Villa Maria Academy Hosts Diversity Panel Discussion
As Erie expands, residents are being challenged to adapt to living in an increasingly diverse environment. Villa Maria Academy took a step toward increasing its students' awareness of diversity within the community by hosting a panel discussion to address the topic of inclusion of minorities.
As an extension of Villa's Black History month activities, the school invited guests representing different ethnic, racial, and social groups to share their unique perspectives on how well Erie embraces diversity. In return, the students had the opportunity to interact with people representing segments of the community they might not encounter very often.
The assembly, held on the morning of February 29 in the school's auditorium, opened with Villa teacher Mr. Al Braun's rendition of "In My Own Lifetime," a song from the musical The Rothschilds. Mrs. Janet Sherr, Villa's Public Relations Director and enrichment program advisor, next introduced the panelists and invited them to respond to three questions: How inclusive is the Erie community; are the people of Erie making efforts to be more inclusive; and what does Villa need to do to become more accepting of differences?
The first speaker, Mr. Jeff Keim, a psychologist from Saint Vincent Health Center, introduced the topic with a speech, titled "The Lost Art of Civility and the Challenges of Acceptance." He explained that all human beings naturally sort themselves into groups but, unfortunately, often look down on those who are excluded from their group. Mr. Keim suggested that civility is the solution, since "we don't have to like everybody" to still be "decent to everybody."
Mr. Burt Strauss, a representative from the Jewish community, followed Mr. Keim at the podium. He related his background to the students, informing them that he was the product of a Jewish-Catholic marriage, something that was frowned upon in his parents' time. However, as he later responded to a question posed by freshman Trevor Murray, "love and understanding" developed within his extended family in spite of this taboo and made him the person he is today.
Mr. Strauss proposed that America is less of a melting pot and more of a "symphony orchestra." Although the individual parts "don't sound exactly alike," together they make beautiful music.
Ms. Olga Zaystev of the International Institute spoke next. She praised Erie for making an effort to accept the more than two thousand refugees who have come to this area in the past few years. Mr. Ramon Mamcha, who represented the Hispanic community, also praised Erie for its more "responsible" attitude toward immigrants.
"Do not judge people," Ms. Zaystev urged the students. "Accept cultures, accept differences, and teach others to do the same."
Mr. Thomas Ryan of the Gertrude Barber Center next spoke about how radically different life for the disabled is today as compared with the 1950s. At that time, most buildings were not built to accommodate wheelchairs, and public schools refused to accept children with IQs below fifty.
Also, Mr. Ryan reminded students of the importance of the service projects they perform each year. Not only do they help those in need, but they benefit the volunteer, too. As he encouraged the students, "Don't wait until you are in an accident to learn about rehabilitation."
The final panelist to speak, Ms. Maureen Donnelly of St. Benedict's Education Center, also encouraged the students "to get out in the community" and "volunteer, volunteer."
Ms. Donnelly advised the audience to "be with the poor--then you will understand them." Most of the underprivileged, she said, are hard-working people who have slipped through the cracks in the system and come from every cultural group in the community.
A seventh guest, the Reverend Charles Mock, a representative of the African-American community, was unable to attend at the last minute due to sickness.
The panelists' brief speeches were followed by a question and answer session involving the students. Sophomores Susan Hochreiter and Sarah Flamini both asked Ms. Zaystev to elaborate on her speech, and senior Kevin Miceli asked about the effect of technology on immigrants.
To the latter question, Mr. Keim responded that while technology provides good jobs for people with technical skills, it eliminates opportunities for people who cannot afford technical training. Mr. Strauss agreed that education was necessary to succeed today, but countered that technology was another outlet for natural creativity.
Mrs. Sherr ended the morning's discussion by concluding that Erie is doing a pretty good job with including different groups, but it is an "ongoing" process. In Erie and around the country, minority populations are growing in size and prominence and, in the not-too-distant future, may overtake the current majority in numbers. Although some people might have difficulty adjusting, everyone must adapt to the change if the majority and minority alike are to enjoy a prosperous future.
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002