1999-05-08 Grand Haven Tribune "Middle school students look at reducing hostility"

Middle school students look at reducing hostility
The Grand Haven Tribune

With the racist shootings at Columbine High School still fresh in their minds, area middle school students attended the "Calling All Colors" diversity conference Friday to work on ways to break down racial barriers and appreciate each others differences.

"We look at what we can do to help kids stay connected and reduce that level of hostility," said Gail Harrison, the executive director of North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which created the event. "We need to recognize that diversity is a wonderful gift."

This third annual conference, which has grown considerably over the years, welcomed 185 middle school students from 12 different schools in the Ottawa and Muskegon counties in the Grand Valley State University campus. Lakeshore, White Pines, Spring Lake and Fruitport middle schools were all in attendance.

Harrison said that it is important to discuss race issues with this age group specifically, becuse during the middle school years "all of these issues relating to peer relationships magnify."

"We hope to give kids the kinds of tolls that they will need to break down these barriers," said Harrison.

During the conference, the students participated in discussion groups where they were mixed in with students from other schools and other races. The planned topics for the discussions included stereotypes and dealing with conflicts, but Harrison said that the issues surrounding Columbine High School probably came up as well.

Spring Lake Middle School eight grader, Jaime Tygrett said that the conferences "helped me to understand how what we do and what we say affects other people."

But this day-long conference was not only about looking at differences, it was about celebrating similarities.

In the game "move over," students moved one seat over if they had ever had pizza for breakfast, heard the words "when I was your age..." or ate the white part of the Oreo cookie first. If the person next to them did not "move over," the student got to know them real quick when they sat on their lap. The students played other "ice breaker" games which had them crawling through each others legs and holding a balloon with two strangers without using their hands. Harrison said these games are the result of previous conferences attendees saying that they wanted to spend more time interacting with students they hadn't met before.

The day's events also included a performance of Dr. Sueus' book "The Sneeches," by West Ottawa Middle School students in the Youths Celebrating Culture program, where the star-bellied Sneeches will not associate with the plain-bellied Sneeches.

Activities such as Mexican and Irish dances, making Native American dream catchers, and Mesican fiest favors introduced students to a new culture.

"Calling All Colors is a great experience for me. It helps me to pass by racism in school," said Scandia Homes, tenth grader at Lakeshore Middle School. "If everyone went, we could all get along much better, not matter what color."

Betsy Bulthuis, an eighth grader from Spring Lake Middle School added that she learned to appreciate people differently and learn from them.

Harrison said that the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance is planning on expanding the conference at Hope College.

The North Ottawa Diversity Alliance is a non profit organization of individuals who seek to promote racial harmony in the North Ottawa area.