The Old Rochester Regional Junior High School Student Council’s aim is to make all students feel that their voices are being heard, that they are safe in their school, and that they are accepted in their student community. Student Council Co-President Riley Suh and Vice-President Emily Wilson, both in eighth grade, have recognized that a general lack of diversity awareness is an issue that affects individual students, the school at-large, and even the world.
What is most important to Suh, she said, is the formation of the school’s first “acceptance club,” which will bring students together in open discussion about increasing their understanding of people of other cultures, religions, sexual orientations, and neurodiversities.
“I think that’s especially important with all the stuff that’s going on right now with ISIS and the world,” said Suh. There are misconceptions about the Muslim community and fellow Americans that students from Tri-Town may harbor, said Suh, simply because they live in an area where those more observable diversities are minimal.
When a gay/straight alliance club was approved for the high school, the junior high school looked into forming a similar one with enthusiasm. But over time, the idea of broadening the scope of the group shaped it more into an all-encompassing diversity acceptance club to include more discussion about people and groups different from the local culture of Tri-Town.
“Everyone seems really onboard,” said Suh. “We hope to make it really big, and we want everyone in Student Council to join. I’m so excited.”
Suh, who moved to Tri-Town only just last summer, said she noticed a big change in the demographics at ORR than from San Francisco where she is from. She said she saw a lot of what she called “blatant” unawareness of other cultures, and is discouraged to hear fellow students in the school halls still using outdated terms like the “R” word and “fag” as insults to others. It was apparent to her that a gap in the school’s diversity education could be lessened with the formation of the new diversity club.
Suh said she does not think her fellow students are practicing “meanness” per se, but rather expressing a general lack of education of acceptance, of tolerance.
“I’m half Korean,” Suh said. “Being called ‘Chinese’ on a daily [basis] isn’t fun because they don’t realize that’s not what I am.”
The diversity club, which still lacks an official name, said Wilson, will hopefully address many of these issues, commenting on how vital it is to expose junior high school students to the important discussions on race, religion, gender, and so on.
“It’s never too early to start to learn about diversity,” said Wilson. “And the goal is to make [students] feel safe and enjoy school.”
Some focus will be on the political climate of the country during this presidential election, but as Suh points out, the group leaders will not be there to try to sway students to either side of the debate.
“It’s just about education about diversity in the world and how it affects us,” said Suh. “I really do think students in their school can make a difference.”
And it all begins with student government, the two agreed.
“Student government is really, really important because if students don’t really get a say in their school, then things never really get done,’ said Wilson.
Wilson said she and the other elected student council members, like other Co-President Jack LeBrun, often hear from the student body about their concerns or their ideas on how to make the school better – sometimes those are good ideas, said Suh, and sometimes there is silliness. Take “Pi Day,” for example.
“I don’t know why, but everybody wants to celebrate Pi Day,” said Suh. But others, said Wilson, have come up with interesting ideas such as a day to celebrate different ethnicities when students can bring a food to school that represents their family’s origins.
The student council will also hold a “jeans drive” in February, calling on students to clean out their closets and drawers to donate their gently used jeans for homeless teens.
“A lot of people just don’t realize how much they have,” said Wilson, especially in an area like the Tri-Town. Wilson said addressing diversity issues will help pierce through the protective veil that she thinks some Tri-Town students are shielded with from the rest of the world – and the diversity group, the girls agreed, is the place to start.
“I think it could fix a lot of problems in this school,” said Wilson.
By Jean Perry