"Hi, I'm Charlayne Hunter-Gault and I'm multicultural." Ms. Hunter-Gault was the honored speaker at the Multicultural Assembly held at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School on Friday, October 18.
In her new book, To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement she describes her journey as a high school senior to become the first African American at the University of Georgia. Ms. Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist and author, TV correspondent with National Public Radio, CNN (U.S. and South Africa) and PBS' The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. She received the 2012 Walter Cronkite Awards Ceremony.
"We are standing on shoulders of giants," she said, quoting President Obama from his Inaugural speech. "I am, they were, you are where you are because we are standing on the shoulders of giants." She asked students about leaders like Dr. King Jr., Rosa Parks, Joseph McNeil, Diane Nash, Carolyn and William Long.
MVRHS Principal Steve Nixon opened the Assembly by welcoming everyone. "The Multicultural Assembly is aligned with this year's cultural values theme of embracing diversity and honoring individuality," said Vice Principal Matt Malowski. "It is an opportunity to get the students thinking, relaying back to their own lives and to the community."
For two seniors, the Multicultural Assembly was a dream come true. Ever since Isabella El-Deiry and Maggie Riseborough started at MVRHS, they wanted to do something to honor multicultural youth. Maggie is African American, South African, Native American and English. Bella is European Jewish and West Indies (Caribbean Island of Bequia in St. Vincent & The Grenadines). Both come from a long line of Vineyard families (Dorsey and Schulman respectively.)
"Multiculturalism is an "under the radar" kind of topic at MVRHS," says Bella. "I wanted to do something so that we would ALL know what's really happening. So we could do something to make it better for each other."
Last May Bella attended the "Minorities in the MV Public Schools: Panel & Public Forum" at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. Teachers like Leo Frame and Elaine Weintraub, community leaders like Adriana Ignacio andstudents like Del Arujo and Sterling Meacham shared the panel. It was the first time Bella heard young people of color talking publically about the challenges they faced at the high school.
It was Amira Madisen who really touched Bella. Amira was 11 years old when she discovered her Wampanoag roots. She recently graduated from Northeastern University and is starting her Masters at the University of North Carolina. "Amira was very clear and confident," Bella says. "She made me think in ways I'd never thought before."
After the Forum, Bella wrote a letter and met with Superintendent Weiss to share her idea of creating a Multicultural Assembly at MVRHS. "As a young person of color, it was an honor to represent the Martha's Vineyard Youth Leadership Initiative at the Forum and to listen to my peers and hear their deeper thoughts. I would like to be part of the next steps to reflect on the panel, to serve on a committee, to propose specific actions to address inequities."
As a MVYLI Visioneer Bella had the opportunity to invite faculty and nominate youth to serve as delegates to the MVYLI Youth Leadership Summit, held the last week of June. She invited Amira and nominated Maggie and other youth, like Marcanthony Piland. Every afternoon, they worked together to plan the Multicultural Assembly. They set goals: They wanted to engage as many people as possible. By changing the name from Minorities to Multicultural, they set a tone of inclusion. They brainstormed speakers; developed ways of spreading their message; gathered statistics and developed questions for the small group Advisory sessions that follow every school Assembly. The highlight would be video featuring students from all different cultures. They thought if more youth learned about the various cultures, they would be more respectful of each other.
As soon as school started in September, Bella and Maggie hit the ground running. They met with MVRHS Vice Principals to secure permissions. They invited Sivana Brown and Jacob Lawrence to join their team. Sivana was a production assistant and Jacob as a speaker and Master of Ceremonies. They invited Shavanae Anderson to be their video producer. As the youth winner of the 2012 Walter Cronkite Award, Shav knew the importance of this video. Each week they met to polish their plans.
The week of the Assembly was busy, starting with the video. They reserved the room for Monday lunchtime. They made a list of people, created an invitation and passed it out. The video's message was short, simple and powerful. "Hi, my name is ___ and I'm from ___. Shav worked around the clock to edit it - and add the song, One Love by Bob Marley.
