Leslie Odom Jr. Joins MEF Webinar


Caroline Fitzpatrick

Leslie Odom Jr. speaks in a webinar alongside teachers & students.

Broadway actor Leslie Odom Jr., best known for his role as Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, spoke at a webinar hosted by the Moraga Education Federation (MEF) on February 24.

Odom Jr. was joined by student moderators from Joaquin Moraga Middle School and Campolindo, who helped to facilitate the discussion and add their own opinions, and a teacher from each school.

Over 500 students, parents, and staff signed up for the webinar in an event that was created to “remind people that [discussing]… issues and ideas can bring people together,” said Leadership teacher Lindsay Webb-Peploe, adding that MEF wanted someone who could facilitate a “deep conversation but also a unifying conversation.”

“I was pretty amazed to see how many people came to this event. The community seemed really enthusiastic and eager to hear Mr. Odom speak about his experiences with diversity and inclusion,” said student moderator junior Namratha Kasalanati.

Kasalanati said that the moderators were “nominated by faculty and selected from a pool of very accomplished students to be panelists,” adding that it was “an honor” to take part in the discussion.

Throughout the webinar, Odom Jr. drove home the ideas that it is okay to “fail spectacularly,” that one must seek mentorship in order to grow, and that listening to other people’s stories breaks down barriers.

“I think that being a mentor, only 2 things are required. I think that honesty is one of them, you have to be honest with the person that has come to you whether you’re telling them stories about your life as the mentor and sharing the truth about your life or being an honest outside eye for their work. Honesty and time. It’s just somebody who’s willing to make time for you,” said Odom Jr.

“Some of the key takeaways of the webinar for me were that you have to give yourself permission to fail. I know that is a key part of Mr. Odom’s book but I still found it inspirational when he reiterated that point and showed how it allowed him to be more successful,” said Kasalanati. “The other important point was when he talked about mentors, and how the 2 components of mentorship are honesty and time. I think this will help me find more mentors and be a better mentor when I am given that opportunity.”

Odom Jr. acknowledged how far the country has come in terms of acceptance as the younger generations are “realizing the silliness [of biases],” and the work that is still needed to be done. “I think that it is about starting with your corner of the world. Start in your house, then move to your classroom, then your sports team. It starts there, it starts with the people you are in direct contact with,” said Odom. Jr.

“I really loved Mr. Odom’s response to the question about how we can make our community more inclusive. He emphasized the value of each of us doing good in our individual spaces…etc, which was really powerful,” said Kasalanti.

Odom Jr. also discussed his career in the acting industry, including his experiences being the “token” member of staff. “To me, tokenism is about window dressing. Tokenism is about quotas, and doesn’t serve the person you are tokenizing and certainly doesn’t serve the team,” said Odom Jr.

“I would get these jobs where it was very clear they were not interested in any of my history, or the specific ways that I grew up. And I keep harping on specifically because every black person didn’t grow up in the same way so it’s really about reaching out beyond those stereotypes, beyond any kind of biases that you have. I just think it takes getting into practice of creating new patterns, new ways to think,” he added.

“Guest speakers are always powerful because they bring in an outside perspective, so LOJ is obviously very famous and well known and a person of integrity and a deep thinker,” said Webb-Peploe.

Webb-Peploe added that using Zoom as a speaking platform “gives an opportunity to people who do not live in the same physical location as us to come and speak.”

“I think events like this that draw the whole Moraga community are key in our quest for equity and diversity at Campo. I also loved how the conversation was very focused on themes of inclusion, belonging, mentorship, and the things that Mr. Odom said will give us a lot to think about in the future as we are making our community a better place,” said Kasalanati, noting the fact that the combination of JM and Campolindo students created a space to influence one another.

The Campolindo library has copies of Leslie Odom Jr.’s book Failing Up if any students wish to check them out.