Ken Blaisdell at the podium and Josh Kennison in the background. Submitted photo

DIXFIELD — Students at Dirigo High School and T.W. Kelly Dirigo Middle School returned to school following Martin Luther King Day to enjoy guest speakers, breakout sessions and activities as part of Dirigo Diversity Day.

Developed at the recommendation of the RSU 56 School Board Ad Hoc Committee on Civil Rights, Dirigo Diversity Day was an updated version of the Diversity Day programs from the days when Dixfield, Canton, Carthage and Peru were part of the old MSAD 21. Although portions of the day were interrupted by the 01/16/24 snow storm, students and staff reported the special event as a success.

The day’s theme at Dirigo High School was “Building Empathy and Understanding Biases.” The day began with a keynote address by International Paralympic medalist and motivational speaker Joshua Kennison alongside the inspirational veteran Kenneth Blaisdell from Operation Reboot.

Blaisdell, a bilateral amputee, shared his personal story and laid out a challenge to the students to “dismantle the barriers of discrimination, embrace diversity, and celebrate the unique stories that each of us carries.” Kennison, a quadruple amputee born without a tongue and missing a section of his jaw, spoke at length about the importance of perseverance and how hard work and determination led to his success as a professional athlete, father, and person.

Panelists at TWKDMS talking about experiences in China, Brazil, Israel, Japan and Vietnam. Submitted photo

Following the assembly, Dirigo High School students had the opportunity to attend breakout sessions offered by 14 different guest speakers and organizations including: Seeds of Peace, Larry Labonte Recovery Center, the Penobscot Nation, the Disabilities Rights Center of Maine, the Maine Council on Aging, the River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition, as well as other educators and international exchange students. Even more groups were invited, but unable to attend due to the anticipated weather conditions.

The theme at T. W. Kelly Dirigo Middle School was “Respect and Enrichment.” Following a homeroom activity celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, students attended an assembly presented by Alexandra Magnaud from the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC). Magnaud shared a formal program addressing “the rise of hate speech and symbols in schools and communities.”


According to a letter sent home to parents before the event by Principal Jason Long, there has been a “rise in hate speech by students over the past two years… [and] about 10% of all major office referrals” this year have involved some form of a civil rights violation, “usually in the form of name-calling and slurs.”
The HHRC “Hate Speech in Schools” program discussed “how hate never ends with words and symbols, but rather how words and symbols are the beginning of a process that, if not confronted, can lead to violence, social upheaval, and ultimately genocide.” Students were highly engaged during the serious program.

Following the 45-minute presentation, students entered into homerooms for a discussion and activity about what they have observed in their school community regarding hate speech. All students will follow up on this conversation over the next week using a Restorative Circle with questions crafted by the middle school’s Civil Rights Team and a framework provided to the school by Restorative Practices consultant George Conant from Restorative Practices of Maine.

After the assembly, students were given a choice to participate in either a second training session by the HHRC entitled “Speak Up at School” or a panel discussion with six staff members discussing their experiences living, working, volunteering, or traveling abroad. Unfortunately, it was around this time when buses began warming up to bring students home for an early release due to the incoming snow storm.

According to Principal Long, “We were very lucky that a few of our guests and partners were willing and able to return and finish some of our key elements later in the week.” Whereas the message on Tuesday focused on respect and understanding the dangers of hate speech, the aim of the second half of the program was to inspire students to see how embracing diversity will enrich their lives.

Region 9 Culinary Art students talking with TWKDMS students about the multicultural food they had researched and prepared. Submitted photo

The middle school’s second day kicked off on Thursday, January 18, with Kennison and Blaisdell sharing similar messages as they had at Dirigo High School on Tuesday. In addition, Blaisdell shared about his outdoors adventures and Kennison played some basketball with 8th grade students in front of a cheering crowd.

For lunches, the RSU 56 Nutrition Department prepared an exceptional array of international dishes for students to try: Chicken Shwarma, African Chicken Stew, Chana Masala, Korean BBQ Chicken, and more. As if that was not enough, the TWKDMS Parent-Teacher Organization hired the Region 9 Culinary Arts program to cater three special and authentic dishes: Japanese Soba Noodle Salad, Brazilian Five Meat Kibe in a Pili Pili cause, and a Moracan Honey-Pistachio Briouat. All of the food was a hit.

According to Region 9’s Chef Rachel Robinson, her students “were both honored and excited” by the challenge to be part of the Diversity Day celebration. During the meal, middle school students worked with the Region 9 Culinary Arts students to complete a “multicultural culinary bingo” with the hope of winning free dance tickets for the upcoming Student Council Dance in early February.

Later in the day, students were invited to join Philip and Marlene Ramu, dual U.S. and Israeli citizens, to learn more about Israel and try some authentic offerings such as labneh (a middle eastern yogurt), pita and hummus. 8th grade student James Rangel described the presentation as “really awesome.”

Superintendent and High School Principal Pam Doyen spoke highly of the full event spanning the two schools and shared with the school board some of the compliments paid by the staff, students and guests regarding the successful day. It is expected that Dirigo Diversity Day will return next year as part of the district’s mission to develop “purpose-filled, skilled and informed members of the local and global communities.”

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