The cafeteria walls, rising higher than any step ladder could reach, made the balloons at eye level seem small and insignificant. But, the students had built an impressive arch of purple, white, and glossy gold ones for a photo booth in a smaller alcove near the entrance. This welcoming banner gave an air of formality for this school-based multicultural festival. Flags took up space behind presentation boards and tables exploded with food and drink and cultural items of significance.
Several weeks of difficult meetings had preceded this. In fact, a tornado warning cancelled the event the evening just prior nearly blowing away all possibilities for celebration. But, they did it. The students regrouped, rescheduled for the evening after the storm, and we all felt a collective sigh, shared a collective cheer, as we watched Palestinian dancers, listened to a haunting Jewish ballad, and learned an Afghani dance step.
Four weeks ago we were wrestling with “culture” and whether that included “Queer culture”. Three weeks ago we were debating the presence of maps and flags, examining the borders of place and time and identity. Two weeks ago, we talked about how much of the world comes into the school. We wrestled with the unknown, with being wrong, and with moving towards right, even when it was hard.
Worry about world conflict, about student well-being entered each meeting. Doubt had fluttered around the edges of the entire year, sometimes hanging in front of me requiring my immediate response, and other times demanding some silent reflection.
One week ago, I spent an evening in my head working through several discussions, writing out my thoughts, doing research to challenge my thinking. I opened the next meeting with the Diverse Student Union in this way:
A few thoughts that I ask you to consider in the planning the work of the DSU. This is social justice in action. Please ground any decisions you make in equity, diversity, and inclusion philosophy and practice. Never forget that events have contextual meaning – school context and world context. All previous events in the school ripple into future events. All world events ripple into the school.
Whatever decisions you make for this multicultural event, you need to anticipate a response to claims of harm and offense. You will not please everyone, and you will need to take a collective stand, to connect, and possibly understand the sense of harm. Yet what you are working towards matters – identity matters – validation of culture matters. And, only sustained conversations and education will help to bring understanding. A single school event not considered carefully can do more to escalate conflict than sustained difficult discussion.
So plan beyond the event, plan for the follow through, plan to listen – what will you do after the event? How will you cross borders and build bridges?