Equality and acceptance remain a struggle for people of color as well as LGBTQ individuals and those of different faiths. Here's how some families are advocating for change—and how yours can, too.

When Sophia Baker attended Bexley High School, she had no hesitation about joining every extracurricular club or activity that piqued her interest. Her younger sister Naomi, a Bexley Middle School seventh-grader, had the same ambition, taking advanced math and auditioning for theater. The third Baker daughter, Lydia, a sophomore, is also active in sports and community activities.

On the surface, it sounds like the typical suburban parents’ dream. What makes their story different is that the Baker girls and their parents, Jonathan and Courtney, are a Black family living in a mostly white community.

The sisters are more fortunate than some of their peers. They say they never felt at a disadvantage in school, nor did they experience overt racism or discrimination. They do, however, speak of offhand comments from other students about their hair texture, and they bemoan the lack of characters of color in school-assigned books and the absence of other students of color in certain spaces.

“I didn’t notice right away that I was one of just a few students of color in my activities, like marching band and book club, although I never let that hold me back,” says Sophia, now a freshman at Ohio State University. “We could do better as a community to help get more kids of color involved in extracurricular activities and AP classes.”

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The Bakers’ observations echo what many students, families and experts in multicultural education have noted in recent years: Few schools and communities today are openly hostile to families of color, LGBTQ families and those of non-Christian faiths, but acceptance doesn’t always equal full inclusion. That message was amplified this summer as millions worldwide protested police brutality and racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, igniting conversations about diversity and inclusion in workplaces, schools and communities.

In Central Ohio, young people organized Black Lives Matter demonstrations and called out their own schools for racism and bigotry they had encountered from teachers or other students, posting their experiences on a series of Instagram accounts. The posts caught the attention of superintendents in districts including Dublin and Hilliard, which vowed to boost their focus on diversity and inclusion.

Others, meanwhile, were forced to confront racism and bigotry on Snapchat, when a group of students from Bexley High School and Columbus Academy calling themselves The George Floyd Brotherhood invited classmates to the group and then harassed them with racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, according to a July story in Columbus Alive.

Students in Worthington City School District wrote a letter to the school board and created a Change.org petition that led to the board in June passing an “anti-racist resolution” to develop a more inclusive curriculum and hire more diverse staff, as well as an August decision to end the school resource officer program.

While Columbus generally receives high marks for diversity and inclusion on national surveys—including perfect scores on the Municipal Equality Index by LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign and top 10 appearances on polls of the best cities for African Americans by BET Networks and Black Enterprise—universal equality and acceptance remain elusive. The ongoing push for racial justice and the recent struggles at local schools illustrate the need for parents to talk about these issues with their children, and for families, schools and communities to educate students to work and live in a diverse world.

 

Promoting Multiculturalism

Approaching education through the lens of diversity and inclusion alone isn’t enough, says Fran Frazier, a Columbus-based community engagement consultant and educator who serves as the principal investigator of the Placing Black Girls at Promise: Rise Sister Rise research study and co-chair of the Columbus Commission on Black Girls.

“We should begin to talk about the fact that we live in a community that is multicultural,” Frazier says. “Our world is multicultural. We live in a global society. We should move away from classifying and framing it in a limited way and instead ask ourselves how we can better interact with people who have a different skin color, religion, values and faith from us.”

As Ohio’s state capital and home to a world-class university, Columbus has long drawn residents from other regions, states and nations. According to Census bureau statistics, the racial makeup of Columbus in 2019 was 59.5 percent white, 28.5 percent Black, 5.9 percent Hispanic or Latino and 5.7 percent Asian; of those, 4.3 percent identified as multiracial. From 2014-18, 12.5 percent of Columbus’ population was foreign-born.

Abdiselam Shahiya is a recent arrival who has high praise for his new life in Central Ohio. He came to the United States in 2015 from Somalia with his wife, Wilo Ali, and two children, and they settled on the North Side after a brother who lived in Atlanta told him he would be treated well here. They now have five school-age children, who attend Horizon Science Academy with many other Somali Muslim students.

“I choose to live here because Columbus has many people of different cultures and religions,” says Shahiya, an employment counselor at Community Refugee and Immigration Services. “We feel comfortable praying openly at the park and going to the mosque to pray. I’m sure there are some who don’t like to see Muslims in Columbus, but many of us say this is a welcoming place. It’s why many Somalis and Muslim people choose to live and stay here.”

