CultureFest 2011 creates a foundation for diversity


By Mitchell Warren, Online Editor

LeAnn Clausen’s journey to a booth in the UNO ballroom was a long time coming, but the journey was not hers alone. Hours of genealogical work, a passion for her history and a genuine interest in heritage, all championed and completed by her grandmother, are what brought her to UNO on Feb. 27.

“Grandma brought back everything but the cookies,” Clausen said about the quaint display.

Clausen’s grandmother, a Nebraskan of Swedish decent and heritage, traveled to Sweden to discover her family’s heritage and to learn a little bit about her past. Among her discoveries, she found that one of Clausen’s ancestors may have been a knight in service to the Swedish king. The kindergarten through 12th grade students visiting the booth seemed awe-struck by the trinkets presented before them.

Clausen volunteered to represent Sweden at CultureFest 2011, a new program offered by the Omaha Service Learning Academy in conjunction with Omaha Public Schools and several of the school system’s magnet locations including Beverage Middle Magnet, Crestridge Elementary Magnet and South High Magnet schools.

“This will hopefully be the first of many CultureFests,” said Kristin Hassett, a graduate assistant in the service-learning academy who helped with the culture fair. “We came together wanting to celebrate culture studies and diversity within our students.”

Hassett watched over a check in table and greeted guests as they arrived at the event to sounds of African drums, accordion melodies and laughing children. The table had “passports” sprawled along for to fill out during the fair. They received a sticker or a stamp at each of the presentations until they had experienced cultures from each of the world’s continents.

The “passports” doubled as programs that boasted all of the fair’s myriad activities. Highlights included presentations of African drumming, American Sign Language, Chinese numbers and a Chomari Ballet Folklóriko Mexicano presentation by El Museo Latino of Omaha.

Children of all ages darted around the ballroom in excitement. Colorful displays sectioned portions of the room, allowing further exploration of cultural topics and countries. Flags lined the hallway on the approach to the ballroom and the participants’ excitement could be heard from the first floor of the Milo Bail Student Center.

“We wanted different groups to show us who they are and to learn about different cultures,” Lucy Westbrook, a service learning associate, said. “[CultureFest] will show the Omaha community just how rich our culture is.”

Westbrook helped arrange CultureFest 2011 and saw value in bringing together so many different ways of life.

“The importance of diversity is beginning to understand one another despite our differences,” Westbrook said.

While the event was in full swing, she detailed how the fair took several months of articulated planning to become what it was Feb. 27. Everything represented at the fair was brought in by members of the community and from the involved schools.

“The idea came from a number of conversations,” Westbrook said. “We are trying to fulfill community needs.”

Westbrook explained that the program is part of the P-16 Initiative.  The goal of this initiative is to bridge the gap between kindergarten through 12th grade and into college at UNO through partnerships in an effort to serve the community.

The fair did indeed cater to this goal. Students from all grade levels were in attendance and many of the programs actually featured students. At one point, Beveridge Middle School students from the school’s dance company put on a show, and several pianists from South High School kicked off the day’s performances.

All three of the participating schools were part of the Omaha Public School’s dual language pathway. Each of the schools offer global studies and art studies programs to aid in their students’ educational progress.

Even after the “passports” in small hands had been filled in, the excitement of the event was hard to diminish. With a plethora of programs for students to enjoy, nobody seemed keen to slow down during the event’s proceedings.

“We hope that this will be a continued event,” Westbrook said. “The most important thing about service learning is that it is open to the community.”