By TAMMY AYER
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Hundreds of hand-painted faces line the hallways of Hoover Elementary School, each realistically depicting the countenance of its creator. Some have glasses. Some have long hair, curly hair, blond hair or no hair. They have brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes.
None are just black, brown or white. These nuanced self-portraits of every student and staff member at this Yakima school are blends of peach and beige and cream and olive or even more colors.
“They were multicultural, but they’re really not,” Principal Luz Juarez-Stump said of the tempera paints that almost 700 students and 50 staff used to accurately match their own skin tones.
“The kids got into it, mixing colors,” she added. “We pulled out black and brown and white.”
Students and staff created the skin color portraits in a lesson on diversity and acceptance through the UnityWorks Program, which Hoover began participating in this school year. Offered by the UnityWorks Foundation, a Yakima-based educational nonprofit founded by Randie Gottlieb, the program is designed to improve race relations by educating staff and students about living in a diverse society.
It’s a young program and limited to 11 schools in the Yakima School District for now. But others in Washington state and beyond are taking a closer look.
Five Yakima school and district officials will present the UnityWorks program at the WASA/AWSP annual conference June 27 in Spokane. That’s the gathering of members of the Washington Association of School Administrators, which includes school boards and superintendents, and the Association of Washington State Principals.
Others in Yakima, including Educational Service District 105 Superintendent Kevin Chase, also are supporting the UnityWorks program in a testimonial letter-writing campaign to state education officials.
“It is already building local capacity to increase student and family engagement, to reduce incidents of bias, to increase acceptance, to raise critical awareness among staff and faculty, and to address other equity and diversity issues in our local schools,” he wrote in an April 24 letter to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
UnityWorks’ third annual Spring Multicultural Conference took place in May, and two Summer Diversity Training Institutes will take place in August. Gottlieb added a second after the first filled.
This school year is the first that Hoover Elementary has participated in the UnityWorks program. Jamie Garcia, a second-grade teacher, is among the five members of the school’s diversity action team. Since their training last August, what began as following the plan they created has become second nature to them and others at the school.
“It’s not an extra thing; it’s a better thing. It has caused more awareness,” Garcia said.
NEED FOR UNITY
During Hoover’s recent multicultural night, children led adults down hallways to their classrooms, pointing with pride to their self-portraits on nearby walls. School leaders were pleased with the turnout, happy that many students encouraged their parents to come.
That night, just like the skin tone portraits, celebrated the oneness of the human race, a primary tenet of UnityWorks. Not sameness but unity, Gottlieb stressed.
“I’m a human being and so is that person. We have to figure this out in a way that’s positive for all of us,” she said.
Gottlieb, whose work as an educational leader and multicultural educator has taken her to more than 30 countries, created the UnityWorks program after spending 11 years in Puerto Rico. She managed an international training center and founded a Montessori-based elementary school with her husband, Steven, a pediatrician.
“When I returned to the States 25 years ago, it seemed to me our greatest need was unity,” the Southern California native said.
While a multicultural educator at Heritage University for several years, she led its EMPIRE (Exemplary Multicultural Practices in Rural Education) program. Once that ended, she launched UnityWorks in 2003 as a for-profit company offering diversity training in school districts throughout the country. The author of 10 books, Gottlieb wrote the curriculum guides and other texts used in the training.
She was considering retirement when her family suggested that she recreate UnityWorks as nonprofit foundation. She called supportive friends for advice.
“What can we do in Yakima to promote race unity, and are you willing to help?” Gottlieb asked them before founding the nonprofit in 2013. She reached out to the Yakima School District in 2014.
“(The district) agreed to have four schools as an experiment” that first school year of 2014-15, Gottlieb said. “The second year, they gave us four more schools. This year, they gave us three.”
In its mission of promoting understanding of the oneness of humanity and appreciation for the value of diversity, the foundation provides training, materials and support to assist schools to develop learning environments where all students can be successful.
The weeklong, 40-hour Summer Diversity Training Institute is “an intensive experience,” Gottlieb said. “Our goal is you go through the training and we give you the tools” to create a diversity action plan specifically for your school, she said.
In watching participants through the week of training, Gottlieb initially sees some sitting near the back of the room, arms crossed. They’re all busy people, and some feel they already have too much to do. They wonder if such training could really make a difference in students’ attitudes toward each other.
She sees trust build and defenses come down as the week proceeds. Those in the back uncross their arms and move closer to the front of the room.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” Gottlieb said. “It’s an amazing experience to see that.”
While some activities literally reinforce the value of harmony — participants use different instruments to create one sound, for example — the summer institutes involved some uncomfortable situations to confront certain racial issues head-on.
“We had to voice some of those ugly names you’ve heard out there,” Juarez-Stump said. “It was purposeful; it was the elephant in the room.
On the final day of the summer institute, each school’s team puts together an action plan. “We’re with you all year,” Gottlieb said. “Do you need speakers? Resources? It’s their plan; we just provide support.”
Among the instructional materials teachers use in the classroom are Gottlieb’s “Teaching Unity” and “All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color” by Katie Kissinger. While Gottlieb’s book is for teachers, both highlight the differences and similarities that humans share.
Naturally curious, children want to know why their skin tones differ. Written in English and in Spanish, Kissinger’s book is about the scientific process that gives all human beings their skin color. It tells that story with brief and simple explanations, large photos and questions and answers phrased specifically for children.
It’s a novel approach for Robyn Harris, a teacher with the Yakima School District for nearly 20 years. Harris grew up in Toppenish among few African-American families.
“For me, being a person of color, I never had this. … All we heard about were slaves, other than what we heard at home,” she said. “You were black or you were Hershey bar.”
It’s equally important for Juarez-Stump to break the boundaries of stereotypes.
“My parents were born in Mexico,” said Juarez-Stump, who has blond hair and blue eyes. “We’re teaching our kids to look beyond what they see.”
In a letter to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, she noted how the UnityWorks program has changed the school’s social environment.
“Our discipline data has reflected a decline in racially motivated incidents and a deeper understanding of what culturally responsible teaching should look like,” she wrote.
Children still come to teachers and staff with racist words or phrases they hear among each other, in music or in movies or on social media. That’s when talking to children about the words offers the chance to change attitudes.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I heard this word’; you do have to take the time to explain those words,” Harris said. “You have to take the time to really teach then and there.”
Pleased at its expansion in the Yakima School District, Gottlieb’s next focus is moving beyond Yakima, she said. “We’ve done one training in Michigan, we’ve been requested in California and we may do Colorado,” Gottlieb said. “After the spring conference is over, my next project is putting together a participant workbook and trainer manuals. Once the manuals are done, (others) can do trainer training.”
The support she’s received for the UnityWorks Foundation and its programs is inspiring, Gottlieb said.
“It motivates me to want to do more,” she said.