2001-10-10 Holland Sentinel Gathering breaks down stereotypes among students

Gathering breaks down stereotypes among students
Holland Sentinel

When Develyn Howard was young, her grandmother used to tell her to make sure the words that came out of her mouth were sweet because, “You never know when you’re going to have to eat them.” Howard, a board member of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, passed that message along to middle school students gathered on the Hope College campus Tuesday during the sixth annual Calling All colors racial unity conference.

“If you get to them at this age then they can carry the lesson with them all their lives that tolerance is what we need,” said Howard, who is seeking her teaching degree at Grand Valley State University. “These kids are the next generation. They’ve got to set the record straight.”

Monday’s program, sponsored by the alliance, was geared toward increasing student awareness of stereotyping and its effects, and to offer a safe place to discuss feelings about race. The program was open to students from 14 middle schools in Ottawa and Muskegon counties. In an attempt to break down what stereotyping is and how it affects those it’s aimed toward, Howard asked the 14 students in her group to anonymously write down stereotypes they’ve had heard about six different ethnic groups.

The results, Howard said, were interesting, as was the participants’ initial trepidation. “Whatever is said in this room is not meant to hurt anyone,” she told students who asked if they had to believe what they wrote. “This doesn’t have to be the way you believe. I just want you guys to write down stereotypes that you’ve heard somewhere about these groups.”

The exercise led to frank discussions from the diverse group of students which included youth who fit into most of the ethnic groups listed on the board. Howard said she hopes what the children learned Tuesday will carry over into their everyday lives. “I want them to be able to go back to school and when they hear someone being stereotyped, they can say, ‘Hey, that’s just not true,’’’ she said.

The message resonated with students, most of whom spoke freely about what they perceived fit the mold of stereotyping. They also said they’d take measures to stop it. “A lot of that stuff might be true, but you have to sit down and look and appreciate stuff about every race,” said Justin, a middle school student from Holland. “You’ve got to know the person before judging them.”

Tuesday’s events began at Hope’s Knickerbocker Theater with Hope President James Bultman welcoming students. Hope history professor Fred L. Johnson 111 was the keynote speaker. The event included several different seminars on racial sensitivity and a number of cultural and ethnic displays including Tae Kwon Do, South African dancing and Mexican dancing. After Tuesday’s event, organizers hope students will work on practicing racial harmony at their own schools and attend a follow-up conference at Grand Valley State University later in the year.

Ortencia Ruiz, the conference coordinator, touted the conference saying students who have attended in the past described it as “awesome, cool and educational.” “Others said they appreciated being around man kinds of people and having fun; getting a chance to express ideas and get them out in the open.”

Howard says she can see the program work through the exploits of her daughter, a student in the Grand Haven school system, “I have an advantage because I can see every day if this is working,” she said. “Like they say, if you can affect one kid then you’ve done your job.”