Welcome to the first episode of the People Helping People Podcast, where we’re going to talk to people involved in social change, developing cultural ties, and cool projects that are making a difference.
For this first episode, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mikela Thomas, the diversity liaison at Cheshire Elementary School, about culture and diversity. The Olentangy school district in Ohio has a diversity liaison for each school – and she has used her position to put together an impressive annual cultural festival.
She shared her story – how and why she developed the program in her school, how she moved around growing up and experienced diversity in her own life and shared stories how diversity has affected students in her school – and how they’ve been able to break down barriers.
From my experience, diversity and travel go hand in hand. The more we learn about culture by interacting with people and opening up and sharing our stories, the more accepting and tolerant we become. It’s the first step to combatting xenophobia and developing stronger ties around the world, which in turn leads to more peaceful relationships and people working together in collaboration.
Adam: And today we are going to talk about diversity and culture. Kayla has and the cultural liaison in Cheshire elementary school and three years ago she started a cultural festival to celebrate culture and diversity in the school. So we're going to talk about how she came up with this a little bit about what she's found in diversity and how she's helped spread awareness, help children understand that their diversity is okay and overcome cultural barriers.
[00:00:41] You started this three years ago.
[00:00:42] Mikela: Yes.
[00:00:43] Adam: What was the inspiration for that?
[00:00:45] Mikela: So, um, our district actually is just trying to build that inclusive climate, that culture of community. So we actually have diversity liaison supposition that was created and in every single building. So I believe we have 2324 schools in our district and every single building, elementary, all the way up to high school has a diversity liaison in that position.
[00:01:09] And at that school. And so basically I took on that role. I was like, you know, being the only African American teacher at the school, actually there's only two minority teachers in the whole building. Oh, wow. You know, I just wanted to make sure to bring that awareness of diversity here. As soon as I found out that that was like a position that was coming up and I was like, Oh, I'm on it.
[00:01:30] And there was no
[00:01:31] Adam: position.
[00:01:32] Mikela: So, so as a diversity liaison, we are responsible for providing professional development to the staff about identity inclusion, awareness, you know, different things. We also have a student diversity group, and so my diversity group was called the wild cards because our school theme is wondering, imagining learning, discovering which stands.
[00:01:51] That's our wild. And the card stands for children, advocates, respecting differences. And so I teach the kids that if you're a wild car, like in the game, you know, have that car that has all the colors on it and it's a wild card. It just changes the whole game, changes everything. So I wanted them to feel like empowering them to be an advocate and making changes in our world if they see injustices and things like that.
[00:02:13] So our club meets twice a month. So far this year we've done so much. We had a student come in and he has type one diabetes and he did a whole presentation on what that is, and he's still a normal kid like everyone else, but there's some extra steps he has to go through to prepare for the day and, but it just empowered him because now people aren't like, well, where are you going?
[00:02:32] Why do you have to keep going to the nurse? You know, like can actually teach them about what's going on. We had Joanie, Callum. Well, she sang songs about kindness and about diversity. It was just amazing. So it was a night, and then I sent this home as a car chat for the parents when they're after the event, they can actually get in the car, talk about what is empathy or why should we show kindness to others.
[00:02:53] That's a great
[00:02:53] Adam: idea. So they can continue the discussion at home.
[00:02:55] Mikela: Exactly. Yeah. Also, right now we're talking about identity, especially at this age. I just want to be like everyone else, you know? And so teaching them that you have your own identity and to be proud of who you are and . Accepted. And so we did things like have any speech bubbles.
[00:03:11] I am in the middle and they get to talk about who they are. Um, and then we are also going to do something called an identity. It's like an identity wheel, but it's a, have you ever heard of vision board? Okay. So I'm going to have them do vision boards, but just talking about who they are and being proud of that and being able to display it at their house.
[00:03:31] And so that's what we're talking about right now.
[00:03:33] Adam: No, you teach first, first grade. In first grade, how are they? It's not like teenagers were much more harsh with each other.
[00:03:41] Mikela: Yeah.
[00:03:41] Adam: What are they like in first grade?
[00:03:43] Mikela: So in first grade, and so even just younger, cause we actually have kindergarteners that are part of our club.
