2002-10-09 Grand Haven Tribune Local middle school students learn tolerance

Local middle school students learn tolerance
Grand Haven Tribune

Nearly 200 middle school students were challenged to step outside their cultural comfort zones Tuesday during the seventh annual Calling All Colors conference in Holland.

“Make friends outside your race,” said Nery Gracia, principal of Washington Elementary School in Holland. “Step out of your box.”

Students from 10 Ottawa and Muskegon county schools attended the conference at Hope College and the Knickerbacher Theater.

Gracia, a Cuban native, encouraged students to know and believe in themselves, take the best from all cultures and use their resources.

“I believe the root of prejudice is ignorance,” said Gracia, keynote speaker for the conference. “If they do away with ignorance, they do away with prejudice.”

Students presented action plans or ways they intent to approach cultural diversity back in their own schools. Lakeshore Middle School students intent to organize and facilitate a cultural discussion, create a showcase highlighting the Calling All Colors conference, get pen pals and invite Sudanese community members to speak at their school.

White Pines Middle School students plan to design their own Web site, go on a field trip and organize a cultural spirit week and concert with the group Biakuye.

Youngsters from Walden Green Middle School intent to host a cultural diversity night, which will include African, European, Asian and Latino dancing.

St. Mary’s School plans to fund-raise for the purchase of a peace pole and have peace days during the year. Students will also do presentations to each class on the respect and awareness of various cultures. At the conference, students participated in dialogues, cultural activities, including music, art, and dance and in cooperative games.

Youngsters also learned what it is like to be a foreigner in a different culture through a simulation game. They were separated into two primary groups and 10 sub-groups. Each major group was taught the language and habits of a specific culture, known only to their group.

“It definitely impacts them,” said Diane Talo, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance board member and East Middle School principal in Holland.

“They learn that culture is more than the clothes you wear or the food you eat,” Talo said.

Overall, students said they enjoyed the event and learned a lesion or two as well.

“I learned that it will make your life a lot easier if you just accept people for who they are,” said 13-year-old Ashley Harris, White Pines Middle School eighth grader.

Eric Martin, Reeths-Puffer Middle School seventh-grader agreed.

“It shouldn’t matter what kind of culture you are,” said 12-year-old Martin. “Instead of being racist, we all need to get along.”

Although most students found the groups to be a positive experience, some said it would have been more helpful to discuss real-life situations concerning race.

“We need to talk about the issues,” said Steele Middle School eight-grader Quantrease Cunningham, 13. “I feel like they need to get deeper into it.”

Brandish Briggs, 14-year-old Steele Middle School Eight-grader agreed. “We need to talk about how we can all come together as one,” Briggs said.

The Calling All Colors conference was started in 1992 by a college professor and middle school student in North Carolina.

Although the day-long program only includes middle school students, Talo said those who attend the program often take and use what they have learned to the high school level.

“There’s real richness to diversity,” said Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and conference coordinator. “… We all need to work together to foster and environment that is comfortable for all of us.”