By Jonathan E. Coleman
The gymnasium is usually associated with activity that works one’s muscles. But last week, at Hickory Ridge High School, students were using the space to flex their mental muscle — rather than doing physical activities — as part of a leadership training sponsored by the school’s multicultural club.
“Breaking down the walls” was the theme of the event, which incorporated nearly 100 carefully selected students who, organizers said, represent the broad diversity present at the school.
“We’re a new school. We had rival schools come together,” said Cherie Ashe, the multicultural club advisor. “It’s great to see them come together. Usually you don’t see freshman and seniors talking.”
And usually, you don’t catch any teenagers tackling issues of racial discrimination and hurtful language. But those are exactly the types of difficult topics that students brought to the forefront last week.
“A lot of stuff that we talked about here is stuff that’s not really said, but we all have the same feelings,” said sophomore Cori Buddenbaum, one of the students selected to take part in the leadership workshop. “Normally kids don’t talk about stuff that’s this important. I wasn’t expecting how honest people would be.”
But, sometimes, important issues that can easily divide, must be met with honesty. And that was the goal of the first-ever leadership event.
Students began with ice-breaker activities that allowed them to get to know one another.
Sarah Batista, a news reporter at WBTV, shared her story of overcoming adversity and the difference she has made in telling stories important to the local Hispanic community.
Batista grew up in Charlotte, but remembered the challenges of growing up of Puerto Rican descent.
“I just remember being the only person like me in my class,” she said. “The kids were confused. They asked a lot of questions. That taught me a lot. It taught me to have friends from all different backgrounds.”
Those lessons served her well later in life as she pursued a career as a news reporter.
“Even though I am the only Hispanic reporter at our station, it’s amazing how one voice can really change things,” she said. “We’ve told a lot of stories about the Hispanic community because I was there to tell them. It’s not that our producer didn’t want to tell them, but didn’t know the stories.”
Batista encouraged those taking part in the workshop to make an effort to learn more about the many diverse cultures represented at the school.
“Go outside of your comfort zone,” she said. “Talk to classmates that are outside of your circle. You might be surprised how much you have in common. There are more similarities between us than differences.”
As the day progressed, students broke into smaller and smaller groups and began tackling larger and larger issues.
Ashe lead a discussion about the power of words and how important it is to choose words wisely and avoid, no matter the circumstance, using words that are hurtful.
“Ignorance is a disease,” she told the group. “It’s something that catches on. Think about the words you use, even in passing, even in jest, even just to your friends.
Words are powerful.
Smaller groups were later asked to represent a list of generic positions within a community —- doctor, mayor, teacher, mechanic – and asked to rank the importance of each job function. Later, even smaller groups took part in an exercise titled “If you really knew me,” where they were asked to discuss personal things about themselves, their family and friends, and their experiences with being discriminated against or left out.
Overall, organizers and students alike said the first-ever workshop was a success.
“They wanted to see a change in the students,” said Jumaane Askew, a junior. “We want to see students start to talk and hang out with different groups of people. We want people to see that we’re all the same.”
The true test, some said, will come with time.
“It’s exciting to see a hundred people in here just chatting away when they didn’t even know each other before,” said assistant principal Rebecca Gala. “And tomorrow, when they see each other in the hall and it just continues —- that’s what we’re hoping for.”
• Contact reporter Jonathan E. Coleman: 704-789-9105.