A seventh- grade student sits next to a laptop at the end of a long conference table located inside the front office at Sarasota Middle School. At the other end sit four judges waiting for this student to cue up and play her National History Day documentary. I am one of the four, all of us community members asked to serve as judges by Dr. Jennifer Jaso, U.S. History teacher. The student beams with pride and excitement as she plays her documentary outlining the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act and how differently abled people have struggled to overcome barriers that have kept them from participating fully in society. For the National History Day competition this year, students grappled with the theme of Breaking Barriers by considering all the potential definitions of the word barriers and fully exploring all the potential types of barriers that humans might have experienced throughout history. As the student’s video begins to play, the girl sits back in the chair, relieved and satisfied that we are fully engaged and enthralled with her topic and her approach.
The range of topics these National History Day students chose to research reveals their thoughtful and deliberate reflection on the concept of breaking barriers. These students recognized the importance of showcasing the remarkable diversity of experiences and perceptions in our society. They didn’t choose to only focus their lenses on the typical or obvious groups or ideas. Instead, they provided a model for all of us to follow that diversity is not just about color. Diversity is about what makes us unique, special, noteworthy, and most importantly, human.
A variety of human experiences were portrayed within these presentations. One student group profiled Katherine Johnson who broke racial and gender barriers as a female African American mathematician who worked for NASA. The two girls emphasized the remarkable ability of Katherine Johnson to persist against daunting racial and gender discrimination to provide NASA with critical assistance that made the first manned spaceflight possible.
Another student examined how the art of animation has overcome the barrier of being perceived, initially, as a frivolous art form. This student shared the humble origins of animation, underestimated by the entertainment world, that has since expanded and developed into a worldwide, multi-billion-dollar phenomenon that appeals to all ages. This student’s presentation enthralled us with a variety of clips from animated films from all over the world.
Still another project shared the story of Jane Goodall. The girls who presented this documentary explained not only the difficulty that Jane experienced in being taken seriously as a female primatologist, but also as a person who was asserting that animals have feelings that made them closer to humans than anyone previously had wanted to believe. The girls wore matching green t-shirts adorned with monkeys in homage to the Jane Goodall Institute. Their admiration and passion toward Jane Goodall was inspiring.
And of course, there was the student presenting her research about the Americans with Disabilities Act who emphasized how long it took the United States government to pass this valuable and substantial civil rights legislation that protects and provides for differently abled individuals. This student interviewed her aunt who suffered from polio as a child and is now confined to a wheelchair.
The students’ authenticity in sharing their topics revealed their keen awareness of the diversity of experiences that exists among us as humans and the vital need to share these experiences.
Just like these young people, more and more, organizations in our community, like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, are recognizing and shining a light on the significance of reflecting on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In fact, just this week our CEO Roxie Jerde got an opportunity to speak at Sarasota Magazine’s 10th Annual Unity Awards that recognized individuals in our community that have bridged divides across racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, and physical and mental ability groups.
Getting to be a part of such worthy endeavors like the National History Day competition and the Unity Awards emphasizes the necessity that all of us have to thoughtfully and deliberately recognize and celebrate the diversity around us. These National History Day contestants and the recipients of the Unity Awards remind us all to be cognizant that what makes us human are our unique characteristics, beliefs, and passions that combined make us a richer and better together.