To truly address diversity and culture, sometimes you have to get down to the nitty-gritty. That was shown by East Kentwood students who recently discussed issues including gender roles, bridging a disconnect between general education and English-language learner students, and building mutual respect among students and teachers.
As part of a recent Student Council-designed Culture Week, students gathered on two days for Straight Talk during lunch periods.
“It’s about celebrating the vast array of cultures that we have in school because we are the No. 1 diverse school in the state of Michigan,” said senior Edgar Gatsinski, head of the council’s Diversity Committee. “We have a lot of different cultures and (57) countries represented at the school and we, as student council, wanted to celebrate that.”
Among activities that included games to identify countries and flags, and wearing traditional clothes from students’ native lands, Straight Talk was Culture Week’s way of exploring diversity deeper than through symbols and dress.
“I’ve been asking that key question: How can we acknowledge diversity more at East Kentwood?” Edgar said. “We talk about it, but aren’t really doing it.”
He noted the need for better connection among different student groups. “It’s important to me, given the current cultural climate in the world. I feel like this is so necessary. We need to come together in order for progress to be made. By doing this, that is the main goal.”
Overcoming Barriers Starts with Conversation
Students explored the need to better embrace and involve newcomers and to break down stereotypes. They also talked about student-teacher relationships, gender roles and of the risks of trying to fit in at the expense of not being authentic.
“I feel like once some of us step out of our comfort zone, like maybe we see an ELL student in class and we go and talk to them, then maybe other people will approach them,” said sophomore Jamirea Lacy.
“We have to overcome those language barriers that we have,” Edgar said. “There are other ways to connect with them, like sharing common interests.”
Students also talked about what makes it hard to reach out to others: awkwardness, fear of rejection and fear of what other people think. It’s difficult to step out of one’s circle of friends, they said, but there are ways to do it. “If you do talk to someone who is from a different culture, food is a great topic,” said junior Medina Vila.
Students said they have different standards concerning gender roles based on how they grew up. For some, they don’t really exist in their families, for others, gender roles are tied to tradition and heritage.
“My mom always instilled in me that it’s OK that she worked and my dad chose to be the one who stayed at home, but I feel like it’s a stigma that it can’t be that way,” Jamirea said.
Edgar said he thinks gender roles “are going to subside and be put aside because we are so progressive, noting that he still hears the “be a man” message from the older generation.
Students also discussed how teachers can better understand students and their cultures, especially within a heated U.S. political environment.
“Regardless of whatever political affiliation they have, I feel like they should still be a little more sensitive and a little more keen to what’s happening around them,” Edgar said. “There is a lot of divisiveness currently in the United States, and it would be nice if the teachers paid attention to that and saw where their students are coming from.”