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Lake Oswego High School celebrates diverse voices on This Is Us Day, September 23

PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Lakeridge students prepare ice cream sundaes to eat while discussing food and culture at This Is Us Day.  Lake Oswego High School held its first This Is Us Day on Monday, part of an effort to embrace and celebrate the diversity within the school. "The idea of this day is not that it ends here, but that we continue to have conversations like this throughout the year and throughout your high school career, so that you can continue to better understand the people that you go to school with," LOHS Spanish teacher Kelly Nalty told her students.

Nalty organized This Is Us day with three other teachers — Julie Davis, Lisa Mitchell and Teresa Sanchez — and said the purpose was to take another step in creating a more inclusive culture and a sense of belonging for all students at the school.

The day featured dozens of presentations from students, teachers and experts in fields relating to diversity and equity. The presentations were broken up into three areas: those that affirm identities, those that build community, and those that cultivate leadership and activism.

Superintendent Lora de la Cruz held listening sessions to hear students' input about their experiences in LOSD, what they feel are the strengths and areas for growth in their school and district.

State Rep. Andrea Salinas joined members of LO for LOve, a local grassroots organization, to lead a session about the importance of diversity in the Legislature. "We need to address implicit bias, and institutional racism and sexism in the policy we create if we want to have better outcomes for Oregonians," read the presentation description. "If you do not listen to the people who will be directly affected by the implementation of new policy, you may end up with legislation that has unintended negative consequences or is ineffective."

LOSD's Director of Equity David Salerno Owens led a session on white privilege, based on "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," an essay written by Peggy McIntosh and published in Peace and Freedom magazine in 1989.

The film "Black Girl in Suburbia" was screened for students, followed by a conversation with the film's director Melissa Lowery. Lowery was born in Portland and raised in West Linn from the time she was 3 years old. "Black Girl in Suburbia" is based off of her own experiences growing up as one of the few African Americans in a predominantly white suburb — a suburb that bears many similarities to Lake Oswego.

"This day is so important," Lowery told LOHS students. "I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would be in Lake Oswego High School on a day like this — it's so huge."

Lowery told students that This Is Us day presents students with many opportunities to learn and grow into a better ally. "It's a gift when someone shares their experience with you. You don't have to understand it and you don't have to like it, but you can listen to it and provide empathy," she said.

Lowery also said it can be invalidating to people of color when it's assumed that there are no people of color in a community. "Often we walk around feeling like the elephant in the room, so acknowledging that elephant can be really helpful," she said. "Yes, there are people of color here — obviously."

Lowery told students that in order to grow, "We have to be mature enough to acknowledge when we caused harm. It's about intent versus impact," she said. "You may have had the best intentions, but if your impact is hurtful, you have to be able to accept that and say sorry."

Parent Shannon Chollman led a session to help students better understand a different group of peers at their school: people with special needs. Chollman is a wellness coach, educator and parent of three children, one of whom has autism. She said she hoped students walked away with skills and tools to use to advocate for and understand how to best treat and include differently-abled friends, community members and people.

Chollman told students that autism is only one part of her son Alex's life. "He likes french fries, going to Disneyland, and working at LOJ's coffee cart," she said. "He's learning life skills, and it brings him a lot of joy because he has a purpose there."

Part of Chollman's presentation was the "R word" and the importance and impact of not using it. "I'm so thrilled for the opportunity to show love to these high school kids and then explain how they can best love others who have disabilities including the simple, yet immediate choice they can make to stop using the R word," she said before the presentation. "As well as how to come alongside and advocate without sounding judgmental or demeaning when their friends use that word."

Another way to create a more inclusive community is using "people-first" language, said Chollman. For example, instead of saying "an autistic boy" you should say "a boy with autism."

She said that it can be a difficult switch to make if you've been unintentionally using the wrong language. "As long as your heart is pure and you're trying, it's OK," she said. "You can even ask — you're learning."

Chollman said that through raising Alex, she has learned that she can set a positive example for how to act around people with disabilities, and encouraged students to do the same. "I know that there are people watching us, and I want to promote respect for the greater disability community," she said. "You also have the opportunity to be influencers, because people are watching you, especially if you're a leader at school. You can make such a huge impact on the climate and the community."

To read descriptions of all of the sessions at This Is Us Day, visit www.lohsthisisus.com/.


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