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Diversity is our Strength

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- I learned early in life that diversity equals strength. I attended Robert E. Lamberton public school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the age of 10. While Lamberton had a reputation as a good academic school, diversity of the student body is what made it special.

Lamberton was one of the few public schools in Philadelphia that accommodated children in grades Kindergarten through 12th. In addition to being diverse across age-groups, Lamberton was far more racially and ethnically diverse than most Philadelphia schools at that time. The student body was racially integrated at about 45 percent white, 40 percent black and 15 percent from various other ethnic groups. Considering my previous student population, which was close to 100 percent black students, the transfer to Lamberton became a life altering experience.

I will never forget the first bus ride. The closer we got to school, the more I'd notice students getting on the bus who did not look like me. When we got to the final bus stop, students of all ages, color and shades headed toward the school. For me, it was surreal. For the students who had already been attending this school, it was just another day.

I would later discover that we were even more diverse. For example some of the black students who I thought looked like me, actually came from vastly different cultures. Many of these students had family who grew up in France, the Caribbean and Africa. The same was true with the white students. The more I learned about each group of students, the more I was intrigued about our cultural differences. Many, if not all of the white students had a strong sense of their cultural heritages. They all lived in neighborhoods with strong identities in Italian, Irish, Polish and even Jewish-American roots. Some of their parents or grandparents were first generation Americans who did not even speak English.

Lamberton was not a melting pot of cultures, but rather a mixed salad bowl. Most of us came and went back to home environments that were much less culturally diverse than the school we all attended. We brought our strong cultures to school each day. We celebrated, discussed and worked through our commonalities and differences at a personal level. Like most other students throughout the country, we played sports, dated, hung out and attended each other's birthday parties. Even though there were race- related issues at times, we worked through them with meaningful dialogue and learned life lessons in the process. The Lamberton experience better prepared each of us for graduation and the realities of life.

In the U.S. Military, we learn starting in basic training to use this same comprising position in order to trust Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marines next to us. We know that the success of the mission and getting home alive is a product of how well we work together. Intuitively we know it is in everyone's interest to share and learn about other cultural backgrounds. In doing so, we strengthen the relationships that make us the best Armed Forces in the world.

February is Black History month. More than ever, there are many programs and events for people to take part in learning and sharing the African American heritage. We are blessed to have an incredible group of men and women who serve from all backgrounds and it is our diversity where we gain our strength.