A panel of educators spoke as part of a community conversation to end the United Way of Knox County’s 21-Week Equity Challenge held Thursday evening at Vincennes University’s Learning Resource Center. From left are local artist Fernando Lozano; Ann Herman, chair of VU’s Education Department; Beth Lindsey, social worker at Franklin Elementary School; and Haley Lancaster, an English and literature teacher at Lincoln High School. All of them shared their experiences in talking with young people about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Sun-Commercial photo by Jenny McNeece
A panel of educators spoke as part of a community conversation to end the United Way of Knox County’s 21-Week Equity Challenge held Thursday evening at Vincennes University’s Learning Resource Center. From left are local artist Fernando Lozano; Ann Herman, chair of VU’s Education Department; Beth Lindsey, social worker at Franklin Elementary School; and Haley Lancaster, an English and literature teacher at Lincoln High School. All of them shared their experiences in talking with young people about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Sun-Commercial photo by Jenny McNeece
Officials with the United Way of Knox County rounded out their 21-Week Equity Challenge by inviting a panel of educators to discuss their experiences of diversity, equity and inclusion with young people.

The panel of educators included Haley Lancaster, an English teacher at Lincoln High School and former leader of its Gay Straight Alliance, Beth Lindsey, a social worker at Franklin Elementary School, and Ann Herman, a former special education teacher and now the chair of Vincennes University’s Education Department.

Also joining in the panel was Fernando Lozano, a native of Mexico City now living in Vincennes and sharing his talent and love of art in a variety of ways with the community.

To kick the discussion off, each spoke of the biggest challenges they face in dealing with issues of diversity as an educator.

Lancaster said she was fortunate in that literature offers endless opportunities to experience “diverse worlds, voices, and experiences.”

But for many of her students, experiencing diversity in books is often the first time they’ve been faced with it.

“And they often feel silly for asking questions,” Lancaster said, adding that many of them are “not equipped” to deal with races and cultures they aren’t familiar with.

“So it’s my job to get them to a place where they can,” she said, to which the group joining the community conversation, gathered at Vincennes University, nodded in agreement.

Yet high school-age kids, she said, are “ernest” in wanting to discuss and tackle such issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Identity is so important to teenagers,” she said. “They’re trying to figure it out and they want it acknowledged and they want permission to play with it.”

Her own young son, she said, is benefiting from elementary schools’ entry into teaching social and emotional education, during which they tackle difficult social subjects and work to teach children acceptance.

As such, Lindsey said she feels fortunate to be part of those methods of instruction; it puts her in a position, she said, to teach “empathy, tolerance and acceptance.”

“Among the greats joys and privileges I have is that I get to see kids, ages 5-12, and the fresh eyes they bring to things,” she said. “They want to make friends with everybody and are fairly nonjudgmental.”

And while the benefits of social and emotional education at such a young age may be felt in the next generation, Herman said her job is somewhat more challenging in that one of her main priorities — as the leader of a program that educates future teachers — is creating opportunities for them to experience “something besides white rural America.”

One of the ways she’s combated that, she explained to the group, is in partnering with Emily Yetka, an instructor in VU’s English Department who works with international students, many of which speak very little English.

This past year, the two worked together, partnering future educators with Yetka’s international students. The result, she said, has been “beautiful.”

Herman, too, pointed to local events like the Festival Latino and the local Pride festival as areas where future educators can — and should — get involved, experiencing the diversity that likely awaits them as they enter their field.

In finding ways to connect with her own students, Lancaster said she sees her role as a “helper.” She’s made it a priority, she said, to make her classroom a “safe place” for students to come and ask questions, regardless of how much they may fumble through them.

“I want to be the person students feel safe coming to,” she said. “I’m the lady with the rainbow sticker on her door, so it’s a sign to (the LGBTQ) community that they are safe here.”

Yet teachers, in general, often lack the resources to really create a diverse learning environment for international students, she said.

Most recently, Lancaster struggled to find a book written in Korean from her curriculum.

Not providing those materials to students, she said, can do more harm.

“Because they don’t want different work,” Lancaster said of international high school students. “They don’t want to be more ostracized than they already are.

“It’s just one more thing making them feel like they’re not included.”

Yet she, too, pointed to Lincoln’s Champions Together program, a nationally accredited initiative that looks to connect students with disabilities and special needs with their fellow classmates through a love of sports and physical activity.

LHS has a thriving Champions Together track and field program, and it’s worked wonders to foster a culture of inclusion, Lancaster said.

“It’s shown us that the kids are capable of empathy and inclusion, and I really hope we can begin to continue that in other areas,” she said.

Lindsey, too, said young children most often enter relationships without any kind of bias or discrimination, and in the absence of a shared language, they will create one.

Such qualities, she said, should be encouraged.

“Because there is nothing better than seeing little kids who cannot speak the same language creating their own. It’s lovely,” she said with a warm smile.

Lindsey also said, in her role as a social worker, she identifies as what she called a “noticer,” someone who watches for kids, whether it be for reasons of diversity or inclusion or otherwise, that fall through the cracks.

“Sometimes it’s because of a difference they have from everyone else, and it’s up to me to be an advocate for that child, sometimes helping a parent or a teacher to see the situation through a different set of eyes,” she said.

Herman, too, said as an educator of educators, she looks to teach acceptance as much as anything else.

“You don’t have to agree with every student, but you have to accept them as they are, meet them where they are,” she said, to which the group, again, nodded vigorously.

The 21-Week Equity Challenge — which aimed to make the community more inclusive by helping people of all backgrounds recognize their own biases, particularly in terms of race, class and gender — wrapped up this week.

It worked by sending out a weekly email to participants directing them to that week’s directive. Topics included things like race and racial identity, privilege, stereotyping, the LGBTQ community, ageism, and ableism, among others.

Each link took the participant to a choice of brief articles to read, a podcast to listen to or a video to watch, such as a Ted Talk. There, too, were corresponding activities, and each lesson only took about 15 minutes to complete.

And while the challenge is officially over, United Way Executive Director Mark Hill said the 21 exercises will remain on the organizations website for those who are interested.
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