Speaking Out on Diversity

By Rev. Frederick J. Streets

The New Haven, Connecticut Board of Education established this past year a Committee on Inter-group Relations consisting of students, teachers, school administrators, and Yale University faculty members. Sub-committees were formed to explore the issue from various perspectives. A sub-committee on Community Building held focus-group discussions with high and middle school students, who were encouraged to share their perspectives on the relationship among diverse ethnic and racial groups in their schools.

African-American students from a predominantly Black high school student body shared with me, as their group facilitator, their views about student diversity and community.

Diversity meant more to these young people than being part of a student body composed of students from a variety of ethnic or racial backgrounds. They made it clear that although their school was majority African-American, there was a great deal of difference among them. These distinctions included the students' class year, the neighborhood and middle school from which they came to high school, the level of student maturity (as defined by the students), personality, interests, goals, and ambitions. These characteristics were important to them as they made decisions about with whom to associate and whom to accept into their group.

They emphasized the importance of being seen by others as they saw themselves, rather than as exclusively a member of a homogeneous group. This was a preference of students who had come to the high school from an all-Black as well as a racially and ethnically diverse middle school. This preference underscores Gómez's point, in "A Leap of Faith," that diversity is an "internal phenomenon" as well as an external one.

Identities are not fully formed by the time the students enter high school. No matter how many characteristics they may in fact share as members of a group (e.g., racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, class, gender, religious, etc.), they wish to be respected as persons and regarded as individuals by their teachers and peers. High school also represents to them a time when they value being a member of a variety of groups. As Gómez says: "...we often forget that building community requires the recognition that boundaries are arbitrary and fluid. Diversity...is about recognizing within ourselves that our identities are not fixed in a binary opposition....We exist within a complex matrix of shifting identities, both within and between ourselves."

We know as educators that the development of a student's sense of self and well-being is influenced by how well educators use their understanding of students as individuals. The social factors of the high school environment have an impact upon students' self-esteem and sense of belonging. They may either join with or reject their fellow students based on their evaluation of the differences among them.

Sometimes this rejection takes on a very antagonistic, hostile, and even violent form of expression. The chances of this occurring are minimized when students have opportunities to interact with one another through constructive extracurricular activities and service projects. Even then a fundamental need that must be addressed if students are to appreciate diversity and build a sense of community is the enhancement of their self-esteem.

A student in my discussion group suggested that there be classes on how to build self-esteem and how to understand and handle feelings. Many students experience daily assaults upon their sense of well-being in their interactions with a variety of other people. Exploring with them what they find offensive in their relationship will help us to understand what is helping to shape their identities and world views. No doubt students need the existence of adults to help them understand and respond to their experiences. But they also need to be encouraged not to see the differences between themselves and others as reasons to be defensive about who they are or to be antagonistic towards others. The relationship between students and their teachers helps to set the stage and establish the tone for how students relate to one another.

The lack or abundance of racial, ethnic, or cultural sameness or diversity alone does not develop a student's sense of community. Nor does it increase the student's appreciation of self and others. Increased self-esteem, more opportunities for interaction, and positive relationship experiences with their peers, their teachers, and other school staff enhance the students' sense of belonging. Confidence in their ability to negotiate relationships with others in a positive, healthy, non-violent manner is increased. Such confidence enables them to build community among themselves and improve their chances to learn about themselves and others.

Our ability to capture the imagination of students and to stimulate in them a hopeful vision of the future begins with our taking them and their need for affirmation seriously.

Helping them to learn the meaning of values, how we form them and behave accordingly are central tasks in helping them to celebrate diversity and create a sense of community among themselves. Included in this purpose of education are those goals of promoting student autonomy and group identity. These are essential to cultivate in students if their educational experience is to translate into one that helps them to become good citizens. Individuality and group membership are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they antithetical to the aims and meaning of a democratic society. Their relationship is a necessary dynamic in the experience of democracy and that experience is democracy's best teacher.


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