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Students Present at 2012 Overcoming Racism Conference

November 27, 2012

Students Present at 2012 Overcoming Racism Conference

s.t.a.r.t. Advisor Kate Towle with students Shira Breen, Elek Harris-Szabo, Loren Towle, Lamia Abukhadra, Sara Osman, Saida Mahamud and Hibo Ali.

After an application process, s.t.a.r.t. was invited to present not one–but two!–workshops at the November 2012 Overcoming Racism Conference.  The workshop title was “The U.S. Student’s Colonized Mind:  Breaking Free to Close the Gap.”  The workshop was led entirely by students Sara Osman, Saida Mahamud, Loren Towle, Elek Harris-Szabo and Lamia Abukhadra, with support from Hibo Ali and Shira Breen.

The 90-minute workshops began with Sara and Saida sharing a PowerPoint about s.t.a.r.t.’s origin as a small group of six people wanting to talk about race.  They spoke about how from the time that nine courageous students integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (The Little Rock Nine), brave students have played a role in closing opportunity gaps.  They asserted that students still have a critical role to play in closing such gaps, and that models like s.t.a.r.t. can show the way.  Saida spoke to how integration does not necessarily mean interaction, and that students need adult support to learn the art of intercultural bridging.  She said that such student leadership with bridging will become increasingly valuable with the demographic sea change occurring in our country.  In Minnesota, for instance, 1 out of 23 seniors is a person of color, but in the younger generation, 1 out of 3 youth under age 18 is a person of color, yet only 40% are graduating from high school due to equity gaps.  Sara argued that students must learn civic and intercultural literacy so that they can offer a safe space to talk about race and gain service credits and scholarships while preparing for leadership in increasingly global work and learning environments.

Following their PowerPoint, each student shared a personal narrative depicting why students benefit from developing their intercultural awareness.  Sara talked about her Somalian heritage and how she is now in school with Somali immigrants from different clans within the country, some of which may have been at war with one another. She spoke of how Americans group all Somalis together, not realizing that when Somali students are in class with one another, they are still learning about the values of other Somali clans.  Some clans may find it challenging to talk with one another, believing that their clan is right and others are wrong.  The other student cultural groups have no idea this dynamic is occurring.

Lamia, a student of Palestinian descent, spoke to how Arabs make up approximately 15% of the Muslim population.  As an Arab student, she doesn’t have a box to check on applications for school or work, encouraged to self-identify as white.  She spoke to how little perspective is given to the Palestinian experience, and that though she has great respect for the struggles of the Jewish people, she would like to see genocide studies in school that include her people’s experience–and that of American Indians–and not only the Holocaust.  Lamia shared a map of how Palestine has lost land over the years of being occupied and how she feels her people, living as refugees, have no place that they can safely call home.  Meaningful dialogue ensued from Lamia’s comments given the renewed violence in Gaza and Israel.

Elek, whose father is of Hungarian descent, spoke of how when one looks at him, they see a young white man.  However, he is deeply influenced by the experience of his father who had speech difficulties following a childhood illness, but was still forced to speak in Russian following in the aftermath of World War II.  Though his father is doing well here in the United States, it can still be challenging for him to speak and to fill out work application forms in English.

Loren talked about his Irish background and how the Irish were enslaved by wealthy British planters, who occupied Ireland for over 700 years.  He said that even though he is white, he is aware that his ancestors were often portrayed as inferior to other races, a fact that impacts blue collar Irish workers, such as his grandparents, to this day.  Loren also spoke about being a white boy who was raised to socialize with black and brown students.  From the time he was small, his parents brought him to cultural events, such as Kwanzaa parties, and encouraged him to bridge cultures.  Yet doing so was not always favored by his teachers, who at times would admonish him to make better choices for friends when he would favor spending time with his peers of color.  He made the workshop attendees laugh by describing what it’s like to be in sports with athletes of color, some of whom jokingly tease him for being the white boy who can’t run.

Saida spoke to her choice to wear a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women to express modesty.  She spoke to how when a religious nun wears a head covering, she is often viewed positively as pious and devoted, but that when she makes a similar choice, she is perceived as being oppressed.  She talked about how her hijab allows her the freedom and choice to share herself as she deems appropriate.

Following questions from the audience, Sara and Saida led the groups in a review of textbook and book excerpts to consider the Dakota War and how different perspectives shape our cultural lenses.  One passage, from the Advanced Placement U.S. History text, “Out of Many: A History of the American People,” gave a more sanitized version of the War, while a passage from the book “Spirit Car:    Journey to a Dakota Past” by author Diane Wilson brought the unbearable tragedy of the Dakota War to light.  The passage gave a personal account of how the war violated kinship rules by forcing families–with children of both Dakota and European descent and  bound together over many generations–to take sides.  One workshop participant commented how the textbook passage focuses primarily on the institutions, rather than the people, presenting Native people as victims with no sense of agency.  The “Spirit Car” narrative, however, allows the reader to get close to the real emotions of the event, as well as the choices and dilemmas the people had to confront.

As a closing exercise, Lamia guided the participants in an identity exercise where they had to reflect upon their own Identity Garden, identifying flowers in their garden (such as their race and skin color, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion and hobbies), as well as their weeds (areas where they may have internalized oppression due to societal patterns).

In the end, the reviews for the students were outstanding, with a majority of participants giving the workshop high ratings, for being “completely satisfied” with the workshop, learning something new and the workshop meeting its goals.   Participants called the workshop great, informative, interactive and excellent, saying the students were very articulate and energizing.  One participant told the students their presentation was outstanding–and that it was the best workshop she’d attended at the conference!    Students were asked to continue to develop their resources, supplies and strategies for teachers and to even provide counsel on how to launch groups similar to s.t.a.r.t. in different areas of Minnesota.

All in all, it was a great experience for the students to have under their belt as they prepare for work and college opportunities ahead!

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