1999-10-18 Holland Sentinel "Students confront challenge of diversity"

Students confront challenge of diversity
Holland Sentinel

Michael Hoa Viola-Vu has been director of multicultural affairs at Davenport College for only two weeks, but you don't have to tell him about the important role racial diversity will play in the future of Holland.

As a Vietnamese refugee who escaped Communist rule in 1975 and a former social worker with Kandu Industries, Viola-Vu witnessed discrimination among social classes in his homeland and the challenges and inequalities minorities face here. And the Holland resident knows both send the wrong message to the youth who will one day become leaders.

"There is a big need for the unity of races in this country and a lot of it will be up to the children in the future," he said.

"I see the races as different fingers on a hand. They may look and work differently, but they all have a major contribution to the palm. Without one or two fingers the hand can still function, but it's incomplete - just like the human race."

Metaphors aside, Viola-Vu hopes his message will get through to nearly 200 students from 12 Ottawa and Muskegon county school districts attending the Calling All Colors Conference on Tuesday at Hope College.

The annual daylong conference, which is being held in Holland for the first time, is sponsored by the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance in an effort to expose students to open discussions about diversity and to learn different perspectives when it comes to race relations. Viola-Vu is the event's keynote speaker.

"The overall goal is to give children the opportunity for dialogue in a racially mixed group and gain skills to put some programs promoting racial harmony in their respective schools," said Gail Harrison, executive director of the alliance, a grass-roots organization committed to improving race relations through education and advocacy.

Conference participants will be asked to develop an action plan on what they can do to improve race issues at their schools. An intern from Grand Valley State University will monitor each project and track its success. A full report will be presented at the group's next conference in the spring.

Harrison said among her greatest concerns in schools today is the emphasis children place on inclusion, and how racial differences may contribute to the problem.

"There's so much polarization in schools today and we all have to look at how to dissolve the barriers of exclusion among kids, whether it's for social, racial, or economic reasons," she said.

Alluding to a September study by the U.S. Census Bureau that showed the number of Asians and Hispanics in Ottawa and Allegan counties grew by more than 55 percent and 40 percent, respectively, between  1990 and 1998, Harrison said it's imperative Holland area residents should education themselves about diversity sooner than later.

"All of us in this community are looking at a changing population demographic and it's going to continue. We can either stick our heads in the sand and try and ignore it, or we can start teaching ourselves about diversity and celebrate our difference," she said.