ROCHESTER — Principal Eileen O’Neill hopes to raise awareness of cultural diversity for her students at St. John of Rochester School in Fairport because many of them are not exposed to children or families from other races or ethnic groups.
During last month’s 18th-annual Summer Institute on Catholic Education, O’Neill said that such awareness also will better prepare them for the future since the students are growing up in an increasingly global society.
"It’s challenging to do that when you don’t have other people to draw on," she said, adding that was one of the reasons she chose to attend the seminars that focused on religious and cultural diversity.
According to University of Rochester officials, about 100 area teachers, principals and other school personnel attended this year’s institute, which is sponsored by UR’s Warner School of Education.
Arturo Chávez, director of the Mexican American Cultural Institute in San Antonio, Texas, spoke during his July 10 keynote address of the importance of building unity in culturally diverse schools .
That need for unity, he said, has been highlighted by the U.S. bishops for the past several years as they have implored members of the church to recognize and celebrate the diversity growing around them.
"The world is here, all around us, in our local settings," he said. "The bishops are asking us to honor and welcome the many faces of our God."
That idea may pose a challenge for many people, he said. For teachers, however, culture is at the heart of the learning process, Chávez added.
"Our work as teachers is to make the unconscious conscious so we can be more effective, especially in our multicultural situations and contexts," he said.
Therefore, as different groups come together, they need to learn about each other to avoid conflict, he said. For example, if one cultural group has a more relaxed sense of timeliness than another group, it helps both groups to have that knowledge to build tolerance of differences, he added.
"It may seem small … but (important) as we come together and take the time to know who we are and suspend judgment long enough to find out about the other culture," Chávez said.
Another important task for teachers is to not just learn the external aspects of the other cultures they may encounter — such as holiday traditions — but the internal attitudes and beliefs that explain the symbolism of those acts, he added. He used the image of an iceberg to illustrate the point, noting that people gain most from learning what lies below the surface of other cultures.
"When we realize that one culture is not better than another, we all benefit," Chávez said. "Culture is a gift handed down by our ancestors."
Sonia James-Wilson, director of urban teaching and leadership at the Warner School, encouraged teachers to move beyond the idea of multicultural classrooms to inclusive ones. In the theory of multiculturalism, there remains one dominant group — which in our society is the white, Anglo community, she explained to the participants in her workshop about teaching culturally diverse students.
"In inclusion, there is no dominant," James-Wilson said. "It’s counterintuitive to the ways humans live, but not doing it is harmful to our society."
During her session, participants were asked to discuss the advantages and challenges of diversity in their schools.
In Monroe County, several Catholic-school staff members said their schools had significant percentages of cultural and racial diversity, including St. Monica School, Bishop Kearney High School, Our Lady of Mercy High School and All Saints Catholic Academy.
Advantages the groups found included breaking down stereotypes, accepting others, sharing of ideas and learning to communicate with a variety of people. The challenges some have encountered included teaching tolerance and sensitivity, language barriers and a fear of moving out of one’s comfort zone.
James-Wilson explained that if you teach from a global perspective, students will be able to look beyond themselves and expand their views on issues.
Vilma Goetting, Mercy’s principal, said that idea is at the crux of the missions and ministries students participate in at her school.
"Students … realize the need to reach out to other cultures not only locally but internationally," she said. "It gives them a sense of self and of giving. And reaching out to a bigger group is to be part of the world rather than apart from it."
While on a smaller scale, giving students a glimpse of other communities is the goal of a sister relationship St. John of Rochester is developing with an inner-city school, O’Neill said.
Anne Bell, the school’s art teacher, recalled how apprehensive parents were when the school took part in an exchange program with Corpus Christi School on Oxford Street.
"To go where they didn’t know people, in the city, was a real eye-opener," she said. "It was a good experience and (showed) how close we are."
Chávez said he understands that we all have our stereotypes of other people no matter what culture we grew up in, but if we hide behind those ideas and never learn more to move beyond them, those stereotypes escalate into destructive behaviors.
"Unless we are willing to move beyond borders, we can never become one church in America," he said. "In this journey we are being asked to make … in opening our hearts to the other — that one different that I, we are all changed. We are all transformed."