Sometimes the hardest questions to ask are the ones that can provide the most insight. A recent panel surrounding race relations at Lakota West gave students the option to anonymously ask their questions to adults they respect and interact with every week.
About 130 students chose to attend the panel discussion, which featured four Lakota West staff sharing their background. Principal Elgin Card, Assistant Principal Derek Smith and counselors Michael Anderson and Effie Jata spoke about their real life experiences encountering and overcoming prejudice and discrimination, both personally and professionally.
The panel was the result of conversations in Marian Weber’s English classes after reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
According to Weber, “The students in those classes wanted to discuss race and to understand better and I wanted to make the story they were reading relevant to their world. They actually requested guidance from role models. That’s when Assistant Principal Jackie Cruse suggested the four panelists.”
She adds, “The students were able to submit questions to the speakers, questions that they may have been hesitant to ask in person. There was a lot of interest, even beyond the English classes as students talked about the upcoming panel. I had many students approach me to ask if they could attend.”
While the questions were far-ranging, each of the panelists shared their personal experience and offered insight and advice to the students.
According to Dr. Smith, “There's nothing wrong with recognizing that someone is of color or a certain faith. Treating them differently based on that one fact – that’s where the issue is.”
He added, "I was happy to be part of the panel discussion on race and prejudice. I think healthy conversation is essential to understanding and appreciating all perspectives.”
During the panel, Card shared, “Yes race matters but relationships matter even more. The relationships you build make a difference. Remember to look at people for who they are – each person individually. And to treat them for who, not what, they are.”
Students generally appreciated hearing how people they know dealt with such challenges. One junior shared, “I liked that they built on each other’s comments and really laid things out for us. It was nice to hear from people we know and to be able to learn from their examples.”
“Based on the response we have from the students who attended and the interest from our student body as a whole, we’re hoping to hold some follow-up sessions,” stated Weber.
This is just one example of the many initiatives happening throughout the district as part of Lakota’s new cultural proficiency training program for staff, “Champions for Change.” Thanks to “champions” at every Lakota school, a stronger culture of inclusiveness is being fostered with the goal of high achievement for students of all different backgrounds.
“I'm proud of the openness our four panelists shared with the students,” says Acting Superintendent Robb Vogelmann. “They were very real with their sharing and did not shy away from the questions the students had asked. Thanks to their willingness to share their positive and negative experiences, I think students came away with a deeper understanding of their peers and encouragement to continue such conversations.”