2003-10-15 Grand Haven Tribune Calling All Colors-Middle school students celebrate diversity during 8th annual racial unity conference

Calling All Colors
Grand Haven Tribune

Keynote speaker Rick Muniz was introduced to the crowd of students at the eighth annual Calling All Colors conference as a Holland elementary school principal. But when Muniz walked out on stage, he did something that the students may not have expected form a principal. Dressed in a suit, Muniz picked up an electric guitar, slung it over his shoulder and started to rock ‘n’ roll,

Muniz was stressing the importance of “being more than people expect’ and illustrating how people should not be put into “boxes.” Muniz told the 165 middle school students who attended Tuesday’s racial unity conference at Hope College, just as people have expectations of how a principal should act, they can also label people or put them into “boxes’ based on their gender, age or race.

“That’s what we try to do sometimes-put people in boxes where they don’t belong,” he said. “There is no place for people in boxes. We’re getting out of the boxes,” he said to applause from the students.

Calling All Colors is a daylong conference that brings together middle school students from Ottawa and Muskegon counties to discuss stereotypes, celebrate diversity and learn about other cultures. Muniz told the students that stereotypes, self-doubt, low expectations form others and past mistakes can build a “box” around a person. However, he said, if people have goals, learn from their mistakes and break down stereotypes, they can get out of the box. “No walls can hold you,” he said.

During the conference, which is a project of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) and cosponsored by Hope College, middle school students took part in dialogues about stereotypes and their effects. The students were asked to share stereotypes they had heard about various races. They were then asked how they felt when they heard another student share a stereotype about their own race. They responded with words like “hurt,” disappointed,” “offended” and “mad”.

“It was harsh, I didn’t like it at all,” said Lakeshore Middle School sixth-grader Alma Chavez of hearing stereotypes about her own race. But she added that the exercise taught her an important lesson. “Not to disrespect any-one,: she said.

Diane Talo, who is a member of the LEDA board and led one of the dialogues, said that she wasn’t surprised the number of stereotypes the students listed. She added that it’s important to reach students at this age since they are looking for behavior models. “My desire is that they have the ability to recognize and combat racism or discriminatory actions back in their school building,” she said.

The students shared their plans for celebrating diversity and creating racial harmony in their own schools this year. Lakeshore Middle School plans to have a cultural spirit week and guest speakers. White Pines Middle School students will write to pen pals in Soweto, South Africa. Students at St. Mary’s Catholic School will honor authors of different genders and ethnic backgrounds, and will hold a potluck to celebrate diversity.

This spring, the students will share their successes during another Calling All Colors conference at Grand Valley State University. “If we all came together and loved one another, it would be a better world,” said White Pines sixth-grader Andrea Molenkamp, who said she is looking forward to corresponding with her pen pal in South Africa. “It doesn’t matter what color they are, they still can be you friend.”

St. Mary’s eight-grader Brad Ashcraft agreed. “It doesn’t matter what race or culture you are, everyone is equal,” he said. During the conference students also learned about other cultures through activity workshops, which included Brazilian martial arts, Nepalese songs, Ethiopian juggling, German folk stories, Romanian karate, and Irish, Japanese, Mexican, Albanian and Kenyan dances.