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No Time for Hate

Multicultural education advocate and trailblazer is more determined than ever

As violence fueled by racial and cultural intolerance breaks the hearts and spirits of many across the U.S., Cleorah Scruggs-DeBose—a multicultural education advocate and trailblazer—says the tragic consequences of hate have also hardened her resolve to instill in students an appreciation and respect for all.

Scruggs-DeBose’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville, when White supremacists gathered on the campus of the University of Virginia for a demonstration that resulted in the tragic death of one counter protester, and similar events nationwide, is nothing new. Instead, it’s a lesson she learned well as a young girl growing up in Akron, Ohio: When Scruggs-DeBose hears hate, she preaches love. The only difference is that she’s now advocating her message of peace and love on an international stage. In fact, she is credited with helping to bring multicultural education to Michigan’s classrooms and for being the founder and president of National Multicultural Diversity Day and Institute (NMDI). But in the early 1970s she was an elementary teacher in Flint, Mich., who was struck cold by the downright meanness of some young children. 

As she looks back, Scruggs-DeBose, who is retired now, and an MEA-NEA life member, says, “I remember seeing my students not being respectful of one another. They were engaging in name calling, bullying, and being terribly unkind to one another. I made it clear to them that we weren’t going to do any of that in my classroom. We were going to have a place of respect and peace.” It was then that she realized that replacing “hate” with “love” was every bit as important as instructing them on multiplication tables and sentence diagramming. 

The teacher, who then taught second grade, looked around her classroom, peered into her lesson book, and realized that she had the power to make positive changes. Her bulletin boards were re-designed to celebrate holidays, customs, and traditions from around the world. Her lesson plans were amended to incorporate a more inclusive view of historical dates and events from both inside and outside the U.S. 

She felt satisfied with the multicultural teaching units that she created for her own class, but soon she realized that all children need to be taught tolerance and an appreciation for other cultures, not just her own students. More satisfaction came when Scruggs-Debose’s goal for ensuring that every school in Michigan have a diversity program in place became a reality. In 1993, her state effort to promote respect among students went national when the NEA’s Representative Assembly voted to designate the third Monday of every October as National Multicultural Day. 

Some may think the issue of multiculturalism is as simple as “Black and White,” but Scruggs-DeBose reminds us that today’s world is changing and so is the focus of inclusion. “Multiculturalism gives tribute to the strength and beauty that diversity brings. It doesn’t matter if someone is disabled, has a different gender, practices a religion that isn’t as common as some, has skin of a different color, still we smile in the same language and we cry in the same way.”

One issue, close to home for Scruggs-DeBose, illustrates that “we are in this together.” It’s the water crisis in Flint, where cost-cutting efforts resulted in tainted drinking water. The contaminated water was discovered in 2014 and the city continues to replace pipes. In some parts of the city free water and free filters are still being distributed. As Scruggs-DeBose puts it, “Water affects all cultures.”

Not surprisingly, she is optimistic that we, as a nation, will do the right thing. She has witnessed firsthand the changes that occur in children’s minds and hearts when they are taught the lessons well. Her former students, now adults, and some with children of their own, are the best reminders of instruction that made a difference. Teaching these important lessons in an effective manner, however, takes money and creativity.

Fortunately, the National Multicultural Diversity Day and Institute’s (NMDI) value is widely recognized and grants to the organization from the public and private sector are on the rise. NMDI funding makes more scholarships for students and additional multicultural training possible. Scruggs-DeBose also hopes additional funding will allow the NMDI in the future to host a multicultural conference with more inspirational speakers and workshop presenters for students. 

Funding may always be a factor, but one thing never in short supply for teachers is creativity. Educators can turn a plain chalkboard into an impressive mural and, in Scruggs-DeBose’s case, a simple children’s story can be transformed into a powerful lesson. The story of “The Three Little Pigs” is a good example. Some may think of the story as nothing more than the tale of a cruel and hungry wolf receiving his comeuppance. For Scruggs-DeBose the fable is a lesson in tolerance.

In the “Scruggs-DeBose version,” young children are taught that, at first, the wolf fails to respect the different way of life of the pigs. He harasses them, of course, and bullies them to no end. However, the ending of the story is much brighter—the wolf learns to appreciate others and the pigs become his friends—to the delight of the children listening to the revised story. 

Certainly, hate is deep-seated and prejudice is universal, but advocates for multicultural education hope that the lessons taught today and tomorrow will help to make racial and cultural violence in the future as absurd and as hard to fathom as a wolf blowing down a  pig’s house.  

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