By Kathleen Gibbons
Last October, MBUSD students, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents submitted grant proposals addressing race and other topics related to developing an inclusive community. The goal was to inspire change and nurture a productive and honest dialogue in our schools. “We hoped to broaden the conversation about diversity and empower people in our community who may feel silenced or stifled by the lack of representation,” said Malissia Clinton. “Sometimes homogenous communities such as Manhattan Beach can be unwelcoming to those who don’t fit the typical profile – whether or not that’s intentional.” MBEF recently asked a few of the grant recipients to share their progress and experiences.
Nisha Chatwani, a Sophomore at Mira Costa, used her $1500 grant to create Club Harmony, which hosts monthly speakers and raises awareness about people of different religions, abilities, backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations.
“We have had extraordinary speakers [who have] broadened the perspective of the club members and increased my desire to help other high schools create a similar movement. We have a bigger audience every meeting, and it is amazing to see how many students are dedicated to the cause. At our first meeting, we had the Clinton children speak about their house that was fire bombed, how it affected their lives, and why they started the grant. Last month, Rubie Amaya, a Mira Costa graduate, discussed how her mother was deported and how [it felt to live] in Manhattan Beach as a minority,” said Chatwani.
Mira Costa College and Career counselors Shalyn Tharayil, Caryn Ramirez, and Elizabeth Rieken received a $2,250 grant for their proposal, the Freshman Bridge Cohort. Its intention, according to Tharayil, is to “create a smaller community within a big campus that will help [freshman] students better understand the resources and opportunities available to them at Costa. Monthly meetings in the CCC will include guest speakers and presentations, and students will participate in a college field trip during the 2017-2018 school year.
“For the coming school year, we will be inviting all out-of-district permit students as well as those students who identify as an underrepresented minority—African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American/American Indian,” said Thayaril. “This cohort will be a safe space for members to discuss their shared experiences, and promote a culture of diversity, acceptance, and inclusion.”
The first cohort meeting will be Thursday, August 17, 2017, for incoming freshman students who qualify. “We think it will be a great opportunity for students to forge strong relationships with each other, and better understand the resources and support system available to them at Costa. After our first year, our hope is to continue to host a new freshman cohort every year,” said Tharayil.
Augusta Halle, a fifth grader at Grand View Elementary, received $100 for her proposal, Gratitude Cards, an initiative for grades K-5 which promotes “commitments to acts of kindness” through the gifting of cards. One person gives a kindness card to another person who signs it and gives the card to another person until it is given and signed ten times. The card is then returned to the Grand View office. “Not only did it spread through the community and bring people together, but people received an amazing gift…the joy of doing something kind for someone else,” said Halle.
Antoinette Gill, a friend to Malissia Clinton who sat on the committee to approve the grants, is one of the founders of EMPact, an organization of leaders across school, business and government sectors in Manhattan Beach, who are committed to helping the city become more socially inclusive. Through various community-wide events, Gill initiated awareness of racism and stereotypes, including screenings of a mini-documentary produced by Not In Our Town about the firebombing of the Clinton home. “That prove[d] very productive as a starting point for discussion and the groups who participated appreciated having an outlet to discuss and bring to light these types of issues that are in our community with their children.”
Through EMPact, Gill also created a summer book club for teens and adults which will be hosted at the Manhattan Beach library. Book club members will discuss race, class, and “some of the unknown issues inside the black community as some struggle with self-identity and how to succeed in a world where color is important to many,” said Gill. “My hope is that the majority of books will be positive stories and some that are honestly just good fiction, but happen to address issues that we face today in a way that everyone can relate to or examine without feeling persecuted by one side, or made to feel uncomfortable.”
EMPact also has a Facebook page, for which Gill is currently developing content such as informative articles, videos, and postings related to their mission. “I think it will be a great [collection] of material for the community to use to become more inclusive and aware of the issues some face here, whether it is race, religion, ethnicity, special needs, LGBTQ or sexism. The goal is to promote understanding and hope. That is the seed to increasing empathy and inclusion by everyone.”
At the district level, MBUSD has invited outside organizations to train teachers and staff at all schools to address issues of inclusion and bias. Superintendent Dr. Mike Matthew’s blog article, “Creating A Culture of Inclusion” details the district’s actions in social inclusion programs thus far. “We’re at a very early stage, but I can report that our staff has been very responsive. I believe we have started a long-term commitment,” said Dr. Matthews. However, he feels there’s more to do at all levels, citing incidents of “name-calling, taunts, and slurs.” Borrowing from the national safety motto, “See Something, Say Something,” he calls for “making it clear to all students that being inclusive requires us to say something when we see incidents of exclusion and discrimination…. One of the simple non-confrontational actions our children can take is to reach out to someone who is targeted and just say hello or [show] that they care about them. There are so many ways to not be a bystander.”
The firebombing of the Clinton home is not an isolated incident. Indeed, more incidents of discrimination by middle schoolers have been reported at MBMS, inspiring Principal Kim Linz to create an Empathy and Inclusion Program to integrate lessons on inclusion through a partnership program with the Manhattan Beach Police Department. The program was approved by the MBEF Board of Directors for incoming 7th and 8th graders this Fall and will begin with a morning tour of the Museum of Tolerance. In the afternoon, students will split into gender based training with the MBPD, addressing issues of bullying and building a more empathetic school environment.
Moving forward, the MBEF Board of Directors and MBUSD School Board are committed to prioritizing social inclusion programs on a more long term basis. MBEF is dedicating $25,000 to continue the Social Inclusion Grants for the 2017-2018 school year in addition to the $30,000 to fund the MBMS Empathy and Inclusion program. MBEF is also hoping to create an endowment fund for this important initiative, so that it will be here for years to come. MBEF Executive Director Farnaz Flechner was recently asked to speak at the Network Against Hate Crimes to present a case study about how our community stood up against hate and moved forward in a constructive manner. At this meeting, leaders from the LAPD, LA City, and LAUSD asked questions about the process. “Our social inclusion grants were inspiring for everyone at the table because they seek solutions from the ground up—instead of imposing solutions from above. We often talk about how we want our District to be a model public school system. It is inspiring to think that other communities are now looking to us to see how we are addressing this painful global challenge,” said Flechner.
So far, Malissia Clinton is pleased with the results of the grants and the initial impact on the Manhattan Beach community, calling it “a homerun. [However] we need many more homeruns over a sustained period of years to have real impact.” She feels there is more work to do to realize a long term, measurable difference in our community. “The outpouring of love toward the Clinton family has been overwhelming and continues to this day. Sadly, however, we’ve heard from other residents and even employees of the district who are dealing with racism, anti-Semitism and senseless bullying. And it’s not just one or two; there’s been a steady drumbeat of these types of incidents. It’s as if we live in two communities: one well intentioned and harmonious; the other full of the sort of idiocy and ignorance that we see elsewhere in our country. There’s no doubt in our minds that the fire at our door comes from an element in the community that doesn’t welcome our kind. But we are not fearful or troubled. It just reminds us of the importance of the Social Inclusion Program,” said Clinton.
Applications for the 2017/18 Social Inclusion Grants are being accepted now at MBEF. All MBUSD teachers, staff, parents and students are encouraged to apply – please use the link here for details. Continuing the work we’re doing and infusing inclusion in our daily conversations is imperative to building a more empathetic, bias-free community.