Embracing and Celebrating Diversity Day

By Erin Vaccaro of Onondaga Community College

“All of us have a story. You never know who your story will touch and what perspective it will give them. Always share your story.”  – Terri Cook

Embracing and Celebrating Diversity Day was filled with a roller coaster of emotions, uncomfortable topics, inspirational speakers, and delicious food. LGS Class of 2017 member Andrew Weiss shared that he is “going to look at everything from today forward, differently.”

The day started at The Redhouse Arts Center on South West Street in Syracuse with a presentation from Hope for Bereaved. On August 20th, 2017, our beloved classmate and Embracing and Celebrating Diversity Day design team member, Dave Kilpatrick, passed away unexpectedly. Dave’s death hit the class hard. We don’t consider ourselves a “class” anymore, we are a family. Losing a member of our family was something that needed to be talked about. We spent time in the morning remembering Dave and learning about grief and how to deal with those feelings that are associated with losing someone in your life. Each LGS member received a bracelet in memory of Dave. There were many tears; we needed more tissues, but it felt good to all come together to remember such an amazing person and a beautiful life.

“You may have a story that may change someone’s life.” –Chris Kukenberger

As we moved through the day, we heard a unique story from each member of the Design Team. Although at first this may not have been the most popular idea while putting the day together, the Design Team really took time to think about what makes them unique, what special characteristics they have to share, or what events in their lives shaped who they are today, and shared these stories with the group throughout the day.

“It’s all about perspective, you have to listen. The only way to gain insight into yourself and others is to listen.” – Rickey Brown

Our first speaker, Rickey Brown, is the Director of the Upstate Minority Economic Alliance and the principal and founder of Diversify-NY. Rickey brought to light the need to take a look at the unconscious bias that each of us has. For example, simply greeting another individual by saying “sir” or “ma’am” or “young woman” can cause a reaction in them that you may not have considered. People may be automatically associating those words with negative judgements they have from previous experiences. People from all different cultures and different backgrounds will bring a different perspective. What do we need to know as leaders? Listening is key. You have to listen to others, give your perspective, and hear their perspective. Recognize when there may be an issue with your perspective and work to change that narrative. We need to change the narrative of Syracuse and we need to be economically inclusive of everybody.

“Be uncomfortable, open your mind, open your heart.” – Terri Cook

After reminding ourselves that we live each day with an unconscious bias toward people and/or groups of people and it is up to us to be aware of it and change it. We had the pleasure of meeting Terri Cook and Chris Kukenberger. Both individuals have stories that encompass one of the many challenging topics we hear about in the news, transgender experiences. Terri is the proud mom of a transgender child. She spoke about her wonderful, loving, energetic, and full of life son, who became a withdrawn, depressed, and lost teen. She described almost losing him at age 15. We learned that 40% of transgender people attempt suicide. She described how lost she felt and unable to help her son who couldn’t put into words what he was feeling and going through. It’s important that we change the conversation when we talk about transgender. We as a society talk about bathrooms and bodies and looks. What we have to remember is that we are talking about people.

“We all are different on the inside than what we see. We box people up, we look at age, gender, race, etc. Things that don’t fit in boxes make us feel very uncomfortable.” –Chris Kukenberger

Chris is an Associate Professor and the Coordinator of the Art History Program at Onondaga Community College. Chris is energetic, engaging, invigorating, and downright funny. He has conducted many LGBTQ and Trans* Awareness trainings for OCC students and local organizations. Chris walked us through his emotional story of never feeling like he fit in. Never feeling right in his own body. Never feeling like he was the female that his body portrayed him to be. He talked about how he couldn’t put a label on what he was feeling until he attended a seminar (to support a friend and fellow faculty member) at OCC where Terri Cook was the speaker. That day changed his life. He finally realized who he was. He finally had the ability to be himself. He finally was able to accept who he was, and began bringing awareness to those around him. Chris stated that advocacy only works if you have an audience.

Chris and Terri educated the LGS class members on Trans*101. We learned: a multitude of terms related to transgender; components of sex, gender, and sexuality; and how to be respectful of a transgender individual. We were provided with a resource guide for continuing education. The conversation ended with Chris’s profound statement, “difficulties of being transgender are compounded by the lack of awareness and acceptance into society.”

After such an emotional morning full of memories, tough topics, and moments that required the LGS class members to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, it was a breath of fresh air to walk as a team down the road on such a beautiful day to the La Casita Cultural Center located on Otisco Street in Syracuse. The Design Team treated the class to a potluck lunch featuring menu items from all different cultures including, but not limited to, Jamaican beef patties, empanadas, meatballs, sausage and onions, hummus and pita bread, falafel, and really who can forget the award winning chili, courtesy of Brian Donner!

“Living in poverty can increase your risk of both physical and mental health issues.” – Rebecca Garden

After lunch, the group settled in to hear from Rebecca Garden, an Associate Professor of Bioethics and Humanities who holds a joint appointment in Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Upstate Medical University. Rebecca started by telling her story of how she came to be where she is today, experiencing poverty, crime, abuse, and diversity. She walked us through statistics that have been a consistent narrative throughout the year during most LGS class days. Syracuse has the nation’s highest level of concentrated poverty among the black and Hispanic populations, and there are more children living in high poverty neighborhoods than adults. She challenged us to think about these statistics, understand how poverty impacts health, and be a part of the positive change that needs to happen in Syracuse.

“Stories are powerful tools to bring people together, not tear each other apart.” –Dr. Emad Rahim

To end a day of emotional stories – stories that have the opportunity to give you an incredible perspective, and stories that open your heart and mind to a diversity that you may have never experienced before – we heard from three individuals. These individuals were refugees who came to the United States to seek safety and freedom. Dr. Emad Rahim (LGS Class of 2010) was born in a concentration camp in Cambodia and lived his childhood in one of the most dangerous parts of Brooklyn, NY. He lived in poverty, struggled with gangs, drugs, abuse, and violence. His story of success and the path it took to get him there, is strong and deep.

Next we heard from Habiba Boru. Habiba entered a refugee camp in Kenya at four years old. She was separated from her grandparents and six brothers and sisters. She was living in a refugee camp for 10 years before given the opportunity to come to America. Habiba told her heartfelt story with emotion and compassion. She plans to become a nurse someday and although she was admittedly robbed of a childhood, she said “being here in America has given us an opportunity. We have a shot. You have doors here, and choices.”

The last speaker of the day was Chol-Awan Majok (LGS Class of 2016). Chol is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. He shared his story of the difficult seven years he spent with his brother in the refugee camps and his journey to Syracuse. His assimilation into the American culture, and the education he received and how he got to where he is today, is a story that is deep and incredibly impactful.


We ended our day celebrating cultural diversity. Biboti Ouikahilo teaches African dance and drumming and led the class in a lively interactive musical experience! Victoria and her 4-year-old daughter Sophia showed us the Native American art of Smoke Dancing. Although Sophia came prepared to dance, she decided she wasn’t ready to dance in front of the crowd and forced mom, the award winning Native American Smoke Dancer, to showcase her skills to the class. She also talked about the Native American dance and culture. Lastly, we met Daria Medicis (LGS Class of 2014). Daria wasn’t joking when she said she wanted full participation! She walked the LGS crew through basic salsa steps, paired us up, and asked us dance and sweat. It was a perfect end to the day. It was a day of tears, laughter, memories, opening of our hearts and our minds, and embracing and celebrating the diversity that lives all around us and WITHIN each one of us.