Youth Cafe event brings students into the diversity conversation

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“It’s all about the power of getting together and talking,” said Patrick Doherty as he kicked off Saturday’s youth cafe’ event at the Edmonds Library Plaza room. “Beginning the process of addressing any problem means reawakening the ancient practice of simply getting together and having a conversation,” added Doherty, who serves as the City of Edmonds Economic Development Director and also staffs the Edmonds Diversity Commission.

But this was a very special conversation, because the participants were high school students — those who are affected by local issues but are generally under-represented in the process of finding solutions.

“We wanted to hear directly from young people,” said Commission Chair Ed Dorame. “The Diversity Commission has been getting mixed messages from parents about what’s going on in our schools around the issues of inclusiveness, with some parents quite concerned and others feeling it’s a non-issue. We thought it was time to hear from the students themselves, and that’s what today is all about.”

Saturday’s format was designed to provide a non-threatening atmosphere where young people could express their thoughts on a range of topics — inclusiveness, bullying, acceptance of differences in religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and even gun violence in schools. Students spent 20 minutes at each table with a discussion facilitator before moving on to the next table and topic.

Speaking directly to the question of “what makes an immigrant,” one student said, “We almost all came here from somewhere else so it doesn’t make sense to single anyone out as not belonging.”

In a more general vein, another offered, “People are more judgmental now, and that makes me sad.”

Edmonds School Board member Diana White also sits on the Diversity Commission. She sees this event as an important step forward in addressing a growing set of issues in our schools.

“There’s been a lot of angst since the last election, and students are feeling threatened and uncertain about how these changes could affect them,” she said, “Students are asking questions like ‘Will my parents be deported,’ and ‘Will I be the target of a growing tide of racism and intolerance?'”

Stressing that the school district remains steadfast in its commitment that each and every student experiences a learning environment free from discrimination, White saw Friday’s event as an opportunity for students to share and talk about these issues, and thereby build bridges of understanding.

“It’s important to note that the students were directly involved in selecting the discussion topics for today’s event,” she added. “As we worked to plan this event, we developed a rather long list of topics, more than we could possibly address in today’s session. We took this list to students at Meadowdale High School and asked that they identify the topics that resonate in the schools and mean the most to them, and these are the ones we’re using today.

“While many that students chose were pretty much expected, we were particularly surprised that among the top choices was gun violence in schools, but in retrospect it makes sense that our student would be worried about this given the recent shooting incident in Mukilteo,” White added.

For Dorame and the rest of the Diversity Commission, today’s event will provide new information to help direct their efforts.

“We plan to discuss the results of this session at our upcoming meeting on April 5,” he said. “I’m hoping that these discussions will help generate new ideas that will lead to partnerships and other direct actions to move our local diversity agenda forward.”

All Diversity Commission meetings are open to the public. The commission meets on the first Wednesday of each month. More information is available on the Diversity Commission web page.

— Story and photos by Larry Vogel

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