Students seek diversity
BY ELIZABETH O’NEILL
When Maritza Vela was a freshman, she climbed onto her school bus one afternoon and tried to sit down on an available bench seat. A white girl already sitting on the bench did not move over for her. Instead the girl told her, “Go back to the blueberries!”
Vela, now a junior, remembers that year as particularly painful. She and her friends were called “beaner,” “spic” and “wetback,” even though most children of migrant workers in Grand Haven were born in the United States. Once, a teacher singled her out in class to ask “How is it for you Mexicans?” which bothered Vela because she felt put on the sport as a spokesperson for all Mexicans.
After ninth grade, though, the situation became better. Vela credits the improvement to the influx of foreign exchange students, which she thinks has made students here more aware of other cultures. Having more students of Mexican decent in school has helped too.
“[White students] get accustomed to us,” Vela said.
In addition, she thinks that as students age and gain more knowledge of other cultures, they become more respectful.
Junior Tim Sheill, and Asian-American, agrees.
“I used to be teased a lot,” Sheill said, “[but] seventh grade was the last time it was ever a problem.”
Freshman Lyzeth Valdez says racism is still present in high school however.
Although Valdez doesn’t mind being called “Mexican” by white people she says, “it depends on how they say it.” She dislikes being classified by students who say, “Look at that Mexican” or “Oh, she’s a Mexican.” Valdez also says that some students still use racial slurs.
Sophomore Jerika Vliet encountered racial slurs in school for the first time last year.
Two boys started “calling me the n-word,” Vliet said. When she reported the incident, one boy was suspending, and the other, expelled.
This year, at the insistence of parents and the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the administration is action to address accusations of racism on district campuses.
LEDA provided in-service training for administrators on August 04 and breakout sessions at the first staff in-service this year.
“I’m really excited about what Grand Haven is doing,” LEDA executive director Gail Harrison said.
The school also held a one-hour in-service for teachers on November 14 that ofucsed on “increasing awareness of diversity,” said District Assistant Superintendent, Keith Konarska.
Konarska says that the first step to improving the school environment is to train teachers and administrators to deal with diversity.
The district will then consult students of color through surveys and interviews to hear their opinions and ideas about how to create a more open and respectful environment.
This step will probably be well received, for many students of color have expressed interest in being heard.
“We should have a meeting … so we can just speak out and say what we think.” Vela said.
Sheill expressed support for some sort of forum, as well.
“Maybe people from different backgrounds could get together [to discuss racism],” Sheill said.
Other students suggested that the school could be improved by hiring more teachers of color.
“I think there should be more black teachers,” Vliet said.
Creating a more diverse staff is an issue that the school is working on at present.
“We have gained a few staff members that represent different backgrounds, [but] many school districts are in competition [for these teachers],” Konarska said.
Konarska says that the district is now trying a new strategy – activity recruit for teaching positions students from universities with a high number of minority graduates.
Those who are stereotyped are made to feel as if they were “different” or “the other” whereas Vela says, “We just think of ourselves as normal.”
We should celebrate diversity Harrison says, because, “It brings many gifts. There’s just a richness to interacting with people of different cultures … and also it’s a lot of fun.”