CAMAS — Brenton Riddle wants students from all backgrounds to feel welcome at Camas High School, and he thinks the way to accomplish that is through awareness.
“Awareness is the first step to acceptance,” said the Camas High School senior. “You can’t accept something you don’t know is there.”
That’s a big reason why Riddle, 17, wanted to create a spirit week at the school to honor diverse student groups. He reached out to a few organizations and came up with Acceptance Week, which took place Feb. 13-17.
Each day of the week was sponsored by a different student group, and all the groups had information booths during lunch and a meeting after school. Monday was sponsored by the International Club, the Gay-Straight Alliance took over on Tuesday, the International Human Rights Club sponsored Wednesday, Thursday went to the Muslim Student Association and Friday was a day for unity, when students were asked to wear white and write letters to a senator.
Each day, students were asked to wear a different color. The Muslim Student Association gave out henna tattoos during lunch on Thursday, and on Friday night, there was a screening of “Call Me Kuchu,” a documentary chronicling the struggle of the LGBT community in Uganda. The organizations collected money at the screening to donate to the Q Center in Portland, a nonprofit that works with the LGBTQ community.
“People are part of more than one community,” said Riddle, who is president of the Gay-Straight Alliance. “We wanted to incorporate more than one group.”
That idea also played into the theme of the week. When talking to student leaders from other organizations, Riddle said, he asked them to focus on intersectionality during their meetings throughout the week. Intersectionality is how discrimination and oppression aimed at different social characteristics, such as gender, sexual orientation and class, can overlap and intersect.
“Social progress can’t be made if we’re looking at just one thing,” Riddle said.
Junior Trent Vallejo, another member of the Gay-Straight Alliance who helped organize Acceptance Week, said the afterschool meetings all had higher attendance numbers than usual.
“There was a lot more discussion,” Vallejo, 17, said. “Some people who don’t normally attend, or people who don’t always speak at the meetings, were talking.”
Vallejo said the goal for the week was to help unify the student body more.
Riddle said the idea wasn’t to push a liberal agenda during the week.
“It was about acceptance,” he said.
He invited a Christian student organization to participate in the week, but never heard back.
The hope for Riddle is that Acceptance Week will continue on after he graduates, and Vallejo said he intends to keep it going next year. He also said he hopes the different student groups continue to work together.
“I’m happy to see these groups support each other,” Camas High School Principal Steve Marshall said. “I think other times, they can feel kind of alone. With this, they can see they’re not alone. I think they feel a little more capable of relaying a positive message now.”
Marshall said after word of Acceptance Week started going around, he fielded a “handful” of calls from parents and students, some of whom were curious and others of whom “were more emotional” about the week. He said a few of the calls asked if the school’s allowing the week meant they were endorsing the beliefs of the organizations, essentially saying any other beliefs were wrong.
“We’re endorsing students’ leadership,” Marshall said. “It was about empowering them with a platform to relay a message.”
Marshall, who has been principal at Camas High School for nine years, said he thinks students throughout the last decade have been getting more interested in issues outside of the classroom. Part of that, he thinks, could be a growing student body, and one that is becoming more diverse.
“The students are noticing a lack of awareness, in their eyes, and called attention to it,” Marshall said. “They didn’t approach us in an adversarial way. They didn’t approach it in a ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ way. They were very respectful.”