1998-05-09 Grand Rapids Press "Kids and culture a colorful mix"

Kids and culture a colorful mix
Grand Rapids Press

They talked about creating a World Wide Web site to celebrate racial and cultural differences. They talked about meeting in clubs and councils.

They talked about taking the message to elementary schools to get young children thinking about racial healing and acceptance.

It was fertile ground for ideas about change.

The occasion was "Calling All Colors," a full-day conference that brought 165 middle-school students from Ottawa and Muskegon counties to Grand Valley State University Friday. They spent the day sharing experiences, ideas and elements of their culture.

They also explored such ideas as the challenge for unity and the need for diversity. And they brainstormed on ideas to make the experience stick.

The students themselves were something of an advertisement for diversity. Their faces ranged from dark to olive to pale.

The neighborhoods they came from ran the gamut from poor to affluent. They wore native dress, Chicago Bulls jerseys and T-shirts emblazoned with the word "peace."

They were black, white, Asian, Latino and American Indian.

It is the second year for the conference in West Michigan, presented by North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

Last year's conference involved seven schools and about 100 students. This year involved 11 schools, with a 65 percent increase in participation. Teachers want the program expanded.

"We have teachers who ask, 'Why aren't you doing elementary schools? We need earlier intervention,"' Harrison said. And we have teachers who say, 'Why aren't you doing high school kids?'"

Members of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance accept the conference's limits.

"We have to maintain some reasonable expectations here and not think that this little conference is going to change all of West Michigan," Pat Ostradick told a group of teachers and other adults during the conference.

Ostradick paraphrased Frederick Douglass, the 19th century ex-slave and abolitionist: "Power never yields without a fight."

But that didn't daunt the students, who had come from middle schools and programs up and down the lakeshore. They listened to the speakers and played cooperative games.

"Some of the kids didn't want to leave the discussion groups -- they were so into it, " said Sigrid Rother, one of the adult presenters. "Normally it's 'Where's the food, where's the food?' No -- we had to kick them out."

In the afternoon, students participated in art workshops, mkaing African masks, Mexican fiesta favors, a unity quilt and Native American medicine wheel. Many explored cultura through dances -- American Indian, Mexican, Irish and Laotian -- which they demonstrated before a raucously appreciated crowd of their peers.

And they brainstormed on plans for action.

"What we're asking is that kids not do a one-day workshop but go back to the schools committed to action," Harrison said.