Embracing Diversity Must Be Community-Wide Effort

by Dr. James E. Fitzpatrick, Fort Atkinson School District

As the School District of Fort Atkinson Board of Education prepares to finalize its Strategic Plan goals, it is not surprising that addressing our ever-increasing diversity has emerged as an important area of focus.

We are not the homogeneous community that we were 10 years ago. Nor in the next 10 years will we remain as we are today. In 2007-08, our third Friday count reflected a student enrollment of 27 Asian-American students, 32 African American students, 237 Latino students, and 14 Native American students?a total of 12 percent of the population?among our 2,712 students.

In relation to socio-economics, it should be noted that one in every four students in our district qualifies for free or reduced lunch. This is compared with one of 10 in 1999. Our incidence of students with disabilities is at approximately 15 percent, up from previous years when we hovered between 10 and 12 percent.

I mention the above because the seeds of change in our country often have their origins in our learning institutions. From the landmark Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Vietnam era, social justice issues were often first played out in our schools and on our college campuses.

In short, it is often in our learning communities where the visible signs for the need to change first become apparent. While people are often hesitant to accept change around them, the change will go on despite their reticence.

Embracing diversity amidst its challenges will ultimately make us a richer cultural community! There are wonderful examples of this in many of our nation’s communities. Schools are a great place for assimilation and learning about diversity. However, schools are not enough. It takes an entire community effort!

Moreover, it requires the very best in all of us?especially the adults?in modeling respect and honor. It is critical to recognize that because we are different we have a great opportunity to become strengthened as a community.

Teaching Tolerance is an organization that provides excellent resources that many of our educators use. I especially recommend one booklet that was given to me by one of our teachers?”Responding to Everyday Bigotry: Speak Up!” It is a short read and includes 29 very interesting vignettes that really get at the heart of attitudes. You can read the booklet online at http://www.tolerance.org/speakup/pdf/speak_up_full_document.pdf.

Embracing diversity does indeed take the entire community. Everyone must remain vigilant to address actions and comments that are insensitive and demeaning to others. The following are six tips that are suggested in the Teaching Tolerance booklet to help us know when and how we can speak up.

Be ready. Anticipate being in such a situation where an offensive comment is made. When hearing such a comment, respond to the person and ask them “Why do you say that? How did you develop that belief?”

Identify the behavior. Sometimes point out the behavior candidly helps someone hear what they are saying. “Jim, what I am hearing you say is that all Mexicans are lazy (or whatever the stereotype happens to be).” Or, “Jim, you’re classifying an entire ethnicity in a derogatory way. Is that what you are saying?”

Appeal to principles. If the speaker is someone you have a relationship with?a sibling, friend, or co-worker?call on their higher principles. “I have always thought of you as a fair-minded person, so it shocks me when I hear you say that.”

Set limits. You cannot control another person, but you can say, “Don’t tell racists jokes in my presence anymore. If you do, I will have to leave.”

Find an ally; be an ally. Always speak up and never be silenced out of fear. To be an ally we must lead by example and inspire others to do the same.

Be vigilant. Stay prepared and keep speaking up. Don’t risk silence. I think all of us have been in a place where we regretted not speaking up. I know I have! The disappointment of reflecting back upon a lack of courage can be haunting.

In closing, I hope you have a chance to read this booklet. You will be better for it as we change as a community.

This article was originally published in the Jefferson County Daily Union on April 30, 2008. Used by permission.

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG