As a child, my family prioritized diversity in many ways. My family attended church in a diverse city nearby so that I could access multiple perspectives and backgrounds, learning from those around me. When my grandmother told my mom she wanted me to go to private school, my mom reminded her of the immense benefits of attending public school– a more diverse student body representing a range of socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, as well as abilities. That, to my parents, was more valuable than anything I could learn inside the classroom. Once in school, my parents encouraged me to join various inclusive programs, including Unified Theater, an inclusive theater program that absolutely changed my life trajectory for the better. (To read about my experience with Unified Theater, click here, here, or here.) Inclusion, especially through Unified Theater, made me a more thoughtful, responsive leader who was willing to listen to all sides. My desire to understand and respect people’s differences made me a better person.
I often accidentally leave out another factor in developing my passion for diversity– travel. As a factor of his job, my dad often travels to various countries in Africa for work. When I was young, he was gone for a few weeks at a time, several times each year. Whenever he returned, he always had photos to show us and memories of hospitality from amazing people– his face lit up when he recounted his experiences.
When I was seven years old, my dad’s company was interested in moving several positions to Ghana– his included. My family took a trip to Accra for two weeks to gain a greater understanding of the culture and to look at homes and schools, deciding whether we were up for the move. On that trip, I also got a much better understanding of the poverty that many people across our world experience. One day, while at an outdoor market after looking at schools, a girl about my age ran up to me asking if I would buy a hair clip she was selling. I didn’t even really like the clip, but I wanted to buy it so badly because I felt immensely sad for her. I had just seen many other Ghanaian kids in school, but she was not in school. She needed to make an income for her family. I begged my mom, tears in my eyes, for the money to pay for the barrettes (less than $1 US equivalence), and my mom was willing. That travel experience opened my eyes to the world around me, and instilled a compassion for others whose lives are incredibly different from mine.
We did not end up moving to Ghana, but I continued to hold those memories close to my heart, and when I started college, I knew I wanted to return to Africa for a study abroad program. I ended up deciding to study abroad twice– once in Kenya and once in South Africa. Each of these experiences pushed me to change my perspective, to try to understand others and their worldviews. My homestay in Kenya taught me true hard work– walking three blocks to fill a bucket of water and bringing it back to the home to bathe made sure I did not waste a single drop! My internship at a school for children with autism in South Africa reminded me that there are many (all good!) ways to teach children with disabilities, and we can all learn from each other.
All of my travel experiences led me to embrace others’ perspectives, cultures, traditions, and beliefs. They taught me that there is no one right way to do anything in this world, and that I will always have plenty to learn. I learned to reflect on my own identity, ever-changing, and allow it to ebb and flow with these experiences.
We have to continue to seek these experiences, not just for the kids we teach, counsel, or parent, but for ourselves, too. The more we put ourselves out of our comfort zone (whether that is joining a camp with peers of differing abilities or traveling across the world to explore a new culture), the more we build our own acceptance for others. We have to model this willingness to be uncomfortable for our kids, or else they may not be willing to do the same.
Which brings me to some news…
After today, I will no longer be writing each week on this blog because I will be traveling for a while, immersing myself in other cultures, ideas, and pushing myself to an even higher level of tolerance and understanding. I will miss the inclusive blogging community, but I know that this will build my abilities to be an even more inclusive, open-minded teacher when I return. I push you to continue to make choices that will enhance your understanding of the world around you, as well. Inclusion depends on it!
Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer and Editor
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.