May 26, 2021

Meran Rogers on Supporting Students of Color

CIP is lucky to count the Global Ambassadors Language Academy (GALA) among the cherished organizations that host our exchange visitors.  In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, GALA’s founder Meran Rogers shares with us her experience dealing with discrimination both personally as an Asian American and in her work as Executive Director of the school. 

GALA’s mission is to ensure each student achieves lifelong academic success, bilingualism and appreciation for diversity, in an engaging and academically rigorous language immersion environment.  Meran founded the school in response to her experience growing up in a multilingual household with immigrant parents and attending Cleveland and East Cleveland public schools, along with her passions and professional experiences.

Have you seen a transformation in how you have been treated here in Cleveland from your days as a young student to now?

Personally, I feel there has been very little improvement in the way people of color are treated in Cleveland and across our country. I believe awareness of how people of color are treated has increased, and that awareness has led to discussion, sensitivity, and inspired co-conspiracy between groups of people to lift each other up.

The unfortunate reality is that we are still dealing with the same problems from over 50 years ago –systemic racism, discrimination, and unjust treatment of people of color and women.  Additionally, newer issues continue to arise, such as the Coronavirus and xenophobia, which inspires more hate crimes and discrimination against Asians, refugees, and immigrants. 

These events motivate me and reinforce my conviction to continue to grow GALA.  GALA is so much more than a language immersion school with a Mandarin and Spanish program.  Our teachers and administrators have worked hard to create our school environment that is welcoming to a very diverse community of staff, students, and families.  GALA does not just tolerate differences, but celebrates differences.  Especially for our students of color, we work to make sure that they are seen, heard, respected, and celebrated.  At GALA we are making a small difference to ensure the future is better for our children by creating an incredibly diverse school that provides an education rich with cultural celebrations and teaching.

How have current events impacting Asian Americans, African Americans, and people of color influenced your work at GALA?  Have your approaches changed over time?

As an Asian American woman, child of immigrants, and mother to my multiracial son and daughter - I am honored to serve in a leadership role at the school. I feel a greater sense of responsibility to ensure that GALA is a school community that is a welcoming environment to persons of all race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and gender identity.  

GALA offers language immersion programs in both Mandarin and Spanish.  At GALA we recognize that language and culture cannot be separated, they are synonymous.  So, as our students are immersed in Mandarin, Spanish, as well as English, they also learn about the culture of people and places that speak those language.

One specific action item I am most proud of is instituting an annual Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training for GALA staff throughout the school year.  These trainings are provided by Sankofa Circle International, and Sankofa has done amazing work to facilitate deep, meaningful, and impactful work among our staff and teachers.  This work then inspires and influences not only growth, understanding, and teamwork among GALA staff, but also the work of our teachers with their students and families.

Do you think the students at GALA have a good understanding of the challenges facing their peers of color?
Our students are young, but they are aware of the world around them.  Our students come to school talking about events in the news, including building walls, the killing of George Floyd, Coronavirus, mass shootings, and protests in Hong Kong.  However, awareness and understanding are not the same, as these are complicated topics for our young students.  Whenever possible, GALA takes advantage of current events to be teachable moments, by helping our children process this information, as the ideas they form now will continue to take shape into their adult lives.    Our teachers at GALA provide instruction and lead school-wide events for Black History Month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  These activities include learning about cultural events, history, current events, notable movements and civic leaders. 

What are some ways that other schools can make their students of color feel more supported, especially in difficult times?

Students need to be seen and heard in order to feel supported, and that is especially true during difficult times.  GALA supports students of color by taking time to acknowledge the diversity we have within our school community.  GALA hosts school-wide celebrations for Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, as well as organize instructional projects and activities that allow students to share their family heritage and customs (e.g. family tree, show and tell, and story telling).

What are some noteworthy outcomes from your school’s diversity training?

Our Diversity Equity and Inclusion training at GALA has facilitated great discussion among staff that has built tremendous empathy, and a better understanding for ourselves, each other, and the students and families we serve.  One discussion I especially appreciated was about how the experiences of Asian Americans in the U.S. parallel some of the experiences African Americans have as well.  Diversity training inherently will highlight the differences between varying groups of people, but also highlights the shared experiences among different groups as well.  I believe that exploring the intersectionality between ourselves and among varying groups of people is very important for advancing forward as a whole.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience as an Asian American or GALA?

I wish I had been able to go to a school like GALA when I was little growing up in Cleveland. I wonder what the positive impact would have been on my self-esteem, confidence, and overall journey into adulthood. I also know that if it were not for the experiences I had growing up in Cleveland without a school like GALA, we may not have a GALA today to enjoy. I am overjoyed that my children, as well as so many other children, have the opportunity to grow up in the welcoming environment that celebrates diversity and differences at GALA today.

This school year, I have had to address a student shouting “I hate China” in the hallway (whom happens to be in the Mandarin immersion program).  When I asked why they were saying that, they said it was because of the Coronavirus.  We had a good discussion about how it is important to express yourself and share feelings instead of keeping it inside, but that it wasn’t China that they hated.  Specifically, the student hated that the coronavirus was making people sick and die, as well as the shut down and restrictions forced onto schools.  We talked about what it really meant to say “I hate China” and that it meant hating their teacher, the celebrations we enjoy, the language we were learning, and the culture.  I also shared that if a Chinese person heard them saying that, it would hurt their feelings. The student immediately realized the impact of their words and stated that they would no longer say it again. 

In the same week, I was greeting a student in our Spanish immersion program, and they said to me “Ni hao ching chong”.  This is a very sweet student and they said the greeting with a smile and pride, not realizing the statement was offensive and hurtful.   I asked if they knew what they had said, and they proudly replied “Yes, it means hello in Chinese”.  I then asked where they learned it from, and they said from their dad.  It was an uncomfortable moment for me, but I was so thankful to have that opportunity with the student.  I explained to them that “ni hao” was correct, and that it meant hello, but that ching chong was not nice, but a hurtful way to describe a Chinese person. The student was stunned and stated they did not know that. I told them that it was okay, I knew they didn’t mean it that way, and that they weren’t in trouble.  I know that student will not say those words again, and will likely pass on the explanation to anyone they hear say it.
Posted by Melissa Zwick on May 26, 2021 at 10:45 AM in CIPUSA Permalink
Stacy Moreno says:
May 27, 2021 2:14 PM

Well written, great arrive, and I love the work being done at GALA!! This was great to learn
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