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OPED: York County Needs A Culture Con

Deborah Yonick Kalina
Codorus Township

One of my favorite bits on Sesame Street was The People in Your Neighborhood. I can still sing the song… “They’re the people that you meet as you’re walking down the street each day.” Overall, the show’s ethos is that we all belong in the same neighborhood, and this segment encourages us to get to know the people we live alongside in our community.

Ahead of its time, Sesame Street championed diversity and inclusion by having its Muppets and their human friends discuss important issues and reflect the people kids actually see day to day. I was reminded of this after spending a day in April with juniors at Susquehannock High School for its Culture Con.

Now in its second year, Culture Con provides SHS 11th graders a direct and practical experience to be exposed to different cultures. Students learn about these things through curriculum, but Culture Con provides them with the opportunity to learn beyond the text and ask questions of someone who lives within these cultures everyday. The goal is that firsthand exposure to other cultures will better prepare students for success in the real world and workforce in the future where they will work with diverse groups of people different from themselves in many ways.

In role playing scenarios students experienced the challenges of poverty and homelessness, navigating life with a learning or physical exceptionality, and assuming multiple ethnic roles. Students were offered a diverse range of topics to choose from including religious identity, mental health awareness, living beyond the binary, and immigration, facilitated by the school counselors and social studies department in collaboration with many outstanding community service organizations. Interspersed were speeches by Loretta Clairborne, Special Olympics Athlete, who spoke about her journey with an intellectual disability; Drew Bergman, who shared his story of depression and addiction as a teen; and Louis Castriota, who told how the special needs of his own child led him to create Leg Up Farm and Farmers Market and Able-Services.

As a new school board member at Southern, and speaking personally as a parent of a junior at the high school, I am proud of Susky’s Culture Con and would love to see this developed for curriculum appropriate at the primary level, and adopted by other school districts. But I really walked away thinking how we adults could use a Cultural Con in our community.

I thought of Culture Con days later after hearing that Sandra Thompson (president of NAACP York) and her friends, while out golfing at Grandview Golf Course in York had the police called on them for allegedly golfing too slowly—a claim dispelled by the party of men behind them. Five black professional women, experienced golfers, paid members who were treated by the owners with such disrespect, contempt and intolerance that the video of the incident went viral.

I thought of Culture Con when Delma Rivera-Lytle and Clydiene Francis-Joray, women of color whose positions as diversity education specialists at Central York Middle School were suggested for elimination to trim a budget not calling for a tax increase. It’s fine to question expenses. But in our highly divisive climate, with incidents like Grandview fresh, and our county population growing in diversity, more not less education specialists are needed to advocate for students and families with many different needs. They are the connective tissue in pulling together staff, resources and services (which in the end saves the district money). An outpouring of support quashed the suggested cuts.

I thought of Culture Con again while reading the full-page joint statement in the York Sunday News May 6 by three county commissioners and seven local groups challenging our community to do better. “Social bias and intolerance too often manifests itself in our community,” it said, noting that incidents like Grandview are not public relations problems, but part of a real problem with real people being hurt, denied opportunity, and facing suspicion, hostility and hate. “There is a disease among us, a cancer of division, fear and bias that holds us back as individuals and as a community,” said the statement. “A diverse and welcoming community is not only just and right for all, but is the underpinning of the most dynamic and highest performing regions in our country.”

I’m hopeful to see so many organizations working to make York County a better place for ALL. In much the same way as Give Local York inspired a countywide push to fuel funding to local causes, we could do the same to build bridges in our community to get to know the people in our neighborhoods.

As we watch Starbucks close its doors for a day to conduct diversity training, imagine opening up York County to an educational initiative like Susky’s Culture Con. Conducted over several days countywide, spaces like the York Fairgrounds, Peoples Bank Park, Brynes Health Education Center, Junior Achievement BizTown, Leg Up Farm, theaters and schools, community centers could feature speakers, music/dance/poetry/art/food, reality simulations, human books, sidewalk talks... that collectively challenge us to examine our own biases and understanding of one another. Relationships take work.

We don’t have to look alike or agree with each other to listen with the intent to hear and to engage with grace. The Golden Rule to love your neighbor as yourself is a maxim in many religions and cultures. My parents taught me to treat others as I wish to be treated. I don’t know about you, but I like to be treated with respect. If we lead with that, we open up to the many ways we can work together to make York County better for ALL.

—Deborah Yonick Kalina is a resident of Codorus Township.