Beyond Tolerance: Challenges Create Opportunity

Beyond Tolerance
Diversity education has been part of our vernacular for more than two decades and schools offer sensitivity trainings for staff members and assemblies for students to address it. Trainings and assemblies of this kind often focus on the tenet of tolerance, but I always thought schools should be aiming for something beyond mere tolerance. What about acceptance and inclusion?

In 1998, I became the director of student activities in a high-performing, suburban high school. Naturally, there was a disclaimer. The school had faced recent racial tensions involving a high-profile white supremacist group that ultimately led to an investigation from the Federal Office of Civil Rights.

As the director of student activities, I was tasked with the mission of promoting tolerance among all students on campus. Early in my tenure, I was also approached by a group of students who wanted to get special education students more involved in their school, which is when a teachable moment emerged.

HARMONY: The Diversity Talent Show

The students and I conceived an idea to create a talent show that would feature special education students performing on stage along with the rest of their school peers. Students were also encouraged to invite every campus cultural group to perform in the show — HARMONY, the diversity talent show, was born.

The talent show featured groups of special education students, lip syncing performances, and Latin dancers, as well as stomp from the African-American club, traditional Hmong dancing from the Asian-American club, folk dancing from the Armenian Student Organization and even an Irish folk dance from an Irish-American student. The show also featured educational videos between each performance related to embracing diversity. The entire school saw the show over the course of two days and six performances, while parents and the community were invited to an additional evening show.

HARMONY was an immediate hit!

The passionate students who wanted to include and expand the experiences of special education students accomplished that and more. The school went from having an Office of Civil Rights investigation to winning awards from the National Organization on Disability and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. More importantly, the student leaders demonstrated to the school and community that their diverse student body was talented, creative, powerful and proud, especially when united.

Fifteen years later, HARMONY is still a tradition at this high school. This is just one example of how students can help re-define diversity. They can go beyond merely tolerating each other to embracing differences through true inclusion, acceptance and collaboration in school. This brings me to my next experience about approaching diversity in school.

Student Leadership Holds the Answers

In my most recent school site experience, our Native American population was the most significant minority group that sometimes felt removed from the mainstream campus culture.

With the help of student leaders, we began a process of trying to recognize, include, feature and involve our Native American students more in our school’s culture.

Initially, we started with the traditional assembly where we featured the music and dance of our local tribe’s heritage. Then, we challenged our school to do something larger and more significant.

Beyond the Basics

One senior student developed a Native American Student Leadership Conference that included a program that focused on empowerment. This included students in our area from multiple tribes, as well as assistance from community leaders from several tribes.

This event spawned more successful ideas. At the end of that year, a new elective course called Native American Studies emerged. Students began sponsoring guest speakers and events dedicated to saving the native language and other traditions.

We also applied for a local grant to create a Native American Cultural Center. Upon successfully receiving the grant, we began the transformation of our Media Lounge (21st century library) into a Native American Culture Center. This grew into a project that, when completed, will have converted the inside of the building into a central hub featuring Native American art and artifacts. The new space will also act as a new outdoor facility extending beyond the building that can be used for special events (and as an outdoor classroom) dedicated to Native American culture and education.

Regardless of the diversity needs, issues or challenges at any institution, schools have the ability to go beyond the bare minimum of simply recognizing diversity. Students and communities can create custom programs that truly transform the nature of their school culture. Indeed, mere tolerance is not enough. We can go beyond.

Have you ever done anything to promote inclusion and diversity at your school? Share in the comments below!