Diversity discussed at HCC program

December 19, 1993|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Staff Writer

A Vietnam veteran talked about his war injuries. Two retirees discussed the effects of aging, and students listened to descriptions of sexual harassment and racism at a conference last Wednesday on understanding and valuing diversity.

The daylong program, sponsored by Harford Community College, the county school system and the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, attracted more than 175 county students from 17 middle and high schools. This was the fourth year for the conference -- officially called the Harford Equity Leadership Program (H.E.L.P.) which was held at the college.

In the morning, keynote speaker Edna O'Connor, a specialist in the Office of Multicultural Education for Baltimore City Schools, sparked the students' attention by saying hello in eight languages, singing the Mariah Carey song, "Hero," and challenging them to "understand the differentness in others."

"She was awesome," said Maria Comi, an eighth-grader at Fallston Middle School.

The teens then dispersed to four workshops to explore the topics of disabilities, aging, gender and race and ethnicity.

In one session, teacher Janet Staab used sign language to greet the students. Many of them weren't sure how to respond. They felt strange, they told her.

"Now you know what it's like for others," she said.

In another classroom, Charles Mason frankly told students what it was like to lose a hand and a leg during the Vietnam War. He showed them his prostheses and talked about the adjustments he had to make in life.

Linda Shevitz, an educational equity specialist with the state Department of Education, challenged students to think about gender issues.

"Take a look at your books and see how many women, African-Americans and Hispanics there are," she said. "See if they [the books] are fair."

Sexual harassment was another topic that struck a chord with the students.

"It's hard to tell the difference between flirting and what's wrong," said Kyndra Brown, a ninth-grader at Edgewood High School.

Maria from Fallston Middle agreed. "You might not know if they're joking or not."

Retired teachers Marita Watts and Gladys Williams, who both said they were 65 plus, asked the teens what they had learned about older people from TV.

"They're grouchy," was one response.

"They need to be taken care of," was another.

After discussing the negatives and positives of aging, the students began to understand that many people develop their impressions of others from the media and people who have an influence in their lives.

"Try to get to know older people, so you can get to know them as individuals," Mrs. Watts said. "And we must remind ourselves to think of you the same way."

Mary Newsom, director of the race and national origin program at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, a federally funded equity assistance organization, also talked about individuality but in terms of race and ethnicity.

"Reject racism by knowing yourself," said the colorfully dressed woman, who told students that she wasn't wearing a costume but an African outfit often called a butterfly or peacock dress.

For many students, it was their first taste of college life, as they traveled between buildings on a bone-chilling, rainy day.

"I like staying in one building better," admitted Laura Williams, a junior at Fallston High School, referring to the ease of changing classes in high school.

After the workshops, the students gathered to share information and discuss plans for their schools.

Donna Chilcoat, a teacher from North Harford Middle School, hovered over her group of 24 as they munched on pretzels and engaged in noisy discussions about events they were planning.

North Harford had set up a H.E.L.P. club as a result of last year's conference.

"We had 60 who wanted to join, but I could only fit 24 in a homeroom," Ms. Chilcoat said.

One of the events being planned as a follow-up to this year's conference is a food drive in February, she said. "The students thought it would be a good time since the holiday spirit is over."

Other schools are organizing disability days, multicultural exhibits, cultural concerts and setting up strategies to get other students to join the H.E.L.P. clubs.

A representative from each school stood up before the students to share an action plan.

No one disagreed when a Joppatowne High School student told the group, "There's a lot we have to work on."

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