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Perspective | Cultural diversity classes promote empathy and acceptance

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  • NC student Tia Hilber addresses @NatlGovsAssoc Governors’ Education Policy Advisors Institute on the importance of cultural diversity classes. They promote "empathy and acceptance inside and outside of the classroom," she said. #nced

Editor’s note: Last week, Xavier Adams, a teacher at Orange High School and the North Carolina Center for the Advancement 2022 Prudential NC Beginning Teacher of the Year, introduced his student, Tia Hilber, at the Governors’ Education Policy Advisors Institute. Here are their remarks.

Teacher Xavier Adams

To center the work that will be done today and to frame the thoughts that Tia will be sharing, I want to begin my remarks by reading the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. 

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

As a teacher, I believe that our education systems are responsible for cultivating and enacting the dreams our students have for their lives and their communities. 

For some people, the idea of pursuing dreams seems abstract and impractical. But Dr. King’s legacy reminds us that dreams are powerful and worth pursuing.

Although our society’s collective memory of Dr. King’s work has been intentionally hollowed out and reduced to his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King dreamed of and worked to create a world that would preserve every human life through equal housing opportunities, fair voting laws, racial reconciliation, and an end of war and poverty. 

While Dr. King gets credit for these ideas, his ideas were not novel. There were many moms, dads, grannies, tias y tios who had these same dreams for themselves and their children, which raises the question: why did our politicians only act once there was a Dr. King? 

Put another way, as a society, whose dreams do we listen to? Do we listen to the dreams of the people that might not speak English as fluently or as eloquently as us?  Do we create opportunities for all dreams to be articulated at the mic? Do we have the courage to act on dreams even when they have foolishly been politicized and made out to be controversial? And, most importantly, are we seeking to hear students’ voices instead of just teachers?

“Are we seeking to hear students’ voices instead of just teachers?”

— NC Beginning Teacher of the Year Xavier Adams

Unfortunately, like Dr. King, los suenos, the dreams of many students are deferred unjustly by our school systems due to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and ableism, and these forces are compounded by factors like poverty and lack of access to internet. To foster our students’ dreams, we must combat the forces that work against them by acting swiftly and intentionally. Dreams are delicate, and our responsibility to act upon them is a life and death matter. 

Consider this anecdote: in 2004, a student named Kizzmekia Corbett graduated from Orange High School, the very school that I teach at. Seventeen years later, in 2020, this student, a Black woman, would become the lead scientist on the research team that developed the mRNA technology used in our Covid-19 vaccines. And, as fate would have it, I would have Dr. Corbett’s younger cousin in my online world history class the same semester that I was able to get this vaccine for myself. 

I have never met Dr. Corbett, but I imagine she had many dreams for her life when she graduated high school, including becoming a scientist. These dreams were important to her, and unbeknownst to her teachers at the time, these dreams would become important for the world. Dreams are delicate, and our responsibility to act upon them is a life and death matter. 

The fate of our country is tied into our students’ fate. It is critical that we ensure that their dreams become our reality. 

With these ideas in mind, I welcome painter, musician, and scholar Tia Hilber to the stage to offer her remarks.

Student Tia Hilber

My name is Tia, and I am a junior at Orange High School. I’m incredibly honored to be speaking with you all today. Before talking about the world I dream of, I’d like to share a little bit about the world that I’ve experienced so far. I’ve divided these 16 years of my life into three separate parts: The Beginning, The Enlightening, and The Future.

While I speak about my experiences, I invite you to think about your own. How does your educational experience compare to mine? What Black history figures did you learn about during your grade school years?

Throughout elementary school, I remember learning there were two key figures in the Civil Rights movement. You can probably already guess who they are before I say them: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Each year during Black History Month, we’d spend a day or two learning about these two people through an informative video, a reading assignment, or a small project. Sometimes even all three! Even then, those assignments barely began to preface the true influence that they had on our society.

As Mr. Xavier stated, most of Martin Luther King’s works were reduced to his peaceful and solemn “I Have a Dream…” speech. But what about the fact that he started college at the young age of 15? Or that he helped arrange the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike? Though I had learned about MLK many times throughout my elementary school years, these were some facts that were never told. Instead, it was the same information year after year. While there is no denying that these two people had an incredible impact during this time period, they are nowhere near the only ones who put it into motion. After all, it does take a lot more than just two people to make an entire movement and those numerous other people deserve to be taught about. 

Entering middle school, it almost seemed as if we learned even less about the positive and empowering figures in Black history. Instead, the only times we truly learned about this portion of history was through lessons on slavery, segregation, and the oppression of Black people. As you can imagine, it was not a great time for a young Black girl to be a student, especially when I was often one of the only Black kids within my class. At some times, it almost seemed embarrassing that the majority of the history I could truly relate to was so negative and demeaning. Though these are important and formulating times within Black history, it’s not right to tell them while leaving out the better times. 

In my freshman year of high school, I vividly remember scrolling through the available elective classes that I could request for the following school year. There were the usual ones such as theater, Spanish, French, art, and countless others. But then a new one caught my eye… African American Studies. The title instantly intrigued me. A class that only taught about Black history? Without a second thought, I added it to my list of requested classes. 

