2003-04-30 Grand Haven Tribune Middle School students get chance to walk in someone elses shoes

Middle School students get chance to walk in someone elses shoes
Grand Haven Tribune

During the Calling All Colors Conference Tuesday at Grand Valley State University, close to 200 middle school students learned what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

The conference, which has been put on by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance since 1996, gives students the opportunity to learn and dialogue about racial harmony and diversity issues.

On Tuesday, the conference featured an exercise called Archie Bunker’s Neighborhood, which randomly assigned students a race and gave them resources to built a neighborhood filled with schools, businesses, churches, homes and parks. But the students soon learned that each group was not being treated the same.

While the students portraying the “Caucasian” group were given more money, resources and privileges to complete their task, other groups struggled with fewer resources and faced discrimination.

Students said that those who portrayed the “bank” in the scenario, treated the groups differently. To the Caucasian group hey were very generous, but toward other “Races” they were unfair, charging higher prices to some and not allowing others to built anything at all.

“I was shocked,” said Laila Shannaa, an eighth-grader at White Pines Middle School, after the exercise. “I thought people were over that racism that was going on back with Martin Luther King Jr.”

Shanaa said that the Calling All Colors conference will help student her age learn how to stop the real-life racism that was reflected in the exercise.

“We can learn how to stand up for ourselves, stand up for other people,” she said.

Denny Chan, a junior at Grand Haven High School who portrayed one of the bankers in the exercise, explained that the rules of the exercise called for him to be discriminatory. He said that the middle school students reacted with anger and emotion.

“They were racing to talk about what this simulation meant to them and why it was so unfair,” Chan said.

Some students said that they believe this type of racism is happening in the real world.

“I think it happens a lot around the world,” said Nick Tulgestke, and eighth-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School.

His classmate, Rita Williams, added that she thought the exercise was a great way of “showing how people act toward different groups of people.”

Gail Harrison, the executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance that sponsored the conference, explained that the exercise was an exaggeration of the experiences that people of various races have had.

“We are hoping the kids will learn what it feels like to experience discrimination as well as limited resources,” she said, adding that several facilitators of the exercise had told her that the students repeatedly called it unfair. “It’s an opportunity for kids to learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Calling All Colors is not just about one day of learning about diversity issues. Harrison pointed out that it marks a year-long effort and serves as a “catalyst for change in the schools.”

Tuesday’s Calling All Colors conference was a follow-up to a conference held in the fall, where middle school students from Muskegon, Holland and the Tri-Cities created action plans for how they will celebrate diversity and defeat racism in their own schools.

On Tuesday, the students returned to talk about the differences they have made.

Students at Walden Green Day School held a diversity night featuring the cultures of Latin America, Japan and Australia. St. Mary’s students held Peace Days, where they discussed peace using literature, skits and songs, and also raised money to plant a “peace pole” at their school. A group from Lakeshore Middle School held a Cultural Spirit Week and also brought in a speaker from Sudan.

The Calling All Colors group from White Pines Middle School combined with the Student Council this year to form a new diversity group. White Pines teacher Rachelle Howe said that the students came up with lesson plans and ways to deal with racial issues in their school.

“It all came from the kids. They were the ones who initiated it, so it was that much more meaningful,” Howe said.

For the most part, students said that the Calling All Colors day was about celebrating diversity and breaking down stereotypes.

“It’s important to let people of different races understand each other’s traditions and culture, so you can know more and not stereotype,” said White Pines eighth-grader Chelsea Harris.

“Not everyone is like you,” added Michael Smeenge, and eighth-grader from Macatawa bay Middle School. “Thank God; otherwise, it would be a boring world.”