[00:03:49] They notice differences as early as I think the research shows that you like age two or three people start noticing differences culturally or I should say ethnically. And so they're already noticing these differences, but they just don't know how to maneuver around that. Like, how do I say what I want to say without offending?
[00:04:09] So they're just kind of very cautious. So I feel like this group gives them a, um, gives them some tools, like a toolkit. Like, okay, when you encounter someone who is different than you, that's okay. You can still be friends with them. But you have to kind of pull it out of them and engage them in those conversations.
[00:04:25] Like we have mixed it up at lunch day through the teaching tolerance website. They do it every year. We do it here at our school too, and so like in the middle of the lunch tables, I'll have like discussion questions like, you know, how many brothers and sisters do you have? Just general questions to kind of just get to know somewhat.
[00:04:41] One year I had some, a kid who didn't even want to come to school that day because he was so nervous about. Interacting with someone new. Oh, and I'm like. You know, this is important. Like this is how you build these college career ready individuals to deal with this work. And our diverse society, you know, is by, um, making sure that they are equipped and they feel comfortable
[00:05:04] Adam: to go out of time.
[00:05:04] Did you understand?
[00:05:05] Mikela: Yeah. Just get to know a new person. Like we read books together. I'm in my student group. We read the book, the sandwich swap. Yeah, it's by a Creek queen Reyna. Um, it's about a little girl who brings hummus and pita to lunch. And another little girl who likes peanut butter and jelly and how they're really good friends, but they didn't know this difference about each other.
[00:05:25] And they made fun of each other at first, and they argued and they started a big huge food fight. And then, um, they tried the food of the other culture and they loved it. At the end of the book, they have this international. Food banquet kind of thing and everyone was bringing food from different cultures and stuff.
[00:05:45] Those are the kinds of things I do with younger kids. Or I'll do something like, we did our friendship rainbow where we took fruit loops and and pipe cleaner, and each color of the fruit loops did for something that you want it to be. Characteristic of a good friend or a kind person. And the clouds at the end were kindness and in the, which were marshmallows.
[00:06:06] And so, yeah, so we did that, right? You can eat the kind of things where they can understand, like, you know, the differences that exist, the similarities and just how to get along with each other. And so.
[00:06:19] Adam: Yeah. So then did the, the whole culture of festival
[00:06:22] Mikela: come out of, yes. So it stemmed from that. So it started, uh, when our first been in this position for the diversity liaison for.
[00:06:30] Four years, four or five years now. It just started off as administering professional development to the teachers and then also the student group. And then the student group had so many people that wanted something more like they wanted to be able to, you know, come and have a place where they came to show off.
[00:06:49] You know, they, they, they love the fashion show and things like that. So I was like, well, why don't we just do a night hosted by our student diversity club and we do a night. And then we just like celebrate diversity, right? I wanted it to be something more meaningful than, like I told you before, like just like taco night, like, you know, and then that's, you know, like this implicit bias or this thing that you have now about Hispanic and tacos.
[00:07:13] That's just kind of like where that kind of stuff comes from. So I wanted to veer away from, from that and lean more towards let's educate each other, you know, let's celebrate each other. So that's how it started. We had tee shirts made for the evening and all of the kids in the diversity club group, they got to walk around and like, they were so proud, you know, and they would talk to people about what the club was about.
[00:07:36] They were on the announcements in the morning, telling people to come to the multicultural night. The first year we had it. I don't believe we had as many acts as many performers as we did. It was just like, I think we had the African drummer that first year and maybe one, I think maybe the Irish dancers, but it kind of grew because I wanted other cultures involved.
[00:07:56] So that's when this year we had the bagpipe and the accordion player and Indian, the Indian dancers. And, um. Yeah. And who else did we have? Oh, we also have the international children's choir come this year, and they sung different songs in different languages. So all of that. I just wanted to keep building on it.
[00:08:16] And this is a school effort. So I basically, the way that I do it is I send out, I sign up genius and parents sign up, parents sign up to bring food or to help for decorations or for cleanup or whatever, and teachers sign up. So it's just a whole, I'm just the organizer, but it really does take it. The whole school.
[00:08:34] Yeah. A huge effort of people. So yeah. And I remember one year, just a quick story, one year before when I first started working here, that diversity liaison position wasn't, I wasn't doing that, but I was walking through the hallway and there was this little boy, he was new to our school. He's from the Columbus city school area, but he was, it was his first day and a little African American boy.
