Ego boost: Middle schoolers learn lesson in diversity

Ego boost: Middle schoolers learn lesson in diversity

Students at Mount Sinai Middle School engage with one another in a discussion about why it is important to read books. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“I am a genius.”

That’s what public speaker Kevin Powell instructed the seventh- and eighth-graders inside the Mount Sinai Middle School auditorium to stand up and repeat as they applauded one another in an effort to learn about diversity.

“What you get with young people is just this energy,” Powell said. “They’re open to listening, but also expressing themselves and evolving. I just wish I had those kinds of conversations when I was a teenager because it would’ve saved me a lot of angst and a lot of stress from all of the stuff that I went through. Those young people inside that auditorium were brilliant.”

Guidance counselor John Grossman said he first listened to Powell speak about a month ago in Bay Shore during a writer’s conference. Because the students in his seventh-grade peer support program were recently creating family trees and learning about diversity, he said he thought Powell’s message was perfect for the time.

“His message is one that encapsulates what we want to do with our peer support program, what we want to see and how we want to see our kids interact with each other and how we want to see our community grow together, as opposed to dividing itself,” he said. “That’s the influence for bringing Kevin in.”

He said he also thought that with the warmer weather comes more hostility and aggressiveness; and with the country’s hostile political climate the message was also one that would serve kids well at this time.

“Labels are being thrown around all the time by certain candidates and there are kids here that see that and identify with some of those groups,” Grossman said. “Kids are being affected by what they see on television. We want to bring some compassion to each other where there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of it out in the news these days.”

As Powell entered the room, he immediately began engaging with the kids. Instead of giving them a 40-minute lecture, he asked students questions, passed around the microphone and invited some to come up on stage with him.

Public speaker Kevin Powell talks to Mount Sinai seventh- and eight-graders inside the auditorium. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Public speaker Kevin Powell talks to Mount Sinai seventh- and eight-graders inside the auditorium. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Several students volunteered to address the room, and each was asked to not only tell the audience about their background and what they want in their future but to explain what diversity means to them.

Isabella, of Portuguese decent, said she wants to be a singer. She said she thinks that diversity is each person’s uniqueness, and that it shouldn’t be a deterrence.

“We’re all different, but even though we’re all different in our own ways we shouldn’t be treated differently,” she said, adding that learning about her background and the language has helped her grow closer with some of her family that lives in Portugal and doesn’t speak English.

Luca said she sees diversity as a puzzle.

“Each country has its own puzzle piece and as one we fit a puzzle of the world,” she said. “We have to teach kids about how we’re all different, but how we should be proud of it. There should be awareness of where we came from.”

Powell, an only child, said his family moved to Jersey City from the south, where he lived in poverty with his single mother. He said that he would’ve never guessed this would be his life’s work.

“My work is rooted in love,” he said. “I never thought I’d be doing anything like this. I’m a poor kid from the ghetto, and I was just happy to get out of Jersey City and go to college on a financial aid package, but I do feel tremendously blessed and I believe you have a responsibility to give back to people.”

Luis, who said he wants to be an astronomer, had a meaning for diversity that struck a chord with the entire room, believing that it offers more information to the world.

“Diversity is small variations and differences that each person has that makes the world a lot more interesting,” he said. “It offers new information to look at and it offers an opportunity to understand people in a much deeper way.”

But, as Powell agreed, Luis said you first need to learn about yourself.

“Make sure that you know yourself, you know where you come from, you know things about you that make you unique, and then learn about other people,” he said. “Because that’ll give you the experience and the skills you need to learn about other people.”

Besides talking about diversity on the whole, Powell also spoke to the kids about how women should be treated as equals, how not to judge a book by its cover, and to be proud of who you are and where you came from.

Mount Sinai Middle School Principal Pete Pramataris said he agreed, telling the smaller peer support group in a session after the presentation that he used to be made fun of and be ashamed of his Greek heritage.

“Do some homework and be more comfortable with who you are,” he told the students.

Powell said he loves doing what makes him happy, adding that to him, it doesn’t feel like work.

“I can see it in young people’s eyes when they’re paying attention; when they feel someone is actually listening to them and their voices matter,” he said. “This generation has been exposed to stuff that we couldn’t even imagine and it’s my job to be a bridge or a facilitator. I’m not going to go up there and give an hour lecture. I want to let them know that I hear them and that I believe in them.”