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South St. Paul Secondary receives 2019 Cultural Jambalaya Diversity Award celebrating student affinity groups and staff advisors

Photo collage of students and teachers attending the Cultural Jambalaya gala Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 — South St. Paul (SSP) Secondary School’s affinity groups and their faculty advisors were recently honored at an event last night as a 2019 Cultural Jambalaya Diversity Award. The award honors those who have made a positive difference by advancing multiculturalism and ethnic diversity in their Minnesota communities. SSP was recognized for promoting conversations around the school’s increasingly diverse student population. 

“I am proud to be the principal of a school that values and encourages students to use their voice to help lead and educate others,” said Chuck Ochoki, SSP Secondary principal. “Our affinity groups and the staff that support them have helped make SSP Secondary and the entire South St. Paul community stronger.”

In selecting the Diversity Award recipients, a panel of independent judges evaluated the nominees’ impact, the creativity of their approach and the passion of their voice. The winners were honored at Cultural Jambalaya’s annual gala on Thursday, Oct. 3. While the award technically honors the staff advisors of the school’s four affinity groups, the staff honorees are quick to note that this award is really about the students and the collective work they have done to help create a more equitable and inclusive school community. 

The affinity groupsBlack Pride Organization (BPO), Comunidad de Latinos Unidos (CDLU), Women’s Society, and Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) — represent secondary students from different backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in the community. According to the award nomination, the faculty “took their students’ experiences of being marginalized and repurposed them into a source of energy for positive change. Their collective work has provided a space where the students and the community are further educated on equity and multiculturalism, and where students’ experiences in advocacy and leadership prepare them for their lives as active citizens.”

CDLU was the first group to organize back in 2016 after staff were approached by a group of students who felt an urgency to discuss cultural issues and who wanted to take an active role in responding to concerns and educating their peers. Soon after the formation of CDLU, other student populations followed in organizing, resulting in the four active affinity groups today. 

The groups have made strides, both individually and collectively, in advancing multiculturalism both inside the school and out in the community where they’ve hosted a variety of community events and discussions. For example, Women’s Society and BPO teamed up for a viewing of the movie Hidden Figures that included a reflection on the intersection of race and gender in the community. CDLU and BPO annually host a Professionals of Color Career Panel where students and families are able to hear from and interact with professionals who have experienced many of the unique challenges that current students of color face in education and the workplace. The groups also celebrate the histories of their respective cultures throughout the school year, embedding information within daily trivia or games centered around figures and events that are important to various populations. And groups have even done takeovers of the district’s Instagram account to help engage other students, parents and community members. But the staff advisors and student participants say that the most important outcome of the formation of the affinity groups is how each group has created a space that celebrates the diversity that exists in South St. Paul. 

Thanks to the generous support of the South St. Paul Educational Foundation, nearly a dozen SSP Secondary students, representing each of the affinity groups, were able join their staff advisors at the Cultural Jambalaya Diversity Awards Gala on Thursday night in Golden Valley. Jess Davis, SSP math teacher, BPO advisor and 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, accepted the award on behalf of the four affinity groups and their respective advisors. In her remarks, Davis commented on the shared motto of the groups: #EveryVoice Matters. 

“We know that making all voices heard is an active pursuit, and that is because true equity is deliberate,” Davis said. “We cannot ignore issues related to race, culture, gender, and sexuality. They present obstacles to our students every day, and the only antidote is for us to step up and support them.”