The fine art of inclusion: Moving beyond the gaps

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At the YWCA’s Annual Time to Talk last October, the inclusion expert, Andrés Tapia, spoke about our legendary Minnesota equity gaps. We have the worst gap in the nation between graduation rates for Latino students and white students—the 2nd worst between African American and white students. Tapia pointed out that inclusion is a skill, not an attitude, and that equally compelling studies demonstrate that increased diversity can improve or impede an environment. The research has proven, he said, that the difference lies in how diversity is managed. “Greater diversity leads to greater creativity and productivity,” he said, “only when managed well.”

As a highly-engaged parent and racial justice facilitator, I agreed in 2009 to support a small group of committed, multi-racial students at South High as they came together to have honest dialogue about how issues of race, culture and inclusion impacted their lives. “S.t.a.r.t.,” or “students together as allies for racial trust” is a model that has flourished within the school and has spread to other schools and Minnesota districts. In 2011, s.t.a.r.t. won the St. Paul Foundation’s Facing Race Idea Challenge. S.t.a.r.t. students have gone on to secure prestigious scholarships, to land work that focuses on closing equity gaps, to get published and to lead workshops. As students, they are learning—and teaching the community—how to close the very gaps they face from day to day.

As a diversity consultant, I have watched what scant attention is given to modeling inclusion and preparing our young people for life in a complex, multicultural world. Our over-taxed teachers are expected to craft solutions with piece-meal “mini-grants” that are no substitute for consistent, school-wide attention to these important issues. In a recent Equity & Diversity resolution by the Minneapolis Public Schools, there was little mention of direct work with young students as part of the solution. Yet, at every grade level, students are eager to learn how to understand and navigate all of the differences (cultural, political, gender-based and levels of ability) they experience in their communities and classrooms.

Saida Mahamud, s.t.a.r.t.’s former co-chair and now a student at the U of M, often says, “Integration does not mean interaction.” By this, Mahamud means that students need safe spaces where they can bring issues of race out into the open and begin in earnest that delicate work of bridge-building. At South, students have done this by bringing in guest speakers, nudging their peers to sit by someone new at lunch, writing about race in their student newsletter, workshops about race and by hosting dinners for students—and the community. An added benefit of s.t.a.r.t. is that with community support, we relieve teachers of the whole burden of overseeing work of this magnitude, sensitivity and level of community engagement.

A year ago on Valentine’s Day, South High was the site of a lunch fight involving students of different ethnicities, leaving a few staff and students injured. Coincidentally, s.t.a.r.t. had planned a dinner to talk about race before this incident occurred and over 150 students attended—showing just how important this work is to the students. Ironically, district mini-grants do not apply to South High because South’s racial composition is so diverse, and the school is not considered racially-identifiable. South’s rich diversity means we need work on inclusion, which Tapia says, “is about making the mix work.” Could we be imposing integration without really understanding the fine art of inclusion? Is it any surprise that schools like Washburn and South High, whose demographics are shifting rapidly, are showing signs of strain in their efforts to manage increased diversity?

Schools alone can’t solve our student equity gaps. Our full communities, including faith-based and health networks, must work together to support models like s.t.a.r.t. The most important lesson the students have taught me is that they want to be included in helping to close the gaps. When students are invited into the dialogue, learn from each other, and even guide their own teachers with diversity education, we achieve what Tapia called “one of the hardest things civilization must do.” We create inclusion and close our gaps.

Kate Towle is a Community Educator who helps students from s.t.a.r.t. develop themselves as civic and intercultural leaders. Kate’s current passion is to liberate youth voice in the sensitive, but critical process of closing Minnesota’s stubborn equity gaps.