With flags hoisted high and signs declaring “We Are EK” in different languages, nearly 100 district high school students gathered for a photo. It was a proud display of culture for students who accepted the invitation to represent their flag.
“This is one of the chances to express my culture freely,” said Salem Tessema, a junior from Ethiopia.
It was the culminating activity of the school’s inaugural Culture Week, a celebration and chance for students to share their food, flags, clothing and, at a deeper level, dialogue on what home, traditions and current events mean to them.
While flags waved, students, many dressed in sparkling and colorful traditional clothes, mingled and munched on ethnic foods. They represented the countries they are from: Nepal, Burma, China, Thailand, Bosnia, Congo and many more.
“We wanted to increase awareness about what amazing cultures we have at this school,” said Student Council member Allison Biss. “It’s to gather everyone together, embrace culture and put it on display for everyone in the school.”
Organized by a committee of Student Council members who partnered with English language-learner students, the week opened with “What It’s Like to Be in My Shoes,” discussions held over lunch periods for two days. Students, many of whom are immigrants, shared thoughts on topics around diversity such as cultural appropriation, international relationships, religion, gender roles and the U.S. presidential election.
The timing was right following the divisive election. Students at East Kentwood come from 89 countries and represent several religions, said Advanced Teen Leadership and Student Council teacher Mel Trombley.
“After the election, things were really heated here, so we were trying to figure out the best way to do things,” Trombley said. “It was incredible. … I have not been with a group of adults that had discourse like they did. It was very connected and personal. Kids were really geeked to be a part of it. … It’s so empowering to just be able to talk.”
Teachers discussed diversity issues in classes, students played a “guess-which-country-the-flag-is-from” game in the cafeteria and answered “If there is one thing I want people to know about my culture it is…” to hang in the hallway.
“I learned a lot about how people felt about their own countries, how people were criticized for their culture,” said Student Council member Ana Tran. “I didn’t know they had to go through all those things.”
Added junior Kylie Dunn, also a Student Council member, “We walk around every day with all these people, but we don’t really know about them. … We got to learn about their culture because when you grow up all you know is yours. It was nice to hear other people’s perspectives.”
Trombley hopes Culture Week will become a tradition Student Council can build on each year. “It’s just the perfect example of how beautiful of a microcosm Kentwood is,” he said.