24 April 2007

Culture Warriors

Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco PerilliImage by Shaun Merritt via FlickrI admit it. I wasn’t enthusiastic about spending a Saturday sitting in a government office building interviewing high school students. Sure, it was for a good cause: A county board on which I serve would be choosing the winners of an annual youth diversity award. But I have only infrequent contact with high school students these days, and I imagined them much like I was: smart but sarcastic, energetic but with little ambition, and very likely somewhat annoying. Besides, I would miss my usual Saturday morning pick-up soccer game.

Yet there I was, among the five adults listening to these kids talk about their projects. And I found myself impressed. They were respectful and articulate, and they had done some impressive work. They’d organized diversity clubs at their schools, participated in activities to counter neo-Nazi rallies, organized MLK day events, written songs, successfully lobbied the state Legislature, participated in sexual education programs for younger students, spoken at national diversity conferences, and more. Most of them juggled sports and other activities in their schedule as well.

Their work might well be summed up by one project a high-school junior is spearheading. He wants the city government to erect signs letting visitors know we’re building an inclusive city.

Inclusivity was a watchword for these kids, most of whom felt themselves excluded in some way due to their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender. Their experiences galvanized them into action, into educating fellow students and even their teachers about diversity and culture. It's a sharp contrast to the reaction of Virginia tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui, who apparently felt the same kind of exclusionary pressures. I found it uplifting and encouraging to meet such kids, who are committed to making positive social change.

Alas, high schools are not filled with kids like these. In fact, a common theme was that most of them are taking courses at a nearby community college at least partly as a way to escape the atmosphere of their high schools. They talked about a general intolerance that may be diminishing, but is still present in the halls, with racial taunts and jokes made out of both ignorance and malice. And they talked about school administrators’ ignorance, and the lack of teachers and role models who looked like them.

People weren’t talking so much about diversity when I was in high school. I didn’t have (or I didn’t know about) opportunities to get involved in such activities. I like to think that I would have been like these kids given the chance. But I wonder if that’s true, or if I would have been one of the ignorant ones snickering behind the backs of those trying to improve their world. Our world.

So my day was far from wasted -- instead I learned a lot about schools, kids, the challenges to multicultural appreciation, and leadership. And I got to play soccer on Sunday, anyway.
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