[00:08:55] So I'm walking through the hallway and he runs up to Mike. Just. Just grabs me like, and I've wrapped his arms around me. I'm like, huh? Like, you know, what's your name? You know? And he, before he could even say his name, there were tears in his eyes. And he was like, there's more of us. And from that moment I said, I gotta do something, something, because there are kids here who don't get to see themselves.
[00:09:21] There are kids here who probably feel like, you know. I'm just gonna assimilate. I'm just gonna, you know, do what they do and what people think I'm supposed to do. But I'm not going to speak about my culture. I'm not gonna celebrate my religion. I'm not going to be able to pray when I'm supposed to be able to PR things like that.
[00:09:39] And I was just like, it's not okay.
[00:09:40] Adam: Cause I know. You are with people where you consider, Hey, this is my community or my culture. And you come to a place where like you don't see it,
[00:09:49] Mikela: you don't see any of that. And so I was like, I gotta do something. And so then the next following year, that's when we had the group.
[00:09:57] And so then after my first diversity night. He came back the same little boy, but he brought a friend this time, another little white boy, and both of them hugged me and they said, thank you for giving us diversity. It was just, it was so rewarding, you know, not just for me, but for them. So I'm very passionate about it.
[00:10:17] I definitely am learning more just because I'm doing this as a man. I know everything either I'm learning more, but it's all about building bridges. So I
[00:10:26] Adam: was going to ask what kind of effect you actually saw on the students.
[00:10:29] Mikela: Yeah, I think that, um, it's definitely in my classroom cause it's hard for me to get to see everyone.
[00:10:35] But from that point on, from our first night, our multicultural night, which we call Cheshire's cultural connection from that first event, it was just a community building. And then the second year. The theme of our school started to change the culture, the climate from our principal to the teachers and how they interacted.
[00:10:54] So now this year, like we get together once a month, all of the teachers get together, away from school and just hang out. Like that's something that. Didn't happen before. People always talk about Cheshire because they're saying that, Oh, Cheshire, that's the happiest place on earth because it's just the climate that we built here, and all the other schools too.
[00:11:12] The other schools are doing it. I just came from a diversity meeting, learning more. Um, and it's just an amazing thing. So next year, my hope is to. Pull someone else in this diversity liaison position and get some fresh ideas, and I've been doing it a while now and just kind of be a help to that new person.
[00:11:31] That's my goal. But yeah, it's been a great ride so far.
[00:11:35] Adam: You were mentioning on the phone when we spoke that just the diversity here is less than,
[00:11:40] Mikela: yes.
[00:11:41] Adam: What kind of diversity do you see in this
[00:11:43] Mikela: school? We have many African population. We have a high Indian population. It was not that many African American students compared to like Olan Tangie Meadows, which is their like almost fifth percent in diversity.
[00:11:55] Oh, wow. Yeah. So here we're probably at about 11% okay. They're really high. So yeah, we're, we're situated. I'm all the way North and cornfields and things. It's usually just the same type of people in this area, but people are starting to move here and need to feel welcome.
[00:12:17] Adam: I was going to ask what, what are the trends of.
[00:12:19] Oh, people that you've seen coming in that has the diversity of the town chambers?
[00:12:23] Mikela: Yes. Oh yes. It's changed a lot, even from like 10 years ago, but yeah, it's changed a lot. There's definitely more people moving in, more people with families. I mean, Olin TNG district is one of like the best in Ohio, one of the best in the state.
[00:12:38] Yeah. We're the largest district in the state of Ohio as well. It just keeps growing, growing, growing, growing. I usually, our superintendent will tell you, we spend less per pupil than any other district that is comparable to Olin Tangee. So it's just like, we're, people want to move here because their taxes go far and plus, you know, it's just a, it's a great community to live in.
[00:13:00] They did have some issues before. The reason why diversity. Has become so important. Students have felt like my needs aren't being met culturally. So like you got to do something.
[00:13:14] Adam: There is some separation someplace that's different.
[00:13:18] Mikela: Yes. Yeah, and even with like the teacher population, I mean, I, there's probably only out of the thousands of teachers we have, there's probably like 25 minority, maybe 30 now.
