Suspending students who engage in racist incidents doesn't solve the problem, the Rev. Michael Oleksa told about 100 people who gathered at Juneau-Douglas High School on Tuesday night to hear him speak about culture, prejudice and racism.
To get at the roots of prejudice, students have to hear each other's stories about their cultures, said Oleksa, pastor of the St. Alexis Mission in Anchorage.
"If we want to overcome these problems, we first of all have to trust each other and talk to each other," he said.
JDHS authorities recently suspended a student for 10 days for displaying in a school bus window a sign that was derogatory about Natives. The incident spurred discussion of a climate of anti-Native acts and attitudes in the school.
Since then, an ad hoc group, the Coalition Against Racism and Discrimination in the Systems, has met at ANB Hall to recommend how to deal with the problem. It will meet again from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
For Oleksa, a prominent Eastern Orthodox priest in Alaska who has taught courses on communicating across cultures, it's a matter of knowing your own family's stories and hearing others' stories.
Stories like that of one of Oleksa's grandfathers, who would be kicked by a horse and pick himself up and go back to shoeing the horse. Or a black slave, an ancestor of a friend of Oleksa, who cut off her hand so she wouldn't be sold and separated from her family.
Culture is the way we see the world, Oleksa said in an engaging and humorous 90-minute talk that drew on his own experiences as the product of German and Russian parents. But we don't recognize our own culture as a filter, he said.
"Your culture is the game of life as you understand and play it," Oleksa said. "... People believe that their game is the only game in town. They believe their game is right. They believe their game is righteous. People who break the rules are wrong or possibly evil. ... This is prejudice, and when it happens across racial lines, this is racism."
For Natives, attending school is having to learn another ballgame that others already know, Oleksa said. That's what makes for institutional racism, and that's why it persists even as students and staff come and go.
Oleksa's talk struck a nerve among teachers and other school staff in the audience. Truancy officer Bonnie Lanz said part of the solution is taking the time to know the students' stories.
"It's important to know the whole person, not just the academic part of the student," she said.
Teacher Laury Scandling said the school needs to find ways for small groups of students to meet with an adult once a week over four years, to break down some of the barriers in a large institution.
"What disturbs me is we have no systematic way to get kids together," she said. "... Most teachers here process five groups of 30 (students) regularly. You're breathless trying just to keep the paperwork straight, let alone get to know students."