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Global ambassador wins award


Rudy Dirks, curator of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Art Gallery

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March 14, 2008
- Dan Dyck

WINNIPEG, Man. — Visual artist Ray Dirks has become a recognized global ambassador to local school students. On Feb. 25 Dirks won the 2008 TEAL (Teachers of English as an Additional Language) award. Through the visual arts, he works to bring global perspectives to local people.

It all began when Dirks, curator of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Art Gallery (Winnipeg) and accomplished world traveler was invited to “to help instill confidence” in English as an Additional Language (EAL) students at Gordon Bell high school in Winnipeg’s core area in 1997.

The Gordon Bell experience led Dirks to invite students to the gallery and meet guest artists from Africa who served as role models. “Eventually, we had a core group of EAL students come to the gallery on a regular basis after school to work on art related projects,” said Dirks. Today, Dirks spends about three to four weeks each year in classrooms, adjusting his presentations to appeal to varying audiences and age groups.

His core message to kids remains consistent. “I talk a lot about cultural and religious differences, differences that result from material wealth or lack thereof and that we all have things we can learn from each other. Many differences are neither right nor wrong. We should get to know each other and understand our differences rather than fear them.” A typical Dirks presentation moves briskly, using still images, video clips, and music.

His affable presentation style is clearly making a positive impact, according to teachers, who consistently remind Dirks that no one else is doing what he does. And since schools – teachers, administration, and students included – are becoming increasingly multicultural and multi-faith, they need to hear what he is saying. “Mainstream kids often say they never knew there were positive stories to tell about Africa,” says Dirks. “African and other refugees and newly arrived students say the presentations make them feel proud to be who they are.”

Dr. Kim Hewlett is an EAL teacher at Shaftesbury High School. She nominated Dirks for the TEAL award, and wrote the following note of appreciation following a Dirks visit to her school: “His philosophy is to teach students the importance of caring for people, to respect cultures, and to learn from different countries… He immediately creates an inclusive atmosphere enabling EAL students to share their thoughts and feelings…The impression he left with my EAL students and with the World Issues class is profound.”

The feedback Dirks gets from students also affirms his message. Anuoluwapo Okunnu, a Nigerian born grade six student wrote to Dirks after a presentation. “… as soon as you left people started seeing things at a different angle and seeing each separate country as both unique and different in its own way instead of being one continent where everything was the same. I’m very glad you came because you opened a new window of understanding that we would likely not have ever known. I’m very happy you chose to do this, thanks again from the bottom of my heart.”

Dirks doesn’t often know the impact of his work until afterward. At a recent presentation, a young Muslim high school student from Sudan talked with Dirks until the bell pulled the eager pupil to his next class. “Later, two teachers came to me and said they’d never seen that kid acting like that before – chatty, friendly, respectful. They said he was the biggest problem kid in the school.”

Dirks is modest about the commendations. “I’m just doing what I love to do and what I sincerely feel called to do. I’m not much good at anything else. But I can tell stories, take photographs, get close to people I stay with overseas and come back here and try to make connections, create awareness and make kids feel good about themselves. And I think that is even more important now than in the past because the world is shrinking, the world is now in Winnipeg, not just out there somewhere.”