2009-10-09 Lakeshore Press Conference gives middle schoolers new appreciation of other cultures

Conference gives middle schoolers new appreciation of other cultures
Lakeshore Press

For a while after Mischelle Quizena’s family moved to Holland from Venezuela, they frequently checked the condition of their automobile any time they left it parked in a public place.

That sounds paranoid by West Michigan standards, but to the Quizenas it made perfect sense. It was their experience that vehicles are regularly stolen or vandalized.

“When you come to a new culture, all the rules are diffiernt and it takes a while to figure out what is going on,” said Mishelle, an eight-grader at West Ottawa’s Macatawa Bay School. “We were worrying too much about theft. Maybe you’re not worrying enough about other things. Until you adapt to how things work, it’s real hard to make friends,” Mishelle said. “I think you must just seem strange to everybody.”

Memories of how confusing life seemed when she moved to Holland at age 7 and started first grade with limited knowledge of English came flooding back to Mishelle on Tuesday as she participated in a cultural simulation exercise during the fall Calling All Colors conference.

Calling All Colors is a project of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance to build racial unity among students from 10 middle schools in Ottawa and Muskegon counties. Attending the seventh annual conference at Hope College were 166 students, 20 advisers, several LEDA Board members and many international students.

Students representing each school shared their plans for heightening awareness about prejudice and promoting racial unity among their peers during this academic year. Strategies ranged from guest speakers and diversity “spirit weeks” to international banquets and parent meetings.

Students also experienced a bit of another culture by leaning and performing a new style of dance, music or art.

Mishelle and 60 other students in the Calling All Colors after-school club at Macatawa Bay School are developing a play based on Dr. Seuss’s picture book “The Sneetches,” which shows the effects of prejudice. They hope to perform that play for students at all nine West Ottawa elementary schools.

Their production also will be shared at the spring Calling All Colors conference April 29 at Grand Valley State University.

Keynote speaker Nery Garcia, principal of Washington Elementary School, told students about her struggle to learn unspoken social rules after moving to the United States from Cube at age 14.

Elaine Thomas-El, also an eighth-grader at Mac Bay, said a person doesn’t have to be from another country to experience culture shock with a move.

When she moved from Muskegon to Holland at age 5, she said people expressed themselves with different words and dressed differently. If it wasn’t for gentle coaching from teachers at Jefferson and Washington Elementary Schools, she said there would have been times she would have felt outcast.

Heather Fuglseth and Chelsea Bradbury said the cultural simulation exercise was an eye-opening for them, as lifelong Holland residents.

All four girls agreed that the simulation made them feel the importance of being a friend to people in a new situation and helping them feel welcome and important.

The exercise also was a good reminder that people may look very different from you on the outside, yet possess qualities on the inside to become a cherished friend, they said.

Diane Talo, assistant principal at Holland’s East Middle School, said today’s adolescents seem better able to identify racism and more willing to seek support to correct it than was the case in her own youth.