2001-05-01 Grand Haven Tribune "Calling All Colors"

Calling All Colors
Middle school students learn lesson in making a difference

by Gene Kaiser
Grand Haven Tribune

A smile can mean a lot. Diversity should be celebrated. One person can make a difference.

These are the lessons that middle school students from Ottawa and Muskegon counties said they took away from the Calling All Colors conference Monday at Grand Valley State University.

"Everybody is different in their own way. I learned that one person can make a difference. It doesn't matter who you are," said Jamonica Howard, a seventh grader at White Pines Middle School.

"I learned together we can make a real big difference if we try," said Spring Lake Middle School seventh grader Katie McDonald, who added that her favorite part of the day was playing games with students from other schools. "I met some really great girls from a different school and we're really tight now."

During the conference, about 200 middle students dialogued about diversity issues and their own experiences with
racism. They also shared the action plans they created during a similar conference in October, which they have since implemented in their schools to celebrated diversity.

Students from White Pines middle school reported that they held a cultural spirit week to teach their classmates about the music, history, and clothing of other cultures. Fruitport Middle School students created a mural on tolerance and diversity in their school.

Lakeshore Middle School presented "The Diversity Operation," which included "operating" on a volunteer patient to remove prejudice and discrimination and replace them with kindness and humanity. St. Mary's Catholic School researched the ethnic backgrounds of various saints and then quizzed the other schools on that information in a game show called "Circle of Saints."

But according to Otencia Ruiz, the conference coordinator, the most powerful part of the day was a presentation by Michael Fowlin.

"He had even more of an effect on the kids than I thought, " Ruiz said, adding that a few students were moved to tears. "Emotionally, it caught them. It opened their eyes ot a lot of issues."

Fowlin played a variety of characters and demonstrated the racism and discrimination they experience. His characters ranged from a black football player who is also gay; a student with cerebral palsy; a suicidal, Hispanic adolescent who is overweight and gets picked on at school; and a white teen-agers wearing a trench coat, who is stopped by the police.

"It's awesome how on person could do that. You forgot who he was, and you just saw each character through him, "Ruiz said.

After the presentation, students met in dialogue groups to discuss it and share their own experiences.

"I think they couldn't get there fast enough to share, " said Mhairi Blacklock, a dialogue group facilitator.

Blacklock added that Fowlin also challenged students to smile at a minimum of 10 people each day. Students said they look Fowlin's lesson to heart.

"You shouldn't pick on people that are less fortunate," said Bethany Wolfe, a seventh grade student at White Pines.

"Even if you don't talk to someone at school, you could still say 'hello' and mean it," added Stephanie Nash, a seventh grader from Spring Lake Middle School. "Just saying 'hi' can brighten up their day a lot."

Nash and her classmate, April Holmes, said that they planned to shared what they learned at Calling All Colors with the rest of their school and will make a bulletin board about the conference.

At previous Calling All Colors conferences, students spent part of the day learning various cultural activities like Irish dancing, martial arts and making Mexican fiesta crafts. But this year, due to student requests, they played cooperative games and spent the afternoon meeting students from other schools and focusing on teamwork.

The students did a four-way tug of war and relay race, where two students held volleyballs and tennis balls between them as they ran down the course. Ruiz said that they may continue to hold the cooperative games at the spring conference and do all the cultural actives at the fall conference.