Colleen Manning is a 16-year-old sophomore in the Co-Existence Club at Riverview High. She doesn’t yet have her driver’s license, so she was dropped off at Island Park promptly at 8:10 a.m. (school usually starts at 7:30 a.m.). She’s donning neon sneakers, a McDonald’s coffee cup and a bright-teal T-shirt emblazoned with “Docent.”
Manning is one of 120 Riverview High School students assigned to lead elementary-, middle- and high-school students through the Embracing Our Differences billboard-style, juried public-art display. This is just one day of almost daily docent tours throughout the exhibit, which takes place through June 2 — more than 15,000 students will view the exhibit at three locations. The other exhibits are at Bradenton Riverwalk and in North Port.
It’s Manning’s first time as a docent, and she’s the first to arrive.
“They said to get here at 8:15 a.m., but I guess I missed the memo,” she says with a grin.
Manning is excited. She even had to take her pre-calculus test one day early because she’d be missing it, along with the rest of her classes, that day. But she’s not in it to play hooky.
“It’s a really cool program,” she says. “It’s important for kids to know that even if we don’t look the same that we’re all one.”
The docent program is Riverview’s Co-Existence Club’s annual big event. In fact, the teacher in charge of the club, Dena Sturm, says it’s the reason the club began five years ago when it was just 12 students; now more than 200 students participate.
The docents lead other students through the exhibit and prompt what they see and what they think each image means — the topics range from bullying to body image.
“I think students spend their whole lives being talked at and told things from an adult perspective,” Sturm says. “And, for students to hear from other students, the youth perspective on these topics is just so much more poignant and so much more endearing.”
The students agree.
About 15 minutes after Manning arrived, docents Matt Battles and Chelsea Meric arrive. These two students helped select the local, national and international art from artists from Sarasota to Iran shown in the exhibit. Both are officers in the Co-Existence Club.
Meric is 16, and this is her second year as a docent and second time docenting this year — because of the number of docents, most students only participate one day of the event.
She explains that each Riverview docent can be responsible for leading 20 to 50 kids around the exhibit.
“First, we ask them what they see in each image,” she says. “Sometimes they point out the obvious, and sometimes they see something that maybe even I don’t see.”
Battles, 18, nods his head in agreement.
“Last year, there was one poster that dealt with a scene with family issues,” he says (it featured a parent ignoring his child). “Different kids could identify with it.”
Battles was surprised by the amount of art coming out of Iran.
“That makes an impact on me,” he says. “The lengths people will go to for their cause — we don’t see that in our country where we have freedoms.”
Battles thinks that, although both the docents and the artwork can impact the students, the exhibition’s presence at a community park has more of an impact. Battles believes it teaches community members a lesson they might not get otherwise: to respect everyone, even if they are different.
“I feel like a lot of schools already understand the themes it deals with,” he says. “Even if it’s not about changing the students’ perspectives, it’s about community members seeing us lead the other students around in a public park.”
His conclusion is the same as the exhibit’s mission: Everyone could benefit from a little more tolerance.
IF YOU GO
Embracing Our Differences
When: Dawn until dusk from March 31 through June 2
Where: Sarasota’s Island Park, One Marina Plaza
Info: Visit embracingourdifferences.org for more information and other locations
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