[00:13:30] Very little. So they're not seeing it. They're not around it, you know? So this is definitely something new, but the district is definitely open to it. I mean, for them to create all these
[00:13:41] Adam: positions they're thinking
[00:13:43] Mikela: about. Yeah. And saying, go do what you know to do what you would she want to do. You know? And then our superintendent has came to all of our multicultural nights and it has been a presence here.
[00:13:54] And yeah, they are really on board.
[00:13:58] Adam: What would an ideal world look like for you in terms of diversity?
[00:14:02] Mikela: An ideal world for me would just be just equity for all and know people that you quality or you know, I want you to equally or fairly. And I don't know if that's necessarily ever going to happen just because of how our society was built.
[00:14:18] But if everyone is just . Equitable, you know, treats, treats each other with equity and with empathy and just understand like that we can all work together. We can all make this world a better place if we all just give, you know, an all help. So that would be the ideal for me. It's just to live in a world where everyone's needs are met.
[00:14:38] Wherever level that you are, your needs are met. I mean, we wouldn't have the homelessness or the different, the different issues that we have in our society. If everyone was just like, let's all help to meet the basic needs of everyone, and that's not the case, so that would be great for me.
[00:14:55] Adam: You mentioned as we were walking in here.
[00:14:57] When you were growing up, you moved around a lot. Do you have any stories of how you encounter diversity in these different areas? Cause it sounded like some things were pretty, extremely different.
[00:15:06] Mikela: Yeah. Um, well, I mean, I would say growing up I was in a mostly majority white schools because my mom felt like that was the place where you get the best education.
[00:15:19] So she would, we would live and maybe the poor neighborhoods or thing or the hood, I actually would say, and we would move when she would drive me 35, 40 minutes every day so I can go to this other school that was like the top school. She did that. Every place that we've moved. Um, and usually I am close to the V only one or maybe, you know, small minority of us.
[00:15:44] And so it just kind of was what I was used to. And then I went, when I moved to Akron and went to high school there, it was like, it was culture shock for me because I'm like other people that look like me and it's more of them and more of us than them. Like that was just really different for me. And so we had, you know.
[00:16:05] Every kind of diversity you can think of. I mean, we had all different types of people. One of my closest friends was Laos and had, you know, Hispanic. Yeah. It was, it was an amazing school to go to. It's like right in the middle of downtown accurate, you know? So it was, it was amazing. And then when I went to college, I went to Kent state, which was also a small minority of us, but they have programs there.
[00:16:28] And you know, that, that helped, you know, different, I mean, just. Different ethnicities or whatever, just have their own little program or club or whatever. So I was definitely a part of those. So, yeah, I've had, I've been kind of, it was, it was hard for me. I mean, in all honesty, it was hard for me to come to Olin TNG because I felt like I was, um.
[00:16:48] I'm trying to think of a politically correct word to use. It's like a sell out, like selling out, you know, and not, um, not being supportive of my own community cause I know that in the black community or maybe or some of the lower income districts that they would need a teacher. ASP, just as passionate they're in.
[00:17:07] But I chose to come here where there's not a lot of people who look like me. And so I kind of felt like I was letting my community down, but
[00:17:15] Adam: just as important to have you here when
[00:17:17] Mikela: exactly. And that's what I found out being here. It's a huge learning experience that being here has taught me so much, but I'm able to give so much to so.
[00:17:27] Yeah. It's been, it's been great.
[00:17:29] Adam: Uh, you mentioned you had children. Is this something that you do at home in terms of helping them learn about diversity?
[00:17:36] Mikela: Yes, absolutely. I have three kids. Michael is 14 he just turned 14 yesterday. Mason is 11 and Malia seven. So we as a, my husband is from Jamaica. My husband's family is from Jamaica.
[00:17:50] Both of his parents, they met here when they went to Tuskegee and found out there were some from the same village in Kingston. Yeah. And so, um. So he is full 100% Jamaican, and my kids are 50% so we're teaching them about their heritage and speaking Patois and learning about reggae music and just getting them, you know, just like you have this part of you that we want to, you know, embrace.
[00:18:17] Um, but also teaching them about. Other aspects of diversity and not just cultural, you know, making sure that they understand about, you know, autism or different, you know, just different culture, cultural things. And so, my son, so funny, my middle son, he, he was like, mom, can, you know, my friends come over? And I'm like, Oh yeah, sure.
