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Embracing diversity

March 26, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Alex Kugler didn't look at his foreign taxi driver as a struggling immigrant. The college student saw the driver as an individual who might have an interesting story to tell, a person from whom a lesson might be learned. So Kugler started a conversation with the dark-skinned stranger - and learned that the driver left part of his heart in his homeland of Somalia to pursue a better life for his family in America.

Kugler, 22, and his sister Sara, 26, learned to appreciate the worthiness of individuals from all walks of life by attending a diverse school, said their mother, Eileen Kugler.

"The lessons they learned at Annandale High School guide them every day," said, Kugler, president of Springfield, Va.-based Embrace Diverse Schools and author of "Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids."

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Her work to promote diversity in schools began in the early 1990s, when her children entered the Washington, D.C., area high school with students from more than 85 different countries and a wide range of economic backgrounds, she said. Some parents were concerned that the student population's racial, ethnic and economic diversity would have an adverse effect on their kids, Kugler said. She worked with administration, faculty and parents at the school to develop an innovative strategy to build community support. The effort effectively stemmed white flight and fostered development of a spirited multicultural community, she said.

"The best school is the school that has a mix of kids from different backgrounds," Kugler said. "This is a gift for kids."

Individuals from diverse backgrounds bring a variety of life experiences to the table, enriching classroom conversations, fostering more informed debates, and creating an atmosphere in which children learn to understand and grow comfortable with the differences and similarities among all people, Kugler said.

"We have to encourage our kids to get out of the comfort zone and take some risks," she said. "That's how we grow."

People who can comfortably navigate through the United States' increasingly diverse population will ultimately be more successful, said psychologist Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center for Children at Judge Baker Children's Center, a Harvard University affiliate in Boston.

"It would be best for all of us to live in integrated neighborhoods," Linn said. "Unfortunately, the message in the United States is still that white is better."

Unless parents address the issues of racism and prejudice with children - teach children that "people really are different and the same" - kids will absorb societal norms, Linn said. Children begin internalizing stereotypes as early as age 8, she said.

Parents must first understand their own learned prejudices about people in order to avoid teaching them to their children, Linn said.

"You can't help children grow up to appreciate diversity until you examine your own prejudices," she said.

And just about everybody has them. Think about the roles that people of various races and ethnicities played during your childhood, and what you were taught about these people, Linn said. Look at your friends today. Are you bringing a diverse group of individuals into your home?

Linn also suggests that parents:

  • Challenge stereotyping. Try to find the roots of your child's generalizations by asking in a nonthreatening way. Let children know that you understand why they might believe a stereotype, but that it is not true. Make sure your children understand the concept of stereotyping and how to identify it. Talk with them about how stereotyping can lead to prejudice, discrimination, and even genocide and ethnic cleansing. Help children understand how stereotyping feels by talking about ways that your family might be stereotyped.

  • Make sure children's toys that represent a wide range of ethnicities. Read books about people from diverse backgrounds. And ensure that the TV programs and movies that children watch are racially and culturally diverse.

    "Media plays a huge role" in reinforcing stereotypes, Linn said.

  • Encourage children to explore friendships that cross racial and ethnic lines.

    "You have to seek out opportunities for your kids to have first-hand contact with kids from other backgrounds," Kugler said. If children don't have such opportunities at school, look for diverse summer and after-school programs and regional activities. And talk to school administrators about offering programs - include student exchange programs - that promote diversity, Kugler said.

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