Students get schooled in dealing with diversity
By Daniel P. Smith For Sun-Times Media
A lesson in diversity: Danny Lackey, head of the diversity program for the Merrillville School Corporation, instructs students from nine high schools on activities that were part of “Challenge Ed Day,” an event on Martin Luther King Day that promoted students interaction and sharing of life experiences and goals. | Supplied photo
Danny Lackey has little problem telling students at eight Merrillville schools that they are a fortunate bunch.
Their lives, Lackey often reminds students, are a diverse world, one filled with individuals of varied racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds that foster an authentic comfort level with diversity.
At Merrillville High School, for instance, diversity dominates. The school’s 2,300-student enrollment is about 55 percent African-American, 21 percent white, and 16 percent Hispanic, while 10 percent fall under the multi-racial distinction. Furthermore, two out of five Merrillville High School students receive free or reduced-price meals. Ten percent obtain special education services.
“Not everybody has this opportunity to learn about and experience diversity at such a young age,” said Lackey, head of the diversity program for the Merrillville School Corporation (MSC), which oversees Merrillville High School as well as five elementary schools, one intermediate school and one middle school.
Diversity as an asset
This type of diversity, Lackey insists from his office at Merrillville High School, is critical as technology draws the world closer and words like “globalization” and “multiculturalism” increasingly enter the nation’s lexicon.
“Diversity is something we must pay attention to,” said Lackey, the 2011 Northwest Indiana Quality of Life recipient for the Outstanding Community Contribution Award. “When kids are comfortable with diversity, it allows them to thrive. It becomes an asset, not a handicap.”
In 2007, Lackey accepted his current post as the MSC’s first diversity program coordinator. In that role, Lackey, who spent nine years as a guidance counselor in two MSC schools, investigates how the Merrillville schools can close achievement gaps by addressing culture and school climate issues.
STAND up for the cause
For all new Merrillville teachers, Lackey leads an orientation session before the start of each school year. He highlights cultural sensitivity and cultural competencies.
Lackey also runs student programs to boost respect and cultural awareness.
Soon after entering the diversity program position, Lackey issued a school culture and climate survey at Merrillville High School to identify issues of concern. Out of that survey, he’s worked to cultivate programs to boost student-to-student respect.
As the head of the S.T.A.N.D. (Socially Together and Naturally Diverse) Club at Merrillville High School, Lackey has raised awareness in the school and throughout Northwest Indiana about the value of diversity. With S.T.A.N.D., he’s created student activities to address such wide-ranging issues as bullying and religious tolerance and utilized community service as an avenue to boost students’ appreciation of diversity.
This past Martin Luther King Day, S.T.A.N.D. hosted students from 10 local high schools for a “Challenge Ed Day,” an event that promoted students interaction and sharing of life experiences and goals.
In one particularly moving event Lackey brought to Merrillville High School, Judy Shepard shared her tale of loss and bigotry.
Shepard’s homosexual son, Matthew, was murdered in a 1998 hate crime at the University of Wyoming. She has since become an advocate for tolerance and respect and shared her powerful story with students.
“She challenged the students to value the individuality of their peers,” Lackey said. “It was an important, real message for them to hear.”
Into the community
Such programs, Lackey said, help raise the level of support, respect, and dignity for students of all different religious, cultural, lifestyle, and racial backgrounds in and around Merrillville.
Lackey’s moved his work outside of the Merrillville schools as well. He spearheaded the creation of the “Thriving Neighborhood Club,” a local agency aimed at facilitating neighborhood discussions about valuing community diversity.
“This is an opportunity for individuals to open up their lens and look at race through a different perspective, but to do so in a very authentic fashion,” Lackey said.
The schools and their impressionable, knowledge-seeking students, however, remain his real mission.
As he seeks to inspire a respect for diversity among those at Merrillville’s schools, Lackey said one of his primary aims is to push students, teachers, and administration alike to reflect on who they are and what they bring to the table.
“As human beings, it’s natural to make assumptions and have perceptions based on who we are and where we are from, but we have to acknowledge that right out of the gate,” Lackey said. “Thereafter, we can move ahead in collaboration.