Schools statewide attend 12th annual multicultural conference in Kennett

Staff photo by Wm. Shawn Weigel: Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, left, talks about her life experiences at the 12th annual Multicultural Diversity Conference at Kennett High School on Saturday. She is joined on stage by, from left, Kennett superintendent Barry Tomasetti and KHS vice-principal and conference founder Ray Fernandez.

On Saturday morning, hundreds of students from throughout the state crowded into the Kennett High School auditorium to celebrate diversity in the district that openly embraces the concept.

Twelve years after he started the Multi-Cultural Diversity conference, KHS assistant principal Ray Fernandez said he feels great that the event continues to attract attention on a day when most kids would prefer to stay away from school.

“It’s great that they’re interested in having these kinds of discussions,” Fernandez said. “It feels really good that this is something that is still important to a lot of the kids.”

The day features a variety of different workshops held in two separate sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – with a multi-ethnic luncheon between and a massive talent show at the end.

The workshops focus on issues of diversity in the workplace, home and a variety of other social situations, developed in tandem with the workshop hosts that volunteer their time for the conference.

Those volunteers, Fernandez said, come to him in a variety of ways, mostly through recommendations and random circumstances.

“We’re really proud of the group we have here this year,” Fernandez said. “And not only that, the topics they’re going to talk about are pretty key.”

This year’s workshops included: “Diversity and Recruitment in Law Enforcement,” with State Police Tpr. Leo Becerra;“ Becoming a Diverse Entrepreneur in our Diverse Society,” with Havertown insurance agent Jacob Gray; and “Who Defines You,” with Trexler Middle School assistant principal Ferdinand Surita, among others.

The program also featured a talk with former Philadelphia Daily News writer Mann Frisby on “Benefits of Diversity in School and Community,” and from Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who was the event’s keynote speaker.

Quinones-Sanchez became the first Puerto Rican Latina to be elected to district city council in 2008, winning with an overwhelming 8 percent of the vote via an aggressive grassroots campaign. Her popularity has led her to a second four-year term starting in 2012.

A graduate of nearby Lincoln University, Quinones-Sanchez said her visit to Kennett Square felt like coming home – she even had a mushroom story to share while she was in the Mushroom Capital of the World about the smell Chester County residents all come to know.

In her address, Quinones-Sanchez also spoke candidly about her life as a child of migrant working parents, because, she reflected, “it’s an American journey. And hopefully, my words will transcend and you will some of my experience and my journey in your lives – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the mushrooms.”

Quinones-Sanchez spoke about the brutal and often lonely conditions her father left home to work under in south New Jersey – conditions that he ultimately turned to alcohol to escape from.

Quinones-Sanchez said her parents wound up separating when they were finally reunited in Philadelphia years later.

It was a situation that appeared so frequently in her work with the Puerto Rican Affairs Administration that when asked by town mayors what they should do with their migrant workers, her response was always “affordable housing.”

“They would look at me like I was crazy, and I said, ‘If their families come, they have no time to get in trouble,’” she said. “If their family is here, they feel better about who they are and the work that they do.”

She also spoke about the balance in her life between activism and public service, and how the two together sometimes put her in hot water.

“Some people may say that I speak up too much,” she said. “Some people may say I’m a little too passionate.”

Saturday’s conference attracted schools from as close by as Oxford and Avon-Grove, and from as far away as Allentown and Milton Hershey, with many others from in between, including York, Philadelphia and Coatesville.

Quinones-Sanchez urged the students to look at the people around them today and ask about the roles they will play in their lives – not just now, but for years to come.

She also asked them to be sure to capture the many opportunities that will present themselves in their developing years.

“How are you going to use today’s information to set on that pathway that you’re about to travel?” She said.