housing policy analysis and providing strategic oversight into the $40-billion housing budget.
“Public housing and other subsidized housing programs serve the most vulnerable American families,” she says. “These families are too busy working to make ends meet to be politically active. They also don’t have the political clout that money can afford. And still only one in four Americans who need housing subsidies receive them.”
“I challenged myself to learn the perspective of these American families – they were from inner city and rural areas, black and white, but all economically disadvantaged. I wanted to ensure the policies I recommended truly supported them.”
In those years in Washington, she worked as a civil servant under Presidents Obama and Trump. The transition between them was “one of the most difficult times of my life,” she said, adding that she considered quitting. But, she felt it was her duty to continue.
From there, in her current position as senior advisor for finance for the New York City Housing Authority, she has, in some ways, returned home. She remains an active and engaged alumni volunteer for Hotchkiss, currently serving as a member of the Hotchkiss Alumni Association’s Board of Governors. Lescott was the first female keynote speaker the School has had for MLK Day.
“Overall, I walked away from Lescott’s keynote with a message about the importance of facing one’s fears, finding common ground with those you don’t agree with, and in putting your whole self into what you do, even when you 'can’t see' the results of your work immediately,” said Rachel Myers, director of diversity and inclusion and instructor in English.
The theme chosen by BaHSA this year was “Keepin’ It Real." Helping to set that tone, contemporary jazz violinist James Racine and accompanists performed prior to Lescott's address. Racine is a faculty member at Kentucky Country Day School and the founder and executive director of the Blazin’ Strings Academy – a nonprofit after-school program for underserved youth in Louisville, KY.
Following Lescott’s address, musician Desmond Teague ’20, Kostia Howard ’20, and Sam Beutner ’20 performed “Alabama ” by John Coltrane, who wrote the composition following the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. It is patterned upon the rhythms of Martin Luther King’s funeral eulogy in their memory.
The following day, students participated in student and faculty-led workshops, ranging from dance yoga to pub-style trivia to conversations on the history of racism.