After her son came to her telling her he heard that another student called him a racial slur, Cleonie Mainvielle decide to launch a diversity and inclusion initiative in Bridgewater-Raynham schools to address growing diversity amongst students.
BRIDGEWATER — After her son came to her telling her he heard that another student called him a racial slur, Cleonie Mainvielle decide to turn an negative incident into a positive learning opportunity for the rest of the community.
Following the alleged comment at the Williams Intermediate School, where her son is currently a fourth-grader, Mainvielle's efforts have brought together various members of the community to launch a "Diversity and Inclusion for Community Empowerment in Bridgewater (DICE)" initiative, starting at the Williams and, she hopes, spreading throughout the district.
"I want the diversity to be celebrated and not necessarily just tolerated or just have everyone feeling like they have to assimilate," Mainvielle said. "I want everyone to be their true authentic self."
Just after winter break in January, Mainvielle said her son came to her after hearing from two other students that a third student had called him the n-word. When she went to the school to talk to Principal Nancy Kirk, Mainvielle said it was clear that the school didn’t have the resources to properly address the incident or similar incidents in the future.
"She was able to find a lot of resources on bullying, but not a lot on diversity," Mainvielle said.
Because she didn't have the resources on hand either, Mainvielle said she reached out to local activist group Bridgewater Citizens for Civility and Respect (BCCR) who then connected her with faculty members at Bridgewater State University who "jumped right on board," she said. Members of First Parish Bridgewater Unitarian Universalist Church and the church's Social Justice Committee also joined in on the initiative, along with school officials and a six-member parent advisory board consisting of a multi-racial group of local parents.
“We’ve all tried to figure out how to help our children to be the only non-white students in the classroom and be OK with it,” she said. “I just want the same conversations happening in my home being had in school where everyone can hear it so my kids don’t have to keep feeling different.”
So Mainvielle, with the help of Kirk and Bridgewater State faculty members Melissa Winchell and Dr. T. Kevin McGowan, brought that discussion to the Williams by hosting an assembly about diversity and inclusion, where kids discussed things they had in common, their differences and what bias is, as well as acting out possible scenarios pertaining to diversity.
"It was a little difficult because we were dealing with 400 kids at a time," Kirk said, "...but they were able to have a discussion at the tables and they were able to get a sense of bias and how we treat people unfairly based on our biases and how it can be hurtful and unfair to do that. So it turned out very well! The students really got something out of it, I think."
As of 2018, the Williams Intermediate School’s student population is 87 percent white, according to the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education enrollment data. The Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District as a whole is roughly the same at 89 percent white.
“We’re not a very diverse district and it’s not like we can create that overnight, but I think the more and more (English language learning) students and students of color come into the district, the more we’re going to have to address issues regarding diversity," Kirk said. "…I’d rather be a little proactive.”
Right now, Kirk said there are no set plans in terms of implementing a curriculum surrounding diversity and inclusion, but believes that the assembly gave teachers an idea of ways they can address it in the classroom.
In addition to the assembly, school officials have distributed a climate survey to Williams students, faculty and parents to take to see if there is a need for the program, with a deadline towards the end of this month. Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District Superintendent Derek Swenson has deemed the ongoing effort at Williams a "pilot program," which he would look to expand beyond racial diversity to religion, disability and gender identity as well.
“We’re going to take that information from these surveys and see if there are things we can implement in other buildings throughout the district,” Swenson said. “Those are conversations we’ll be having during the summer and early fall.”
But Mainvielle is already moving full-speed ahead, citing ideas for what may come, such as a high school club looking to tackle issues surrounding diversity, forming a subcommittee of the school committee and parent teacher groups to address diversity and inclusion among students, more assemblies district-wide, professional training for teachers and a possible summit.
“I don’t fault anyone,” she said. “It’s the opportunity that’s here that I’d like to take advantage of and I think it will not only be enriching for my family so we can continue to feel like we’re part of this community and not outsiders, but it will be an opportunity for those who are here who have not had this experience before and to help with that ignorance – not to be in an insulting way, but they just don’t know.”
Mainvielle said her kids have experienced negative comments on the color of their skin, the food they bring for lunch and the texture of their hair.
“If children had the right language, they can ask questions and be inquisitive without it be unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings,” she said.
Staff writer Corlyn Voorhees can be reached at email@example.com