Retired professional basketball player and former Arkansas Razorback Sidney Moncrief and his wife, Takisha Moncrief, visited Southeast Arkansas during a state tour recently with their diversity and inclusion initiative dubbed “We Are One.”

This University of Arkansas-sponsored initiative focuses on bringing topics like diversity, gender acceptance and stereotypes to the forefront of conversations with ninth grade students.

“We try to get kids from different schools, different environments and bring them together for engagement, fun and activities,” Sidney Moncrief said. “Diversity and inclusion are all about the amount of engagement that people have with one another, and it goes beyond just giving people information. You have to give them an experience.”

He said the initiative targets ninth grade students because they are more receptive of the message and can apply the things they learn from the exercises to real-life situations. Students from White Hall High School, Star City High School and Watson Chapel High School participated in the training.

Moncrief said this is the first year for the We Are One Initiative. So far, they have visited Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas and Jonesboro, with plans to have a large summer retreat that brings students from all over Arkansas together.

“We need more students,” Moncrief said. “This initiative is so needed, and in this region, the schools are so segregated, other than White Hall. The school districts are so segregated. It’s the same way in Little Rock. We don’t have private schools involved, so we don’t really get the experience we are seeking. We are seeking people from different races with different social and economic backgrounds. In Little Rock, we had Asians and a transgender person, so that’s why we want to have this discussion.”

One of the interactive exercises that the students participated in was creating a diversity poster that explained the differences between races, genders and cultures. One group of students drew a globe that showed the differences in culture and clothing from people in different parts of the world.

When describing the southern region of the world, one student said: “In the south, we wear cowboy hats.”

Moncrief then asked the students to raise their hands if they owned a cowboy hat. Not many did. He used the student’s drawing to explain stereotypes and the importance of dispelling them.

“I always like to tell the story of when I lived in Georgetown,” he said. “One summer we went to San Diego, California, and we were talking to some guys and they asked me where I was from ... when I told him I was from Arkansas, the guy said, ‘You can’t be from Arkansas because you have shoes on.’ That was his comment, because he was from California, and when you see things on TV or in the media, if you’re from the south or Arkansas, you were considered country and barefoot.”

To help the students understand how to dispel stereotypes, they were asked to write statements about who they are, then another statement that is contrary to a common stereotype related to the first statement.

They then discussed the stereotypes and places they may see the stereotype being perpetuated. They uncovered stereotypes such as young black males often being misconceived as thieves when shopping in department stores, and the stereotype that all Hispanics like spicy foods. Moncrief encouraged the students to use filters when consuming information that is presented in the media.

“Remember, the media’s responsibility — social media included — is to give you information that’s going to influence how you think. Propaganda,” Moncrief said.

Moncrief then pointed at three different students from three different ethnicities and gave them the example that they all could get arrested for shoplifting. He explained that the media will make the decision of which person they will show on television. He asked the students which student would be picked and why. He then explained how something as simple as editing a story can shape the public’s opinion of a person or situation.

“When you start getting all of these messages from social media, make sure that you have your filter on high,” Moncrief said. “The question you need to ask is ‘what are they trying to get me to think?’ If I watch Fox news, CNN news or CNBC news, I always ask myself what their motive is.”

In addition to diversity relations, the students participated in an exercise where they modeled a proper handshake and learned the do’s and don’ts for body language when meeting someone for the first time. Moncrief also set up a mock interview to demonstrate the power of making a good first impression and using the power of observation to gain talking points during an interview.

Sylvia Grady, one of the activity facilitators, said it’s about having a conversation with the students and showing that although they are all different, they are all of one together.

Gerry Harris, a ninth grader at Watson Chapel, said he’s glad he participated in the program.

“I’ve learned a lot about people and how to greet people and just everybody’s feelings towards stereotypes,” Harris said. “I believe that it’s actually going to help us in the long run when meeting new people.”