Yung-Chen Lu, professor emeritus of mathematics at Ohio State, made Columbus his home much earlier, arriving in 1970 after earning his doctorate at UC Berkeley. A self-described “doer” who prefers to discuss positive impacts on diversity rather than issues of racism, he launched multiple programs to serve Central Ohio’s growing Asian American community and share Asian culture with other residents. In 1995, he helped launch the Asian Festival, believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States. Lu is proud that the event presents food and exhibits from 16 different cultural groups and has become a Columbus tradition.

“Our emphasis is diversity and inclusion,” Lu says. “We had participants at our last festival complete a survey and exit poll, and 46 percent of the people who joined us were Caucasian, 23 percent were Asian, 17 percent were African American and the rest were Latino. This shows that our promotion of diversity is quite successful.”

But the presence of diversity doesn’t always lead to interaction between different groups. Jillian Olinger, chief mission officer for YWCA Columbus, notes a 2015 study from researcher Richard Florida that named Columbus the second most economically segregated city of its size in the U.S. While the YWCA has long addressed racism and women’s empowerment as part of its mission, this summer’s events have pushed the organization to amplify its social justice training and advocacy. Olinger encourages families to study the history of systematic racism and oppression and work for change.

“I know that can bring up a lot of guilt, but emotions are our feedback,” Olinger says. “They’re not something that we need to hide from or deny. We need more white people to feel uncomfortable because this is really our fight. We can then partner with our Black and brown communities, but the onus is not on Black people. It’s on white people to choose differently.”

 

Advocating for Change

The Bexley Minority Parents Alliance was formed by four founders in 2015 to ensure that children and families of color would have a positive, affirming experience in the schools.

BMPA sponsors social events and holds an end-of-year awards ceremony to honor students of color for their achievements. The group works closely with the Bexley City School District to develop an inclusive curriculum and to recruit more teachers and administrators of color. BMPA has also collaborated with similar groups, such as EqualUA in Upper Arlington, working for inclusion in their communities.

Ahdra Young and her husband, Greg, were among the four BMPA founding families. The Youngs, who are white, adopted a son and daughter from Ethiopia in 2007. They wanted to help form the parent alliance to support their children in school and in the community.

Lawrence DeAtley Ellyson and Brian DeAtley Ellyson moved to Bexley in 2015 and joined BMPA to support their son, Dante, 13. The DeAtley Ellysons, a white same-sex couple, adopted Dante, who is Black, when he was 3. They say they’ve had a positive experience overall in Bexley, and even the few negative interactions they’ve faced were handled well. Once, some of Dante’s football teammates teased him for having two dads. A coach who overheard the exchange addressed the students immediately, told them their behavior was unacceptable and made them apologize. “That was impressive and really empowered Dante,” Brian says. “Dante is really proud of his family, so it used to really hurt him when he heard those things, but now at 13, he’d probably be more empowered to say something. Overall, he’s done well and hasn’t seemed to have too many issues with our family makeup.”

Tyler Trill, public information officer for Bexley schools, said via email the district is addressing diversity in several ways. It has partnered with nonprofit organization Harper’s Corner Foundation Inc. (see the “Snapshot” Q&A on Page 62) to increase the number of books featuring multicultural characters in school libraries, and has been working with professors from OSU and teachers from other Central Ohio schools to expand the curriculum to include topics such as Black history, race, class and gender. The district is also working with the Bexley Anti-Racism Project, a group of high school students and graduates fighting racial inequality.

“The district appreciates our students of color sharing their stories, and our goal is to make sure that the voices of our students, specifically our students of color, are listened to, and included in our work as we move forward,” Trill wrote.

The Baker sisters say they’ve noticed some positive changes in recent months. Naomi says her white friends have engaged in thoughtful, supportive discussions with her about the Black Lives Matter movement, this summer’s protests and the racial dynamics of this year’s election. She’s also seen more direct callouts by extracurricular organizations to get students of color involved. Lydia, who is part of a district task force addressing such issues, says that teachers have said they want to do better at educating for diversity.

“There’s been a swelling of interest in these issues after the events of this summer,” says Young. “It’s good that we were ready for this moment and that we continue to move the ball forward.”