OTTUMWA — When members of the Human Rights Youth Chapter at OHS were challenged to list the people they spent most of their time with, many were shocked to realize that most of their friends looked just like them.
Barb Hanson, the club’s coordinator, wanted to show the students that more often than not people tend to associate with those who share their race, religion and cultural backgrounds. She believes that expanding one’s social circle to include those different from oneself can teach a lot about other people’s experiences.
“The best way to gain understanding (and acceptance) of others is through one-on-one opportunities,” Hanson explained. “If we are always around people that look like, live like and are just like us, we don’t get that benefit.”
The club began after the school hosted a diversity and inclusion assembly in spring 2018. Many of the students who went on to join the club were surprised at how negatively some of the student body reacted to the assembly’s message.
In response, a number of students met with representatives from the Iowa Department of Human Rights, which led to the club’s foundation at OHS. It is the first officially recognized Human Rights Youth Chapter in the state of Iowa.
“We knew about the problems,” said Kristine Mobo, a student at OHS and member of the club. “This was a way to help people directly and indirectly.”
One of the group’s first initiatives was to hang up flags in the OHS cafeteria, representing students who came from all across the globe. Members of the HRYC are also encouraged to celebrate their own cultural origins.
Part of this drive is the annual Cultural Fair to Celebrate Diversity, which is put on by the HRYC and welcomes students and their families to come learn about one another’s cultural backgrounds. There were live performances put on by students from places as diverse as Bulgaria, India and Paraguay.
Alina Anuri, a senior at OHS and one of the founding members of the club, originally comes from Russia. She said her parents enjoyed sharing their culture with the community. Others said it was the first time they’d ever felt welcomed.
Members of the club also found the fair to be an eye-opening experience. Mobo, whose family comes from the Philippines, realized how much cultures from similar parts of the world can be different from one another, and how people are quick to lump different groups together into broad generalizations. Hanson pointed out Latin America as a common example, where students from places as different from one another as Guatemala and El Salvador find themselves referred to as Mexicans.
Mariana Lopez, whose family comes from Mexico, said the club has made her grow personally. It not only exposed her to students from different backgrounds, but helped her open up to meeting new people.
Much of what excites Hanson about the organization is the fact its members learn more than broadening their cultural views. Students who join the HRYC also learn leadership skills, how to develop their own beliefs and ideas, and are taught to embrace a mindset of personal growth. Learning how to be a more engaged citizen is also a central idea.
“If we want to sustain change we need civic engagement,” Hanson said.
That civic engagement takes many forms. Last year, the group attended a professional seminar put on by Drake University Law School, where club members attended lectures by the law faculty and those involved in social justice causes. Mobo, who expressed an interest in law and human rights, found their passion inspiring.
Other students have indicated to Hanson that the club has made them want to pursue other related fields, such as immigration law.
The HRYC plans to continue bringing its messages of civic engagement and cultural acceptance to the student body and community. They will have a float in the Homecoming parade and plan a nonpolitical “mock caucus” to teach students more about the political process. Students will nominate and vote for their favorite candy bars and other desserts.
On Sept. 19, the HRYC will hold an event during which students of voting age can come and register to vote and learn more about the upcoming caucus and what it will entail. The event will be co-hosted by the YMCA and LULAC, and it will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the OHS cafeteria. The club plans to hold more civic engagement events in the future open to students’ families and other members of the community.