MVYLI youth decorated the MVRHS auditorium with flags that represented all students from the USA, Afro American, Brazil, Cape Verdes, China, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, Haiti, Irish, Portugal, St. Vincent, South Korea, Vietnam - as well as the United Nations. (The Wampanoag Tribe flag is not available for purchase). MVYLI youth read a chapter of Ms. Hunter-Gault's book and prepared a question to ask. They joined them on the stage.
Everyone loved the video. The audience applauded as each person shared their heritage. Those featured in the video are students Shavanae Anderson, Cord Baily, Serogia Bernier, Tony Breth, Sivana Brown, Cece Degregorio, Derik Devine, Isabella El-Deiry, Sarah Gruner, Emerson Hazell, Jesse Herman, Aquinnah Hill, Malik Johnson, Hanna Kim, Micheli Lynn, Shane Metters, Maggie Riseborough, Dennis Rose, Oshantay Waite, Liam Weston and adults Linda Lenard, Matt Malowski and Dan Sharkovitz.
"30% of the MVRHS students are multicultural," said senior Jacob Lawrence and spoke of his African American heritage with roots from Ghana and Nigeria. "Take time to get to know your friends," he said.
In her remarks, Bella shared her joy of being a multicultural youth. "I grew up in a family from different cultures. We celebrate different holidays (both Hanukah and Christmas); eat different foods; listen to many languages; travel to many countries." Explaining her Caribbean culture she added, "We go to each other's homes ALL the time. We like to party! You haven't lived until you've been to a Caribbean Carnival!"
Ana Carvalho shared her experience of being a Brazilian student at MVRHS. "It's an honor to be here today to represent the Brazilian community," said the MVRHS graduate (2008). "When I was a student, there was a lot of tension." Ana is a senior at Tufts University, and a MV Vision Fellow who has been involved with the Peer Outreach Program and CONNECT with MV Community Services working with the Brazilian community. "I hope you will learn to appreciate Brazilian culture. Your Brazilian peers have a lot to offer."
Emma HallBilsback spoke of her experience spearheading the Anti-Bullying Campaign at MVRHS as the MVYLI and Duke's County representative of the Governor's Statewide Youth Council. The 2012 MVRHS graduate encouraged students to "Get to know each other. Be nice to each other. Have a smile on your face. It's contagious."
Following the Assembly, MVRHS students joined small groups Advisory. Maggie was asked to be with Ms. Juanita Espino, a Special Education teacher with Columbian and Irish heritage. "She thought it was really cool that we did this and that we could all talk about it."
"Amy Lillivois - a Guidance Counselor with Haitian heritage -- was really excited," said Bella. "She said we did a great job."
"Walking down the school hallways, teachers and students all said, 'Good work. Thank you,'" they said. "It was an opening. The start of a dialogue," said Bella. "My dream is young people will enjoy each other's cultures and celebrate our differences - and work together to build a better world."
At the Assembly Bella received citations from U.S. Senator John Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick.
On behalf of the citizens of Massachusetts, I confer this Governor's citation in recognition of your outstanding commitment to your community through your dedicated work with the Martha's Vineyard Youth Leadership Initiative. Governor Deval Patrick
I would like to congratulate you on coordinating the Multicultural Assembly. It's incredibly important that young people in Massachusetts and all across America remain energized and involved in public service, politics, and all the big issues we face locally, nationally and internationally. I deeply admire the work that you are doing for the diverse youth community on Martha's Vineyard. It is the diversity of people and ideas that makes America so great and it because of work like yours that we can foster greater understanding of different cultures and people. Active, involved citizens, like you, are the key to building consensus, solving problems, and moving our local communities and country forward. U.S. Senator John Kerry
"Each of you, has it within you," said Ms. Hunter-Gault. "The notion that all men and women are created equal...Insist on no bullying, insist on what you think is right. The struggle continues. The time is ripe to do right."