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Celebrating differences through Parkway’s SOUTHtalks: Diversity Day

Attending Diversity Day were (from left) Emma Dames, Abby Herman, Stephen Herbel, Ben Gunning, Yasmine Gholami, Adam Liu and Jordan Clay.

Attending Diversity Day were (from left) Emma Dames, Abby Herman, Stephen Herbel, Ben Gunning, Yasmine Gholami, Adam Liu and Jordan Clay.

Although the planning spanned 18 months, Parkway South High’s Diversity Day on Feb. 18 could not have been executed in a timelier manner. With the civil unrest in Ferguson still in the background, the event was needed more than ever.

Diversity Day celebrated differences in race, religion, culture, perspectives and gender. The team specifically chose topics applicable to the South community of teachers and students.

“Each member of the team drew from the rich educational relationships they have developed over time to plan the day’s events,” South Principal Dr. Patrice Aitch explained.

She cited one relationship in particular – with AFS Intercultural, an international exchange organization for students and adults – as a “great example of how we invited them and, consequently, they supplied student speakers and James Butler to be presenters.”

Butler, a team development specialist with AFS-USA, spoke on his intercultural experiences as a student studying in Bogota, Columbia, while “Perceptions of American Life from Around the World,” was paneled by AFS Intercultural exchange students, including one now married to a South High graduate and living in the St. Louis area.

Tenth-grader Abby Herman attended the “Perceptions” panel discussion and said, “it was fascinating to hear how other cultures perceive Americans while they are visiting us in the U.S.”

Topics closer to home included learning about Autism Spectrum Disorder and an introduction into deaf culture. The goal for students was to explore how these differences shape individual  experiences and perceptions of the world.

Students Adam Liu and Yasmine Gholami, said they were profoundly touched by what they learned about autism.

“The word autism has a negative connotation, but (in) hearing a personal story, I realized all the great attributes of someone on the spectrum. Einstein is thought to have been autistic and he was brilliant,” Liu said.

The team at South did not shy away from difficult conversations, including a panel discussion to examine and repair the disconnect between law enforcement and the greater St. Louis community. Police officers Evan Waters and Craig Smith; community leader James Clark from Better Family Life; and Adolphus Pruitt, the St. Louis president of the NAACP, led the emotional and honest discussion.

But no two topics were more controversial than “The N-Word” presented by Parkway Director of Pupil Personnel and Diversity Charlotte Ijei; and “Gender Identity/Stereotyping” presented by Wolf Smith, of Safe Connections.

Dr. Alden Craddock, associate vice president and director for the Center for Civic Engagement and Democracy at Maryville University, was impressed with the day’s events. He presented “Who is a REAL American?” and “Living as One: Rethinking Race Relations.”

Craddock, who leads professional development for teachers and understands the concerns of teaching on emotionally charged topics, said: “In schools we are often afraid to broach controversial subjects. Teachers do not always feel fully prepared to tackle them.

“Having professionals begin the dialogue during SOUTHtalks will help the dialogue to continue in the building. This is a tremendous opportunity to really embrace the diversity conversations,” he said.

Aitch put the day’s events into perspective. “Our job is not to change their belief system but we want to empower them with critical thinking to evaluate their perspectives,” Aitch said.

Assistant Principal Dr. Daryl Diggs agreed. “Our South community goes far beyond these four walls. Our kids are coming from every economic, social, religious and lifestyle background. We are a global community wanting to offer a global perspective,” he said.

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