2004-04-28 Holland Sentinel "Students address diversity issues"

Students address diversity issues
Calling All Colors gives middle-schoolers a forum to talk about racism and tolerance
The Holland Sentinel

"You think racism doesn't exist in middle school? Wake up. Racism exists everywhere."

Though Cheryl LaMar was speaking scripted lines as part of a skit, her words rang true to a room full of middle school students.

"I was like one of only three Mexicans in my elementary school," said Nick Ruiz, 13. "I didn't even know I was Mexican until I came to middle school, and people said things just because of my last name."

Ruiz, a seventh-grader at Holland West Middle School, saw LaMar perform Tuesday for a session of Calling All Colors, a workshop to promote diversity awareness and build community among middle school students.

"We wanted to provide an opportunity for students to learn about diversity and become comfortable with people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds," said Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which sponsors the event.

Tuesday's session at Grand Valley State University was the second workshop of this school year, an effort to bring students back together to report on their efforts at promoting diversity with fellow students. Each school was given a few minutes to present its action plan for implementing the ideas that sprang from the fall session.

"I think it's wonderful for almost 200 kids to hear what 10 different schools have been doing," Harrison said. "It gives them ideas for what they can do, what they can accomplish in their student bodies to eliminate racism."

Macatawa Bay students performed their play "Ugly Duckling," written for their visits to elementary schools in their district. West Middle School students reported they had created a black history celebration for their school and participated in International Education Day with announcements and class learning activities.

Of the events he helped organize at West Middle School, Ruiz said he most appreciated the all-school assembly on Martin Luther King Jr.

Both West and East middle schools participated in November in National Mix It Up Day, an effort designed to break down social barriers in the average middle school lunchroom.

Students who chose to participate in the experiment were repositioned for one lunch period at randomly assigned tables. At East, Calling All Colors participants and Student Council members were assigned to each table to help lead discussions about social barriers.

"Instead of sitting with their friends, we broke the mold," East Middle School counselor Bob Medellin said. "The excitement those kids had -- that it was OK, that they had permission to break those mores -- it was almost a sense of, 'Wow.' The cool thing was it continued even afterward. We had kids who invited other kids to their tables."

Ruiz said that being a part of events such as Mix It Up and the Calling All Colors workshop has affected his views of students who are different.

"I just love being here and having fun with other people, and people here don't care about race," Ruiz said of the workshop. "I think I've changed a whole lot in my opinion of other people. I understand more about other people and how they feel."