Harris first interacted with the students in his new role when speaking with the Superintendent Student Advisory Board. “Do you think this can work?” he asked the group, and he spent the hour listening to them talk about their experiences with diversity in Portage. While most were optimistic and hopeful, one student couldn’t deny their troubling experiences with the real world. Senior SSAB member Khadijah Siddiqui recounted the moment: “Mr. Harris asked if students believed his plan could work, and I felt like I should say yes, but something inside made me hesitate,” she said. “I am usually a positive and optimistic person, so I was startled by my hesitation and tried to work through why I felt this way.”
Siddiqui’s initial fear is rooted in the world around her and how society has treated women like her who celebrate their culture and hijab. “The fact of the matter is that these battles of equity, diversity, and inclusion are currently being fought at prestigious universities and at workplaces,” she said. “I know that my parents and many other adults currently face microaggressions and are not given well-deserved opportunities in their workplace even after years of education.”
While she wanted to be optimistic, the truth of the real adult world ahead left her uncharacteristically concerned. In the conversation that followed, many within the meeting realized people are quick to assume that change is possible without considering the real world circumstances. “I was thinking that if changes are not being made at these universities or for highly educated professionals, then what chance does a majority white, small-town public school have. It felt naive and overly optimistic,” she said.
As the meeting progressed, Siddiqui became increasingly optimistic that Harris’ work was possible in Portage. The turning point? He not only recognized that she wore hijab, he also pronounced it correctly and without hesitation. “The reason I felt hope was because I realized that just having someone properly address my headscarf brought a smile to my face,” she said. “If just a little bit of education enlightens students at Portage Schools, it could make for a more inclusive and understanding group of individuals. I was so focused on the bigger problem, but was thinking maybe these small steps of celebrating each other’s cultures and religions are what we need to start with.” Siddiqui now had hope that more adults and leaders in the community can recognize and embrace more cultures.