Conference teaches students to look beyond color to see value in others
Eighth-graders Angela Green and Emily Apple say they have both experienced prejudice in Holland. Angela, who is black, said people see her short by assuming she is in a gang, or her whole family is on drugs. Emily, who is white, said some people think she must be a rich snob.
The Holland East Middle School students were among 170 students from 11 area middle schools who participated Tuesday in the fifth annual “Calling All colors” conference at Hope College’s Knickerbocker Theatre. “You have to train your eyes to look for the inside of a person, not just see their outside and think you know it all,” Emily said. “Angela and I do that. That’s why we’re friends.” Angela agreed. “Everybody thinks we’re so different,” she said, “but we’ve all got a brain, a heart and feelings.”
The annual conference is designed to teach young people with leadership qualities how to bring down barriers and promote racial harmony. The conference is organized by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. Another conference is planned April 30 at Grand Valley State University. A diverse group of students representing each middle school brainstormed a plan for heightening awareness of prejudice at their schools and celebrating diversity.
The East Middle School group wants a radio station popular with students to run public service spots promoting the need to respect diversity. They also want to host a school assemble and broadcast it on public access television. Gail Harrison, director of the alliance, said a conference goal is to give students tools to build a more peaceful society. “Our country and our world are becoming more culturally diverse,” Harrison said. “We have an obligation to our kids to provide tangible ways they can learn to be more culturally competent.”
One segment of the conference brought students from different schools together to learn something unique about a culture, which they performed later for the whole group. There was an African dance, a Latino dance, a Chinese Dragon Dance, a martial arts demonstration, a Mexican game, Hong Kong games, a primer on the Albanian language and a presentation on Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition.
Workshops were led by international students from Hope College and community leaders. Students had little time to practice their show. The object was to share something unique, not be in picture-perfect steps, said Sally Woods, a social worker at West Ottawa’s Macatawa Bay School. She wore a “Goofy” hat as mistress of ceremonies. “I see now that we should really be trying to learn more about unique things from other cultures,” said Gaeya Reddam, a seventh-grader at Reeths-Puffer in Muskegon. “It is interesting.”
Gaeya performed a Salsa dance with Adam Newell of Spring Lake Middle School. The couple had a leg up. Gaeya takes dance lessons. Adam has danced the Salsa before. They said it still would have been fun not knowing anything about the dance because the crowd was appreciative.
Keynote speaker Rick Muniz, principal at Holland’s Longfellow Elementary School, engaged students in a “countdown to a new America.” The countdown began with 10, the number of years between each U.S. Census. “Are you ready to make your life count for something?” Muniz asked. Nine reminds him of the ninth month. September, when Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated Eight to Muniz signifies the card game Crazy 8s. The game is only fun because every card in the deck is difference. Seven, reminds him of the seven continents of the world where students’ ancestors originated. Six reminds him of “On the 6,” a best-selling album by Jennifer Lopez, part of the Latin music craze sweeping the country. Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan and Enrique Iglesias are also part of that explosion. “Are you ready to rock in a multicultural worked?” Muniz asked.
When he counted down to “one,” Muniz challenged the students by asserting that it stands for the number of people it takes to make a difference. Schools participating in the conference included Holland East Middle School; West Ottawa Macatawa Bay School; Grand Haven Lakeshore and White Pines middle schools; Bunker, Steele and Reeths-Puffer in Muskegon; Fruitport; St. Mary’s Catholic School in Sprig Lake; Spring Lake Middle School and Black River Public School in Holland.