A panel about diversity in the school system among students and community members of different ethnic and religious backgrounds at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center last week generated a thought provoking discussion.
The panel featured African Americans, Brazilians, Native Americans, and members of the Jewish faith who spoke about their experiences on Martha’s Vineyard. Following the panel discussion, school superintendent James Weiss spoke of how he planned to address some of the concerns raised and answered questions. The discussion was organized by Mr. Weiss and Rabbi Caryn Broitman of the Hebrew Center.
Max Jasny, Hebrew Center administrative assistant, said the event was intended to spark action to address prejudice and stereotypes on the Island.
When introducing the panelists he emphasized, “They’re not here to represent the community, but they are some of the voices coming from those communities.”
Leo Frame, a business teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, spoke on the African American panel and thanked organizers. “It is so rare that we get an opportunity to talk to the community and for the community to get to understand some of the things that are going on in our educational sector in particular, in our schools.”
He shared a story from his first year teaching on the Island, in 1990. Mr. Frame said two African-American football players came to his classroom “near tears.” Asking what was wrong, they told him “Mr. Frame, they want us to be in a slave auction.”
Initially in disbelief, Mr. Frame said he learned the football team was planning to auction football players for a day as a fundraiser, “using the rude term slave auction to promote this activity.”
Though he said the principal responded with the appropriate action, the event inspired Mr. Frame to create a group called Young Brothers to Men to connect young African-American and Native-American men with role models in the community.
“Role models are particularly important to impressionable young men,” Mr. Frame said. “When they don’t see role models, or someone that reflects their culture, reflects their values, they can be lost, they can turn to areas we don’t want them to turn to.”
Sterling Meacham, a high school junior, said he turns to Mr. Frame when racially insensitive actions occur.”Usually in all my classes I’m the only African-American kid,” Mr. Meacham said. I’m usually fine with this, but I started getting called an oreo, which they meant as black on the outside, white on the inside.” I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it, but I was able to go to Mr. Frame and talk about it.”
As a whole, the Island student body is primarily white, according to 2006 US Department of Education statistics. Of the Island’s 2,134 enrolled students, 85 percent identified as white, two percent as African American, one percent as Asian, nine percent as Latino, and two percent identify as Native American.
Compared to numbers from 1987, diversity in the classroom has increased by nine percent, primarily because of an influx of Brazilians moving to the Island.
Andora Aquino, a 2010 MVRHS graduate, said that as a student she encountered students and teachers who had low expectations for her success.
As a senior, Ms. Aquino was accepted into Colgate University and though excited, some classmates didn’t believe she was accepted based on merit.
“Anything I had done up to that point; I was in honors, in A.P. classes, I had really good SAT scores and I played sports, I was captain of my varsity teams but none of that mattered,” Ms. Aquino said on the panel, as her voice shook slightly. “I got in because I am Brazilian.”
Ms. Aquino moved to the Island 14 years ago from Cuparaque, a small town in Brazil. She said that a teacher at MVRHS once described students from her hometown as “fossilized,” and said, “they just want to take vocational classes because that’s what they want to do, they want to get a job.”
Such attitudes said set students up for failure, Ms. Aqquino believes. “If you don’t think someone is going to succeed, you’re not going to help them,” she said. “If you think they’re going to fail, and don’t help them, they’re going to fail.”
Elaine Weintraub, who teaches a class on Brazilian history at MVRHS, called such opinions “soft bigotry.”
“It’s when you have no expectations for certain students,” Ms. Weintraub said. “It’s not overt, it’s gentle, it’s quiet, and it’s deadly.”
Amira Madison spoke on the panel about discovering through foster care that she is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah, and then connecting with her roots.
Through the Indian Child Welfare Act, Ms. Madison was placed in a home on the Island when she was 11. A native of Boston, Ms. Madison said, “It was kind of a shock coming to the Vineyard because it wasn’t as diverse as I thought it would be. I grew up in a city where everyone was different colors, different races.”
She added, “I don’t think stereotypes are ever going to stop and I don’t think racism will ever stop, but it can help to be educated about these things.”
Rabbi Broitman added ways to incorporate different traditions to the discussion. She called for school traditions, such as the holiday concert, to not be a “watered down Christmas,” but to have the concert feature the religions of different cultures every year.
She also spoke of the pressure to fit in, “I think most of our kids think I don’t feel anti-semitism, but I think it would be very hard for them to sit on this panel because assimilation is so crucial for them, and that’s not good for anybody,” she said.
Following the panel, Mr. Weiss discussed the role of diversity in education. “One of the goals we have as adults and as educators is to promote a diverse community in any way we can,” he said. “The voices of our young people are what is going to help us move forward.”
Mr. Frame asked Mr. Weiss how he planned to address the low number of teachers of color on the Vineyard. “It has been extremely difficult for us to find teachers of color and teachers of various ethnic groups,” Mr. Weiss said. “If there are people you know who might want to come to Martha’s Vineyard and teach, and happen to be of an ethnic group or another, please encourage them to apply.”
Mr. Weiss said change is sometimes gradual. “Rome, or in this case, Martha’s Vineyard wasn’t built in a day and it will take time,” he said.