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Calling All Colors comes to Kent County

Calling All Colors builds a culture of inclusivity in schools.

Students work together in a program to help understand exclusion.

An Americanized Sohela Suri grew up in West Michigan, but her father and grandfather didn't, and she has lived learning and practicing Indian traditions alongside Western ones.
 
The 11th grader at Forest Hills Central High School recently attended a Calling All Colors kick-off event at Kent ISD, and she left feeling energized about helping to promote the program at her school and being a positive force for cultural enlightenment.
 
"I'm a big believer in diversity. My religion and culture are very different," she says. "Every school should have something like this. People need to be prepped for the real world."
 
The new partnership between Kent ISD and the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance hopes to facilitate constructive conversations, minimize the isolation felt by many minority groups, and foster more respectful, inclusive school communities. The program, Calling All Colors, includes year-long activities, conferences in fall and spring, online curriculum, student-driven action plans, and other tools for increasing positive racial impacts and interactions for middle and high school students, says Sarah Salguera, program director.
 
The goal is to create a safe place for students to talk about race and establish individual, school-specific initiatives devoted to promoting diversity, racial tolerance and positive cultural exchanges among peers.
 
During her opening remarks, Salguera also told the crowd an important stat: 2012 marked the first year more babies of color were born than white babies in the U.S.
 
"A defining experience of your generation will be to figure out how we are going to handle these demographic shifts and creating a world that is just, fair, and allows everyone to prosper," she says.
 
Talking about race relations and hot-button topics such as immigration can be polarizing and heated. Teens often form their opinions based on parents and peers, what they see in the media, and hear debated via public policy.

This can lead to misunderstandings, cliques, prejudices, and stereotypes, especially in the halls of a high school. Racism can range from blatant derogatory remarks to insensitivity for holidays and religious practices.
 
Beyond the country's shifting demographics, the growing global economy will require students to build skills and be able to function with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
 
"Students have a strong need to talk about these issues," Salguera said. "Race issues are very real. It’s critical to provide them with a space to talk, and create a forum to take action and create change."
 
About 40 student representatives and school liaisons from 12 Kent ISD high schools participated in the Calling All Colors kick-off event. Based on inquiries from parents, teachers, and other school officials, the Holland-based Diversity Alliance approached Kent ISD about expanding the program to Kent County.
 
They will pilot it at the high school level during the 2013-14 school year, with plans to launch it in middle schools in 2014-15, Salguera says.
 
The kick-off event gave attendees a brief introduction to the program and a sampling of what the conferences are like. Organizers wanted to build excitement for Calling All Colors and raise awareness for ways students can drive change and break down barriers so all racial groups feel welcome, Salguera says.
 
 "We all have a cultural background," she told the group. "It's the lens through which we see the world. It's how we filter out and make sense of our day-to-day world."
 
Calling All Colors provides a framework for students to talk about these issues in a respectful and meaningful way. The Diversity Alliance offers recruitment tools, online curriculum, and other program support. Carefully designed materials and activities guide discussions around where students sit in the cafeteria, what jokes are made in the halls, and the general cultural climate of the school.
 
After identifying areas of concern, each school’s diversity club or Calling All Colors group develops and implements an action plan to address issues. Some student projects have included student surveys, guest speakers, school-wide assemblies, and cultural events.
 
Some of the most pressing issues in the schools include cliques, self-segregation of groups, or a general lack of diversity or knowledge of other cultures.
 
"School itself is a diverse place, but the mindset of students is not diverse," says Hayley Robinson, a sophomore and VP of Comstock Park’s Diversity Club. "In our school, it’s the little cliques and bullying."
 
Robinson represented Comstock Park with fellow sophomore and Diversity Club President Courtney Smith. The club is pretty small and they hope to recruit more students. The training gave them some new ideas, they say.
 
"We're trying to get diversity out there," Smith says. "This was a nice get together, a prejudice-free zone."
 
The training included a presentation on cultural IQ, or cultural intelligence, and an interactive activity and dialogue designed to build awareness of how cultural differences impact interactions with others. Attendees were divided into two groups, each with different value systems, rules, and cultural norms. One group was very male-dominated and hierarchal, driven by relationships and social interactions. The other skipped the hugging and chitchat and focused on trading and selling.
 
"Any time you get in a room and are encouraged to explore how you view how society works, and challenge the status quo, it is a helpful thing," says Sarah Gammons, a counselor at Northview who also heads the school’s Welcoming Accepting Valuing Everyone (WAVE) group.
 
Gammons believes teens are more accepting than older generations, and more willing to recalibrate their filters. Fear and defensiveness often keep people from talking or cause communication breakdowns.
 
Unfortunately, Suri says there are a lot of misinformed people to set straight and help educate. Her school is becoming more integrated thanks to schools of choice, but the students still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding cultural differences. Both her grandfather and father hail from Delhi, India, and attended Eastern Michigan University. Her brother wears a turban and caught a lot of flak after Sept. 11.
 
"There are a lot of ignorant people," she says. "It's good to instill this in you when you are younger. Love people. Stay civil. A person is a person. Humanity should be everyone’s first ethnicity, race, culture, and religion."
 
Participating schools included: Lowell, Rockford, Thornapple Kellogg, Northview, Kenowa Hills, Grand Rapids Christian, Lee High, Forest Hills, Comstock Park, Caledonia, Byron Center, and Godwin Heights. Those who attended the training will reconvene, hopefully with more recruits and schools, for the Calling All Colors fall conference on Oct. 22 at Aquinas College.

Eventually, Kent ISD hopes all 33 high schools will participate and have support at the superintendent level, says Julie Mushing, Kent ISD’s diversity coordinator.
 
The Diversity Alliance has offered Calling All Colors programming to Lakeshore youth since 1997, Salguera says. The 2011-12 program year involved 258 students from 24 schools, 12 middle and 12 high schools, in four lakeshore counties. Their action plans had a cumulative impact on nearly 1,400 people from South Haven to Muskegon.

http://www.adambirdphoto.comPhotography by Adam Bird
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