2004-03-12 Grand Rapids Press Schools hold area's first social justice conference

Schools hold area's first social justice conference
Grand Rapids Press

A Grand Haven High School Spanish teacher allows students to print messages on the blackboard as a way to practice writing the language.

Imagine how senior Denny Chan felt when he arrived for his class a few weeks ago and spotted this message scrawled on the blackboard: Denny Chan likes to eat cats.

The unknown author’s Spanish was perfect, but his cultural sensitivity was appalling.

“I don’t really think it was malicious,” said Chan, the son of Chinese immigrants, who is at the top of his class of 490 students. “Most everybody knows I’m active in diversity efforts here at school and in the community. I figure somebody was just trying to get a rise out of me. But if it wasn’t a joke, it’s inexcusable.”

It’s incidents like this that inspired Chan, 17, and the dozen other students in Grand Haven High school’s EMBRACE (Eliminating Margins Between Races and Creeds Everywhere) club to organize the Lakeshore’s first social justice conference for teens.

About 120 students representing 10 high schools are expected to attend the conference today at Hope College.

Its goal is to educate participants about racial justice issues, increase cultural competency and develop a student network between high schools to continue a dialogue on racial issues.

They keynote speaker is Margaret Fox, professor of cultural anthropology at Muskegon Community College. There will also be a Diversity Theater performance.

Chan sees attending the conference as a first step teens can take to bridge the racial polarization that can be seen between schools with a significant black population in the Musekgon area, a high Hispanic population in the south Holland area and a growing Asian population in the north Holland area.

Only 10 of the 16 invited schools are sending students, including Grand haven. Some schools, wouldn’t even return their phone calls, EMBRACE members said.

“It’s been nerve-wracking, but it’s still been a very exciting process,” said Chan, who is also a member of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “We’re doing something that’s never been done before in this area. I think it’s just going to take some time to develop a reputation for holding a really good conference.”

To celebrate Chan’s leadership in organizing this conference, LEDA plans to give him a special award and small scholarship at its fourth annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism on March 20 at Hope College.

Schools participating are: Grand Haven, West Ottawa, Zeeland, Black River Public Schools, Holland, Spring Lake, Orchard View, Reeths-Puffer, Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.