[00:18:37] And friends came over. It was like, United nations.
[00:18:43] Cause they're just so open, you know, they're just, they're so open to it because of what I do and because of what their dad, you know. Yeah. Yeah. So, and we leave volunteer at different, we do the outreach as well, you know, and anytime we do our, like the sock drives and things here too, they're right there with me.
[00:18:59] Um, we go to the children's hospital and yeah. Yeah. So we, we've done, um, you make, I don't know how you make the soup kits that you send away. So we've done those, um, through their football and basketball weeks. And then we've also done, um, operation Christmas child where you make these boxes and you send off the boxes to different places.
[00:19:24] We've raised money for doctors without borders. And. What else have we done? We did on this doc drive where we were just donating socks for many families. Um, and that was how we'd done, Oh, we've done walks, like we've done the African American male wellness walk, and we've done that every year. And we've also done, um, the buddy walk, which is for down syndrome kids with down syndrome.
[00:19:49] Just kinda, yeah. Yeah.
[00:19:54] Adam: You keep very busy it
[00:19:55] Mikela: sounds like. Yeah. On top of just their basic stuff, like regular activities, and like I said, my son's part of the Tyco drumming too, so he, they do that and they're actually going to London. Oh yeah, they're going to the ho. They're taking the whole Tyco group.
[00:20:11] Well, whoever is going to pay for it to go to London and actually perform there, and last years they're going in June and then two years, well, my son, unfortunately, he, he wants to. As to go with him. So he was like, I don't want to be in another country without you. And I was like, okay, well we can't afford it this year, but I promise I'm gonna take you, cause I just want them to know about other countries and just be able to experience that and
[00:20:39] Adam: extremely diverse.
[00:20:40] Mikela: Oh, really? See, I've never, I've never been
[00:20:43] Adam: there for nine years.
[00:20:44] Mikela: Did you.
[00:20:46] Adam: We'd go out to dinner and I would be at a table and none of my friends were British or American.
[00:20:50] Mikela: So
[00:20:53] Adam: it'd be United nations.
[00:20:59] Mikela: Yes. That's awesome. That's awesome. So I want him sick. I want my kids to experience that. So, um, teacher salary, not yet, but we'll get there. Well, uh, can I ask you something? I know this is not, but I just wanted to know, like, so when I reached out to you, you know, and your wife, what made you say, we want to come do this?
[00:21:22] Adam: wife has very little idea of the American school system. She grew up in India and their schools were very much, you succeeded by memorizing the textbook. So, which is a very good number. I think she, she had no concept of what exactly was going on. She's not okay. They're doing some performance. Jared.
[00:21:39] Okay. It's a cultural performance or doing different, and she really didn't know what to expect. We were on our way here, you know, she had told me briefly about it and I had one idea, and I think when we were coming, she was explaining it a little bit more. I was like, I hadn't understood that there was a whole cultural fair going on.
[00:21:54] Mikela: So
[00:21:55] Adam: when I showed up and I saw everybody, all the kids and people dressed up like that, just. It's very inspiring just seeing people and
[00:22:03] Mikela: so excited about it. You know, they're
[00:22:04] Adam: there. They're eating, they're running around, they're very happy. There's, you see all these different acts going on. You know?
[00:22:11] It just makes me feel like, Hey, that's
[00:22:15] Mikela: what I
[00:22:16] Adam: want to be. And growing up with that, knowing in your mind that, okay, yeah, all these different cultures exist and they're fine. There are no one there. They're all. They're different, but that's okay. You know? And that's something to celebrate, not something to put a borders and
[00:22:31] Mikela: run away from.
[00:22:32] Yeah, absolutely. It's what our country is built on. You know, like the diversity. Like I was talking to my my student group and I'm like, what are some of your favorite foods? And we made all of the foods they name. I said, you know, none of those foods originated here. Like people brought those ideas here, you know, and just them understanding that that's what this world is.
[00:22:55] It's, that's what it's supposed to be. People bringing their own personal experiences, their own cultural practices or beliefs to a place that we can all share it and it's not this separate, segregated type of thing. So I, I mean, I'm going to continue to do that work, but yeah, I'm always going to be passionate about diversity.