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D161 Diversity Dinner sparks discussion on community culture

Flossmoor parents, teachers, administrators and school board members gathered Monday for the District 161 Diversity Dinner and explored topics dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Flossmoor parents, teachers, administrators and school board members gathered Monday for the District 161 Diversity Dinner and explored topics dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion.
The group of about 30 divided into groups and got acquainted with one another over pizza before delving into guided questions about diversity and sharing personal experiences.
Superintendent Dana Smith asked the groups to write down talking points, questions or ideas at the end of their discussions. The notes will be brought to the school board’s equity and inclusion committee and used to inform future decisions, he said.
“Our focus tonight is just to come together, to meet some new people and start to unpack issues on diversity, equity and inclusion in our community,” Smith said.
Trish Seye, mother of two Western Avenue Elementary students, shared a story about an interaction with her daughter’s teacher that turned into an important conversation about diversity.
She said she once asked her daughter in second grade what she learned in school for Black History Month, and her daughter replied that she learned slave owners were “nice” because they taught some of their slaves how to read.
Seye discovered from talking with the teacher that her daughter got this idea from a group discussion with other students.
“(The teacher said) this was her first time being in a diverse community; she really didn’t know how to lead those discussions,” Seye said. “One of the things that I was telling her was that you can never leave a discussion for children to have and just leave it. Someone has to be the leader that comes back and corrects some of the things that may be discussed.”
Seye said she appreciated having an honest dialogue with the teacher.
“I think she learned a lot from it, but I learned a lot from it just in terms of being able to engage in conversations when you hear something like that and not firing off,” she said.
Another topic of discussion was the incident in April in which a video surfaced on Facebook showing Homewood-Flossmoor High School students in blackface making disparaging remarks.
School Board President Michelle Hoereth said it is important in situations like this to give people space to be angry and process what has happened. 
She said her 17-year-old son has expressed feeling overwhelmed by the response of adults attempting to take control of the situation.
“He said never did anyone actually ask us what do we think should happen to the kids who were driving around in blackface,” Hoereth said.
Parker Junior High Principal Amabel Crawford recalled attending her neighborhood’s annual block party shortly after the blackface incident and sensing that people were tense and unsure how to talk about what happened.
“The tone of the block party was just very different than it had been the past three years, and it wasn’t that anyone was arguing or anything,” Crawford said. “I remember it feeling very much like nobody really knew what to stay; it was like a stiff dance around each other.”
Jackie Glover, parent of two Parker Junior High students, shared a story of how she organized a holiday party at work and asked her colleagues to learn “The 12 Days of Christmas” in sign language in order to include a deaf coworker.
“That’s a piece of diversity and inclusion as well and what that means,” Glover said. “Not so much about race, but the acceptance of people and then including them.”
Hoereth said that when it comes to inclusion for people with disabilities, it is important to ask how we can “purposely and carefully become part of their world,” rather than focusing only on how to include them in ours. 
“Often times in inclusion, we think about it as how do we include that person in us, versus how do we become part of their experience,” she said.
Hoereth also talked about equity and how people often confuse it with “equality.”
For instance, if tutoring is offered but costs too much for some families or is held only while parents are at work, then it is not accessible for everyone.
“We have to think about how we are making sure our students have access to all of the additional resources we are providing so they actually can equal the playing field,” she said. 
Smith said he expects the district’s first Diversity Dinner will expand to more activities in the future.
The next step will be to share notes from the event at the equity and inclusion committee meeting Jan. 23, he said. The meetings are open to the public.
Smith said the table discussions were “honest and heartfelt” and that the event was a great first step.
“Everyone has been on a different journey, but hearing each other’s stories and perspectives allows us to see a different experience,” Smith said. “As we collect different perspectives, we are in a great position for self-reflection and ultimately, improvement.”

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