2005-05-03 Holland Sentinel "Students eager to share at diversity conference"

Students eager to share at diversity conference

The Holland Sentinel

While working on a project to increase appreciation for racial diversity, Holland eighth-grader Kate Mata realized she had 55 new neighbors.

After attending a Calling All Colors Racial Unity Conference at Hope College last fall, area middle-schoolers went back to their own schools and figured out ways to talk about diversity.

Mata, who attends Holland East Middle School, said one of the things her school did was recognize different ethnicities on various holidays. On Valentine's Day, they held a "Love Who You Are" event. Students were able to compile a list of 55 different ethnicities represented at the school.

"I have 55 new neighbors now," said Mata, who is a member of the school's Calling All Colors chapter.

Today, students from almost a dozen West Michigan schools will gather at Grand Valley State University at the ninth annual Calling All Colors Spring Conference. Nearly 200 students will participate, including middle school students from the Holland and West Ottawa districts.

During the day, students will have an opportunity to listen to South African writer Mark Mathabane, the author of the autobiography, "Kaffir Boy."

Mathabane was raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid era. The eldest of seven children, he spent the first 18 years of his life in a one-square-mile ghetto that was home to more than 200,000 blacks. He later escaped from the country after obtaining a tennis scholarship to study in the United States.

He will talk to the students about the challenges he faced, overcoming adversity, his struggles after apartheid, and how he overcame obstacles, said Gail Harrison, executive director for the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the primary organizer for the Calling All Colors event. Mathabane will also speak to the student body at Holland West Middle School at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"I'm hopeful that the students will take away from the message that it is extremely important that we learn how to cross those racial barriers in society and the message that it can be done if we work together," she said.

Mata said that Calling All Colors has taught her about Holland's ethnic diversity. She learned that there were more than just Dutch and Hispanic people here.

"It pushed us to respect other people and learn about their heritage. There are other cultures hidden in this Dutch town and the projects we did brought out those other people," she said.

East Middle School students will present at the conference the two events they did this year, including "Mix it Up Day" where they made students sit with different people at lunchtime, and a video they made and presented to the student body about students who have immigrated to the United States. They focused on students who go home to non-English speaking households.

Mata said it is important for schools to stay involved with diversity teaching.

"Later in life we are going to have to meet people and work with people that are different," she said. "This is our world and they are our neighbors."