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The evening of Feb. 23 was an experience of diversity and inclusion that I and many others will never forget. More than 600 members of the Walker School community braved a cold and snowy night to immerse themselves in the World of Walker program. In more than two decades as a diversity consultant and educator, I have never encountered a program quite like this.
World of Walker was a spirited evening of song, dance, music, poetry, photography, visual arts, anthems, recitals and community-building, with a focus on culture and identity. It was a night where the voiceless had the mic, marginalized groups were at home in the middle, and children of the dominant group were brought out of their comfort zone as learners, cultural allies, and language advocates.
More than 37 languages and cultures from across the globe find a home at Walker Elementary School. A significant number of families are immigrants, refugees, and English language learners. From within Africa alone, they come from Sudan in the north, Rwanda in the east, Congo and Chad in the central part, and Nigeria in the west. This is diversity.
But this night went beyond the typical multicultural event, where diversity is celebrated in terms of food, music, costumes and art work of indigenous people. Instead, it highlighted the stories, languages and experiences of those often stereotyped as “others”; those whose lived experiences typically lie dormant on the margins of what is considered to be American life. This is inclusion.
It was not American children dressing in “ethnic costumes,” pretending to be something they are not. Rather, it was “ethnic” children dressing in their own traditional clothing, representing who and what they are, and their places of origin.
The names of the performances rang true to the spirit of the evening: “I Have a Dream”; “Student Garage Band Raps”; “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; “Sahyta”; “Follow the Drinking Gourd”; “Aloha”; “Who am I?” and, “Love in any Language.” This is value.
One by one, fifth-graders stood to respond to the question “Who am I?” by telling stories of their elders and ancestors who have helped make them who they are. This is giving voice.
Listening to the English Language Learners sing in sweet harmonies, recite the days of the week and names of the foods was touching. And as much fun as I had drumming to West African rhythms with my own kindergarten and fifth-grade groups, I found the most transformative part of the entire evening was “Newcomer Stories: My name is …”
In it, black and brown children from immigrant families stood upright and proud at the microphone in colorful clothing, indigenous to realities worlds apart from this new reality called “Evanston.” The children introduced themselves in their indigenous languages of Kinyarwanda, Hindi, Swahili and Arabic. This was followed by white children translating these narratives into English. Rounds of applause followed each co-introduction. This is meeting people where they are.
Then the children shared, in English, their visions for themselves, the hopes of their families, and the aspirations of their people: “When I grow up, I want to be a math teacher … a doctor, a computer programmer …” Their voices were heard and acknowledged with a standing ovation before the school community. This is validation.
The closing piece was aptly titled “Dreams of Harmony.” The World of Walker program itself was an illustration of the beauty and sound of harmony. The program made real what harmony can look and feel like, and reflected in the faces of the children on this night.
The night went beyond the dream. The dream became reality. It went beyond diversity to inclusion. It went beyond equality to the level of equity. The fact that two buses were provided by the school to pick parents up from their homes – parents who did not have the means to get to the school – cries, “You are wanted, valued, and welcomed here.” This is a fine example of District 65’s slogan, “Every Child, Every Day, Whatever it Takes.”
As Dr. Martin Luther King was quoted on the World of Walker program, “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must … transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” In my opinion, this is a crucial factor in preparing our children to be “college ready,” something schools often overlook that our children must develop for success in the 21st century. How about preparing them to be “world ready”?
World of Walker was a testament to good leadership, a talented and passionate staff, and positive parental involvement. Walker school dared to do something different, allowed children to embrace their differences, step outside their comfort zones and learn from their differences.
As a diversity consultant and educator, world traveler, and parent, I can attest that recognizing difference versus pretending it does not exist is a necessary step we all must take – together – and exploring and learning from this difference is a necessary journey we all must embark on – individually.