Classroom of the Week | Multicultural Alliance makes a difference at BART

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ADAMS — There are a lot of differences between students at the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School. Once a week, the school offers a place where students from various racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds can come together to talk about those differences and celebrate the things that unite them.

"We all talk together and just bond," said sophomore Micaiah Franklin. "That's what the world needs."

BART's Multicultural Alliance was established a few years ago as an after-school group by English language arts and dance teacher Jamal Ahamad and school adjustment counselor Christina Daignault, both of multicultural backgrounds.

"There are some things that you only learn by being around different kinds of people. When you are young and you are around the same kinds of people, you're kind of in a bubble and you don't get to see the differences," Ahamad said.

Exposing students to varying perspectives — particularly from people of populations that have been culturally oppressed, misrepresented or underrepresented — through literature, media and in-person connections is paramount.

"When you only hear the story from one side, you don't get to see the whole picture and you miss the strength, resilience and perseverance of said populations. It's important for historically oppressed populations to be allowed to tell, as well as learn, their own stories, their own histories," Daignault said. "It's important to provide spaces in which these populations feel safe to talk and in which they can feel understood and validated in a society where they may not always have that space."

Ahamad and Daignault have since left the school, but the Multicultural Alliance continues to meet under the guidance of Erica Barreto, the school's communications and enrollment assistant, who volunteered to advise the group.

Barreto, who also comes from a multiethnic and multinational background, said she is glad to help keep the group running for interested students.

"I love having big conversations that we don't get to have in class," said Mia LaFrazia, who says people often don't recognize her multiracial background because of her light skin tone.

"I enjoy everyone's ability to be more open here," eighth-grader Kalyn Daniels said.

Kalyn also noted that students from multicultural backgrounds can miss each other during the school day, separated by grades and classes.

"This brings us together more than having all of us in random classrooms could," she said.

In addition to talking about issues of race and racial equity, the group maintains a multicultural music playlist and reading list, helps organize school events and activities with other teachers and student groups, and hears from guest speakers, including recent visitor Jonathan "J. Soul" Goodson, a local hip-hop and rap artist and producer.

This year, Multicultural Alliance members have also put up posters for Black History and Women's History months, and have held a Mini Media & Film series, discussing films like "The Hate U Give" and recently showing the Marvel superhero film "Black Panther."

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The group members have a wish list of speakers they would like to hear from, including "dream" speakers like Michelle Obama, and the music industry's J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, and "realistic" speakers like local educator and youth empowerment leader Shirley Edgerton and civil rights activist Dennis Powell.

The group members also just enjoy spending time and making new friends within the group, which currently includes black, white, Hispanic and multiracial students from multiple cultures and social backgrounds.

Barreto said she is proud that today's students have this opportunity to connect.

"I didn't have something like this when I was a student," she said.

Barreto, whose research at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts involved how to have proactive conversations about race, said it's important for people to have a place to ask questions and talk about personal experiences "without the fear of their opinion being rejected."

Transforming community

Officially, the Multicultural Alliance vision is that "The coming together of knowledge, shared practices, diverse perspectives, multicultural cultural resources in a respectful, supportive, and mindful environment will promote personal and social transformation within the classroom and community."

Ten years ago, nearly 90 percent of the student population at BART was white, and less than 2 percent of students identified as coming from a multiracial background.

Today, students attending the school come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, according to school data. Nonwhite students make up about 30 percent of BART's population, with 12 percent identifying as African-American, 9 percent as Hispanic, about 3 percent as Asian, and the others coming from a multiracial or Native American background.

And while there's almost a 50-50 gender balance across the student population, the majority of BART teachers and staff are white and female.

The Multicultural Alliance hopes to serve as a resource for staff and students on how to be inclusive and embracing of the diversity that exists in the school community. The group also hopes to empower each other, student to student, to stand up and talk about the challenges they face, from stereotypes to the lack of support for their ambitions.

Several students in the group, for example, said they have been told by adults to diminish their dreams to become scientists, CEOs or even the president of the United States and to strive "for something simpler" or "easier."

"I feel that without this [group], these problems wouldn't be heard," freshman Reggie Delphia said.

Goodson, during his March 19 visit with the group, encouraged the youths to "change the perception" of the myths and stereotypes that are ascribed to them.

"Don't feel the pressure," he said. "Staying true to yourself is what's going to get you through life."


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