Neutral Zone Hosts Youth Diversity Forum

Community High students listen to Neutral Zone presenters.

On a chilly Friday morning reminding Ann Arbor that winter was near, drifting snowflakes found their way to the shoulders of Community students trudging towards the Neutral Zone. Deciding to make introductions, the group shared answers to questions they had invented on the walk: “what is your name?”, “what color is your toothbrush?” and “what type of sticker would you put on your laptop?”.

The CHS students were welcomed to their destination by colorful graffiti and an escape from the cold. After quickly checking in with staff, they filed into a large room set up with a circle of folding chairs, where students from Milan, Whitmore Lake, Skyline, and Washtenaw International high schools were already seating themselves.

The first part of the Diversity Forum was an all-group activity. The words Race, Gender, Religion, Socioeconomic Status, Ethnicity, Sex, Ability, Age, Nationality and Sexual Orientation were displayed on papers around the room. Then, a series of questions was asked, and each person would walk and stand next to the concept that best answered the question for them. After each movement around the room, facilitator Kelsey Cavanagh-Strong asked for volunteers to explain the reasoning behind their choice. For example, the last question asked which issue students wanted to address most at their school, and the overwhelming majority formed a cluster in front of the word “Race.” A few raised their hands and spoke out about racial tensions at their schools, including incidents in the Ann Arbor Public Schools that had left a sense of division, to murmurs of agreement and sympathy.

After a break for lunch provided by Afternoon Delight, the group was broken up into smaller sections for the afternoon activities. One section completed a racial inventory and discussed the Black Lives Matter movement while the other talked about gender identity, and then the two switched places. In both exercises, observations were made that the “dominant” social class, such as white people or men, often did not realize their privileges, while the oppressed social class, like racial minorities or women, was all too aware. In this way, students gained awareness about issues facing people different from themselves.

The day ended back in the large circle with a chance for shout-outs and thanks between students for sharing their stories. The Neutral Zone asked for feedback and a one-word summary of the Diversity Forum. The most commonly used were educational, eye-opening, and enlightening.