Fast forward about four months and it’s my first day of 10th grade. Excitement, enthusiasm, and a tinge of nervousness were in the air as we all found our new classes and reunited with friends. Not to mention it was our first year being completely back in person after the pandemic. Soon it was time for my 2nd period, which happened to be African American Studies. I quickly found the classroom and took a seat near some of my friends. After a few minutes of catching up, I had a chance to look around the classroom and the realization hit me. I wasn’t one of the few Black people in this class, in fact, the majority of the kids in there were people of color. This was something I had never experienced before, and it was one of the best feelings. Taking African American Studies proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my educational career so far. 

Throughout that one semester, I learned more about Black history, culture, and heritage than I had in the 11 years I had been in school. My teacher, Mr. Xavier, cultivated a welcoming and open environment for us to discuss current events and social issues as they happened and to debate topics that weren’t usually touched on in regular classes. Mr. Xavier invited a number of different speakers to talk to our class, from local activists, artists, and even the woman who taught African American Studies before him. Through analyzing different songs or art pieces and organizing our own social activism projects, we learned about the way we could make a change in the world as well as taking a deeper dive into Black history. We were taught about many different civil rights activists, such as Bayard Rustin, an activist who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and advocated for nonviolence, gay rights, and civil rights; and Pauli Murray a civil rights activist and lawyer who advocated for similar things. Two people who had never been mentioned in the many years that we’d been learning about the Civil Rights movement. We even learned about Hayti, a thriving Black town in Durham that was torn apart by urban renewal and the construction of the Durham freeway — a place that most people have never learned about!  I call this time “The Enlightening” because that is exactly what happened during the course of this class. I gained a greater knowledge and understanding of my heritage and why things are the way they are now. And it’s an experience that I believe should be accessible to everyone, no matter their background. 

Though I took African American Studies almost a year ago, I am still reaping the benefits from it. A great example being that I am standing here speaking at this conference! Mr. Xavier has offered me many opportunities after participating in his class, such as speaking at events or featuring some of my art at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Having a teacher who cares enough to reach out when they find amazing opportunities, such as this, is something that I had never experienced. It is something that I hope every student can experience at some point in their educational career. 

Additionally, this class has broadened my horizons and encouraged me to become even more interested in attending a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) for my next steps in education. HBCUs specialize in the uplifting and celebrating of Black culture in higher education, an experience I would love to partake in. Because of everything I have learned, I have discovered I have an increased interest in pursuing a career in social justice so I too can be a positive influence on societal change. 

Now we’ve made it to the part where I talk about the world that I dream of. I dream of a world of acceptance and empathy between people of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. Most people would say this reality would be hard to achieve. Yet, I think it really starts within our education system with our teachers and the classes that are offered. By making cultural classes open and available to everyone. There are countless students that have the same experience as me feeling severely underrepresented within their class curriculums. Giving them a space to take a deep dive into their own cultures ensures that this feeling won’t be as prominent, as well as giving students a chance to learn about their peers’ cultures. Through this process, students have a key pathway to gaining empathy and acceptance towards others,  an ability that students will be able to use as they move throughout life well beyond high school. The skills learned from these classes can even be put to use in present times, for example the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. As we all know, the reactions to these demonstrations were very mixed. Yet, taking a class like African American Studies can provide some insight into why these demonstrations were happening, especially to people who don’t have personal experiences or connections with the subject matter. 

Establishing a requirement for students to take at least one cultural diversity class before they graduate high school is the greatest way to achieve this goal. This requirement doesn’t just include the class being offered but also the teachers who teach them. Schools need to make a true effort to hire teachers who truly understand and appreciate the specific cultures they are teaching about. Students can always tell when a teacher loves and cares about what they are teaching. In return, the students become more enthusiastic and willing to learn what is being taught. We need teachers who know how to form a safe space where students can talk about things without the fear of hatred or judgment, an environment where they can respectfully discuss issues that are important to them. As you might be able to tell, a lot of these characteristics are things that I described from my involvement in Mr. Xavier’s class. I truly speak from experience when I say that these things make the class much more enjoyable to be a part of. Reaching these standards would set a new precedent to the goals of education making it about both academics and inclusion.

The need for cultural classes is becoming increasingly demanded across the United States. They are crucial in changing the standard of underrepresentation within learning and promoting empathy and acceptance inside and outside of the classroom. I hope that my experiences have shown just how important and impactful they can be in a student’s life. 

Xavier Adams

Xavier Adams is the NCCAT 2022 Prudential North Carolina Beginning Teacher of the Year. At Orange High School in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Xavier teaches world history, Honors African American studies, and Honors Latin American studies. Xavier holds two master’s degrees from Duke University, a master’s in theological studies and a Master of Arts in teaching.

Tia Hilber

Tia Hilber is a junior at Orange High School in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She holds the positions of public relations officer and flute section leader within the school’s marching band. Hilber is an active member of Girl Scouts and recently received her 10-year service pin. In her free time, she enjoys drawing and painting. Hilber plans to attend college to pursue a career in the social sciences with her main goal of helping others and making the world a better place.