Multicultural Day at Athol High School features dance party, arts and cooking classes

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-17-2023 4:40 PM

ATHOL — By all accounts, Athol High School’s Multicultural Day was a resounding success.

The event, meant to highlight the diversity among the high school’s student body and promote acceptance and understanding among people of different backgrounds kicked off with a parade and continued until a dance party wrapped things up. In between there were dance and cooking lessons, trivia and various art activities. Guest speakers included students of different backgrounds and individuals from multilingual/multicultural businesses.

A student-created diversity group and student government association offered a presentation and information on dealing with stress was provided. During the dance party, students could avail themselves of food such as empanadas (Latin America), pierogies (Poland), kim chi (Korea) and more.

“I’m really glad we got to do this multicultural festival,” said AHS junior Javon Pottinger, who is African American. “I helped a little bit but not nearly as much as our Puerto Rican students have. They did so much. They really showed up and filled out everything for this event. I have to say they did amazing. We’re all so happy and so proud that they did this.”

Pottinger is president of the AHS Diversity Club and high school representative to the district-wide Equity Team.

Creating a lasting impact

Pottinger identified Deh’mani Brine as one of the main organizers of the event. Brine, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, said, “I decided to join Equity once Miss G (ESL teacher Beth Gospodarek) and Javon presented it to me. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I should just get involved.’ I hope we can change this event to something else, something better, like doing it over four days.”

Marie-Kyra FaustinDespitye, a native of Haiti who moved to Athol in August, said when she first began attending AHS, “I felt accepted. It was not very difficult. It was easier than I thought it might be.”

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Despite Multicultural Day being a single-day event, Pottinger said he hopes it—and similar efforts—can have a lasting impact.

“We see each other in the halls, we walk past each other, but I’m not sure everyone sees how diverse our school is,” Pottinger said. “An event like this helps show everyone who is here, what all the cultures are around them, the ethnicities, everyone who is around them. An event like this just really shows everyone what’s going on, and hope from this day forward it makes everyone celebrate everyone else’s culture—be more accepting and know these other cultures are there.”

A favorite portion of the day for many was the talent show. Most agreed it was a great opportunity to experience the music and dance of the cultures that make up the Athol High School community.

As a handful of schoolmates gathered in the school library to speak with the Athol Daily News, members of the faculty and other staff poked their heads in the door to congratulate Gospodarek and the students on the success of the day. “Fantastic,” “fabulous,” “great,” “outstanding,” “wonderful,” were common among the adjectives employed by educators and others to describe the event.

Gospodarek said the impetus for Multicultural Day came from the experience of Brine and others “walking down the hall and hearing kids saying mean things about their identity that was rude. The were comments based on race or based on identity, or based on how well people were able to read or how well or poorly dressed they were. Nobody stood up to push back, or they treated it as a joke. So, Deh’mani just came to me and said, ‘Can we have a multicultural day, because people need to know it’s not a joke.”

Brine’s cousin, Rubi Diaz Velez, said she had unfortunately experienced cultural/ethnic bias since moving to Athol several years ago; at one point wishing to leave the district.

“Personally, I’ve experienced racist people, racist comments, and I really don’t like that,” she said. “I tried convincing my mom to let me quit school because I really didn’t like it here.”

A native of Kenya, freshman Peace Osoro moved around a bit before finally settling in Athol.

“Honestly, when I came here I was kind of mad that I moved and was kind of bitter,” she said. “I didn’t want to do anything, so I just kind of like hid so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. On the other hand, I’ve never really heard anyone say anything bad to me.”

The experience of her younger sister, she said, was quite different: “She made friends really fast.”

Racial/cultural acceptance wasn’t the only kind of acceptance being promoted during Thursday’s festivities.

Said Brine, “A lot kids, including myself, instead of just sticking to cultures, they also addressed sexuality. A lot of them came out today. I saw a lot of students wearing transgender flags, another was wearing a gay pride/rainbow flag as well – and I had the bisexual flag on my forehead.”

Asked about the support such efforts have received from Superintendent Matt Ehrenworth, who is in his first year leading the school district, Pottinger said, “He is amazing. So amazing.”

“He was here all day,” added Nia Brito, a native of Puerto Rico who, along with a couple of friends, sang some Latinx songs at an assembly. “And he was smiling all day.”

All of the students who spoke with the Athol Daily News expressed the hope that all students in the high school—as well as the middle school—will eventually make the effort to accept and understand those students they may consider different, whether due to culture, ethnicity, gender/sexual identity, economic status, physical challenges, intellectual ability—anything that may make them stand out from the “regular” school population. They also hope understanding and acceptance will extend well beyond the walls of Athol High School.

Gospodarek said the district Equity Team is working with the North Quabbin Community Coalition and with Valuing Our Children to eventually organize community discussions regarding the issues of cultural and ethnic diversity and gender/sexual identity.

“There’s always a way to complete a goal,” Pottinger said. “You just have to find the right strategy and present it.”

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