The Ottumwa Courier

March 28, 2014

Learning about each other

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — Diversity isn't always easy. And that's OK.

Mary Stewart, one of the key organizers of the first IHCC Diversity Conference 10 years ago, said we've grown as a people. Where America was once proudly called a melting pot, she said, that will hopefully change. Because we don't want Americans melted down and turned into replicas of each other. It's while celebrating our differences that we can see what makes us the same.

Unless, of course, you're all covered in a thick layer of dust from the debris of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11.

"No one was black, no one was white. We were all gray. Everyone was helping everyone else," said one of the speakers at the conference, Lt. Joe Torrillo of the New York Fire Department. "We were all New Yorkers; Americans."

Ottumwa Mayor Tom Lazio was at the conference. After the keynote address, he told The Courier that the "gray" images projected on the screen by Torrillo struck a chord with him.

"Race, color, religion — when it comes to [supporting each other] it doesn't matter," Lazio said. "We're all people."

"Accomplishments have come from every corner of the world," Torrillo said, "and from all kinds of people."

Remember that next time someone tries to convince you that an entire subset of human beings is worthless, he said.

"You may have been told a certain group of people act a certain way. You have a brain in your head. Look for yourself. Look at every situation and evaluate it."

Stewart, former dean of academic services for Indian Hills, said the event has grown every year. International affairs director Freddy Miranda agreed; he said this year was the biggest ever. Between pre-registered participants and attendees who paid "at the door," there were more than 700 people signed up.

Besides the two speakers, Lt. Torrillo and Nicole Kelly, Miss Iowa 2013, there were the well-attended breakout sessions.

"Breakout sessions may make you uncomfortable. They may cause you to question your beliefs," said Stewart.

Over lunch, participants' responses matched what Stewart talked about as she welcomed attendees to the conference. At least one lecture course Friday was "depressing," an attendee said. Another session was inspirational, said a man at the same table.

Some sessions focused on fighting human trafficking, aging, the path to citizenship and how to look at what people can accomplish, rather than what they cannot accomplish with a lecture entitled "Disability. Why do we focus on the 'Dis' and not on the 'ability?'"

For one of them, a former Ottumwa resident returned. Superintendent Steve Hanson of the West Liberty Community School District, was formerly principal of Ottumwa High School.

"I'm talking about the dual-language program in West Liberty," he said.

Elementary students can work toward becoming bilingual. They are taught in English half the day, and in Spanish the other half of the day. And they really are learning the language, Hanson said. It's not a requirement.

"It's voluntary," he said, "but 60 percent of our elementary students participate."

"Diversity isn't just about race or religion or disability," Stewart told the audience. "It's as big as our universe."

News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark