Students, staff discuss importance of diversity in a mostly white district

Conversation covers race, gender, sexual orientation

Byron Center High School teacher Christy Tripp talks about diversity in Byron Center with seniors Michael Truer, left, and Jordan Whitmore

As more than 40 people sat in a circle to share their personal experiences with diversity or simply listen to others, themes over nearly two hours touched on race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and other diversity topics in education.

Members of the Accent Unite Act Byron Center High School Diversity Club,  and adviser Christy Tripp, an English language-learner teacher, hosted a Community Diversity Forum at West Middle School recently. It was aimed at school and community members interested in diversity education and celebrating differences as a means to create unity. Along with AUA, the high school also has a Gay Straight Alliance.

Families talked about raising children of color in a district where 84 percent of students are white, and about differences they see for minorities in a majority-white community, including hearing comments that show a lack of understanding. Some shared their desire and actions to embrace diversity of all types.

“Our whole mission is to spread diversity throughout our community, get people informed and spur a movement to show that diversity is welcome in Byron Center,” said senior Jordan Whitmore, AUA president.

One woman, however, expressed disagreement with accepting homosexuality, referring to it as a choice and a sin.

Byron Center students, staff and administrators share their perspectives on diversity in the district and community
Senior exchange students Michelle Bartels, left, from Germany, and Anna Schultz, from Denmark, attend the forum

Students Spur Conference

The idea for the forum stemmed from senior Adri Stacey, who attended the Calling All Colors conference last fall. She said she wanted to emphasize why diversity is important and to encourage it in all forms.

“Diversity starts in the community and it’s not just the kids, and it’s not just the adults, it’s everyone working together in order to create something bigger than themselves. I was inspired,” Adri said. “Understanding is one of the key things for accepting.”

Students sold T-shirts with the words “Welcome to Byron Center” in Arabic, Spanish, Vietnamese and Swahili, four of the 18 languages represented in Byron Center Public Schools. The shirts included a poem, titled “In Lak’Ech,” by Chicago poet Luis Valdez, stating, “You are my other me. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.”

The club has also hosted a party to welcome refugee students; held a donation drive for a refugee family; hosted a Martin Luther King Day of Celebration; listened to speakers, attended conferences and led other diversity-related events.

Senior Jordan Whitmore presents on AUA

Bringing People Together

Tripp, the adviser, said she wanted to bring all voices to the table. Diversity education encompasses socio-economic status, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs or other ideologies. “Every opinion, every voice is extremely important,” she said.

“I don’t want people to leave the community,” she said in response to one African-American man, who said he had considered moving. “We don’t want to lose what we have, and when we can talk about things like this people hear how important it is and that there is diversity within Byron Center.”

Tripp said her students inspire her.

“They step up and take ownership of it. It’s very student-led. They want to see change and they are agents of change.”

Superintendent Dan Takens added, “We just want each day, each week, each year to be a better Byron Center, a better West Michigan and, really, a better world. I am so confident we are on our way.

“I see our young people love each other easier. They don’t have the conditions that maybe the older generations did. That’s awesome to see.”

CONNECT

The Value of Classroom Diversity

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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