2001-10-10 Grand Haven Tribune Attacks bring new focus to student unity conference

Attacks bring new focus to student unity conference
Grand Haven Tribune

For the past six years, the Calling All Colors conference has brought middle school students together to celebrate diversity, learn about other cultures and break down racial stereotypes. But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, those lessons have taken on a whole new importance.

Just like at past events, the nearly 200 students form 12 Ottawa and Muskegon County middle schools gathered Tuesday at Hope College to play games, share actions plans for creating racial harmony and participate in an activity form another culture.

During a dialogue session with their peers, students spoke about the affects of stereotyping and how Arab Americans and people of Middle Eastern decent have been stereotyped since the terrorist attacks. (Osama) bin Laden is just one person. You can’t judge everybody else. You can’t hate Middle Eastern people,” explained Spring Lake Middle School eight-grader Chelsea Deal.

Audra Passinault, an eight-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School, said that she thought the Calling All Colors conference dialogue was important because it “let people know that if we are attacked by a certain people of a certain religion that not all of them are like that.”

Conference Coordinator Ortencia Ruiz said that the format for the student’s dialogue was altered after the attacks to include people of Middle Eastern decent in an activity where students listed stereotypes that they have heard for various races. A role playing activity was also added to ask students how they would respond if someone called their Middle Eastern friend a terrorist.

Spring Lake Middle School eighth-grader Adam Newell said that he was involved in a role playing activity as someone who, angry from the attacks, tells a person of Middle Eastern decent to go back home. But, he explained, the person who played the Middle Eastern person responded that he had lost friends or family during the attacks “It made me feel guilty that I blamed him,” Newell said of the exercise.“We shouldn’t be basing the bombings that are going on right now on religions. We should be basing it on who did it,” Newell added.

Students agreed that the main lesson Tuesday was a simple one not to judge people by what they look like. “I learned that a lot of the war started because people judged people just by race and not by talking to them,” said White Pines Middle School seventh-grader Robert Potter. “You can’t judge someone just because they look like they are from the Middle East because they could be an American,” added Rachael Rickabaught, an eighth-grader at Spring Lake Middle School. “If people learn to get along, we won’t have any more terrorist attacks,” added Walden Green Day School ninth-grader Aaron Eikenberry.

Keynote speaker Dr. Fred Johnson lll, professor of history at Hope, told the students that right now, people are stereotyping Americans and what some people believed resulted in the attacks. He asked the students to do an exercise where they put their hand over one of their eyes and their finger in one ear, which symbolized not being completely open or receptive to other people. “By the time you leave here today…both of yours ears will be open, both of your eyes will be open,” Johnson said.

Students from White Pines, Lakeshore and Spring Lake middle schools, Walden Green Day School, St. Mary’s Catholic School and the Courage Program of the Ottawa County Juvenile Court participated Tuesday, among other Muskegon, Holland and West Ottawa schools.

Each of the schools took the stage to share its plan for creating racial harmony in its school this year. Spring Lake Middle School students said they are planning to hold a “Share Your Culture Night” where students and parents will share food and games of different cultures. Lakeshore planned to establish a pen pal connection with students in another country. White Pines will host an international Christmas celebration. Walden Green students said they plan on holding an ethnic dinner. And St. Mary’s students said they will research the holy days and holidays of various ethnic groups.

During their presentation, the students of the Courage Program created a world connected by music. As they played music of different cultures, the students took turns pasting countries and continents onto a plain globe. Then a musical staff was added to the globe to turn the Earth into one musical note as the students played John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

Sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, Calling All Colors offers students, who attend a school where there is predominantly one race, to meet students from different ethnic backgrounds, Ruiz said. “Most of all they get to celebrate diversity. Sometimes racism and discrimination, those are very negative words. … This way we are saying ‘Look, it’s awesome to be of a different race or a different country,’ “She said.