2002-10-09 Holland Sentinel "Spirit of diversity"

Spirit of diversity

Conference encourages cultural unity among children
The Holland Sentinel

Macatawa Bay eighth-grader Sarah Ashcroft wore a name tag at the Calling All Colors conference, but probably only a few could read it.

That's because she wrote her name in Japanese, a culture she learned about at the seventh annual racial unity conference.

Calling All Colors is a project of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and is co-sponsored by Hope College.

"The whole day was about cultural awareness," said Gail Harrison, executive director of the alliance, which works to promote racial harmony.

"It was pretty cool," said William Watt, 14, an eighth-grader at Holland East Middle School. "We got to learn about different cultures and how diverse we are here in the United States."

Watt was one of 166 middle school students from 10 schools participating. Local schools participating were Holland East and West middle schools and West Ottawa's Macatawa Bay.

Each school came up with a diversity-promotion action plan to implement throughout the school year.

"If this was just a one-day conference, its impact would be minimal," Harrison said. "The kids have created their own action plans and will implement them. That's what makes it a powerful program."

For example, schools will bring in speakers and sponsor events and plays to promote diversity. They will return to the Calling All Colors conference this spring at Grand Valley State University to report on their successes.

"Some are talking about having diversity spirit weeks at their school just like they have spirit weeks promoting athletics," said Diane Talo, assistant principal at Holland East Middle School. "It would really hone in on treating others respectfully."

Students also got a chance to show some of the things they learned on the stage of the Knickerbocker Theatre. One of the more colorful performances was a Chinese dragon dance. Ashcroft and her group performed a Japanese dance.

Ashcroft, 13, said she learned a valuable lesson from the conference.

"You should give people a chance," she said. "Don't judge them by what they were or what they look like, but judge them by their hearts."

Her friend, Vicky Sivoravong, said establishing relationships with people of different cultures is enriching. Experiencing diversity is more than just eating different food, wearing different outfits and learning a new dance or two.

"Different cultures can be unique," said Sivoravong, 13, an eighth-grader at West Ottawa's Macatawa Bay School. "It's important to get to know them. It takes time to know people. You can learn a lot from people of different cultures."

Thao Dinh, 14, an eighth-grader at East Middle School, said she will go out of her way to make others feel welcome.

"We should try to step out of the box and make friends with anyone new," she said. "Don't judge them -- include them in your group. Don't make them feel left out."

International students from Hope College talked about their cultures in small groups. They talked about their homelands which included Kenya, El Salvador, Japan, Mexico, Sir Lanka, Ethiopia and Romania.

"It was really fun," said Ana Santibanez-Zamora, a Hope College junior from Mexico City who talked about her culture. "Kids really listened to what you had to say. They gave you an honest response."

Middle school students from around the lakeshore perform a Chinese Dragon dance at the Calling All Colors conference at the Knickerbocker Theater in Holland on Tuesday.