1999-10-21 Grand Haven Tribune "Calling All Colors: Area students try to make a different in racial harmony"

Calling All Colors: Area students try to make a different in racial harmony
By: Gena Olejarczyk
Grand Haven Tribune

For the very first year two Calling All Colors conferences will be held for area middle school students, giving them the chance to not only state their plans for creating racial harmony in their schools but to report back on the differences they have made.

The first of the two conferences was held on Oct. 19 at Hope College with the follow-up conference to be held in May at Grand Valley State University. About 200 students attended the conference from Ottawa and Muskegon county schools, including White Pines, Lakeshore and Spring Lake Middle school.

“We have expanded the event from a one day event to a catalyst for change in the schools,” said Gail Harrison, executive director of the North Ottawa Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which holds the conferences.

Students in attendance learn the effects of stereotyping based on race, interact with students from other schools and ethnic backgrounds and try their hand at different cultural activities. The students from each school usually present an action plan at the May conference on what they have learned and how they will incorporate these lessons on diversity and tolerance in their own schools. But information on what came of these action plans usually stopped there.

Now the fall conference will make this the first year that the students will be share both their hopes and their results.

“Instead of telling us what they would like to do, they can tell us what they did and how it went,” said Harrison. “We’re hoping from this point on, there will be this model.”

Adding a new global perspective to the conference, Hope College international students taught the middle schooler aspects of their own culture such as Palestinian children’s song, Kenyan dance, the Salsa and Meringue dances, origami and
calligraphy, South African songs and Bulgarian Christmas traditions. In past years, area community members have volunteered to teach these activities. The Hope students also answered questions about their country’s government, living conditions and food.

“Recognizing our differences and our similarities and developing personal relationships is a real important part of (learning about diversity),” said Harrison. “I believe this conference empowers students to realize they have the power to make

Skip Ackerson, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Lakeshore Middle School, said that their students plan to create a web page that will talk about Calling All Colors and what their school is doing as a result. They also plan to hold an assembly for each grade level to talk about the conference, perform skits on diversity and answer questions.

“They come back a little more excited about wanting to make a change,” said Ackerson of the 12 students that attended the conference.

Spring Lake school board member, Lori Rhem, who attended the conference with 15 Spring Lake middle school students, said that they plan to share a quote on the subject of diversity each week with their classmates and discuss it. They will also change a showcase in the library on a monthly basis to depict issues of diversity and tolerance.

“It brings the kids of color together,” Rhem said of the conference. “I think any way we can intentionally expose kids to celebrating differences is great.”

Seventh grade social studies teacher at White Pines, Rachelle Howe, said that their students returned from the conference energized about making a difference and recruiting more students for the cause.

Howe said that the group of 17 students will continue meeting throughout the year to carry out their action plan which includes a cook-off with different ethnic foods, a field trip to experience the music of various cultures and adopting a needy family from the area.

“They’re just so enthusiastic about it and it’s contagious,” said Howe. She added that ideas of diversity and racial unity can be pretty abstract for middle school students to comprehend. “The best way for them to understand it is to experience it and that’s what’s great about the conference,” she said