At this Lake Oswego school, diversity is a given
Lake Oswego has been shaken in recent weeks by racist incidents and harsh reminders that, for some, hatred and bigotry are part of daily life in the city.
Many of the incidents have taken place in schools, leaving leaders and community members searching for ways to address the issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. But at one school in the heart of Lake Oswego, diversity is not a topic of debate.
It's a given.
The International Leadership Academy (ILA) is a French immersion school located inside Hope Community Church off Boones Ferry Road. It serves about 80 students, from 6-month-old babies to fifth-graders. And nearly half of its faculty are people of color, with teachers hailing from Rwanda, Senegal, Tunisia, France, Scotland and more.
The school was co-founded by Massene Mboup and Patricia Raclot, based on the idea of embracing and respecting the differences between humans because, Mboup says, it is diversity that makes the world beautiful.
"The children are our tomorrow," he says. "If early on in their life they experience diversity, it helps them grow without them even knowing. It helps them see the other. Otherness will be seen as a positive aspect of their life, and not something to be afraid of."
Melissa Fireside, an ILA parent and the president of the school's PTO, agrees. She moved to Lake Oswego about five years ago and says that while the city checked almost all of her boxes, a critical cultural component was missing.
"I grew up in San Francisco, so you didn't have to search to experience different cultures. They were all right outside your doorstep," Fireside says. "I never wanted my son to feel like there was only one type of person — someone who looked like him."
Mboup says that having a diverse staff has a hugely positive impact on students of color.
"It's very important for children of color to have teachers who look like them," he says. "Children of color that experience a teacher of color in third grade are 35 percent less likely to drop out of high school than a student who hasn't experienced that. It's huge."
Mboup says that having students see him in a position of power shapes their understanding of what a person with dark skin is capable of.
"When they come in the morning, the man who greets them is a black man. And he's the principal," says Mboup. "At 4 or 5 years old, they see that it's possible that people of color can be this. It's very important to break those stereotypes."
Fireside says she believes the school has already had a positive impact on her 6-month-old son, Benecio.
"What it has instilled is that there is absolutely no difference in the beauty of every single person sitting at your table," says Fireside. "My son isn't going to look at anyone as 'his black teacher.' That's just his teacher. That's not even going to be in the realm of conversation."
Fireside says the diverse parent community at ILA is another part of what makes the students so successful.
"We all collectively want to share what we know about our cultures and our lives, and what it means to us to be an American," she says. "Diversity is not up for debate. It's just built into what we do."
Mboup says that despite the recent racist incidents in Lake Oswego — including graffiti scrawled on school walls, an anti-Semitic photograph posted in a high school cafeteria and a hateful road-rage incident involving an African American motorist, among others — he is happy that he and Raclot decided to open their school in the city.
"America is what it is. We cannot avoid the question of race. Racism is something that is in the system," he says. "But the idea that Lake Oswego is full of bad people is simply not true. We do have a problem, but at least there are people doing something to make it a better place for everyone."
Last month, a Post-it note containing the words "n****r dog" was passed to an African American eighth-grader at Lake Oswego Junior High, and Mboup says the incident has weighed on him heavily because he knows and respects many administrators in the Lake Oswego School District.
"The principal of LOJ was in very hot water, and folks criticized her, but we should cut her some slack," says Mboup. "It's the system we should change. It's easy to stand on the sideline and criticize the principal, but she is part of a community that can come
together to solve this problem."
Mboup says that instances of racism in schools should be teaching and learning moments, despite how difficult the situation may be.
"It's not something that we should be afraid of. It's a learning moment for the whole school," he says. "These kids and our community are not responsible for things that were done by their ancestors. That's not your fault. But you will be responsible if you do not question things in order to move forward."
The key to moving forward, according to Mboup, is being more truthful about race relations in Lake Oswego.
"You cannot just say that you are inclusive," he says. "You have to be serious about it, and honest about where you're at."
Mboup is hopeful that Lake Oswego will be able to come together and make progress toward healing its racial divide, and he says he is more than ready to do his part.
"There are good things that are going on in Lake Oswego," he says. "Our school, and the community support we have received, is proof. We are sowing the seeds of the future of Lake Oswego. We would love to work hand in hand with other schools to instill the ideals of equity, social justice and inclusion."