A conversation about diversity during a third-grade Spanish class at Ypsilanti International Elementary School
(YIES) last year was the catalyst for a new welcome billboard in downtown Ypsilanti on Huron Street, near Ypsi Hardware and Go! Ice Cream.
The new billboard says "Ypsilanti Welcomes You" and features the word "welcome" in English and seven other languages, including a Native American language, Spanish, and Mandarin. Some of the YIES pupils who created the sign are pictured on the billboard as well.
Celeste Green has been offering Spanish lessons to elementary-school children for about 20 years through her business, Spanish for Kids,
and has been contracted to provide services at YIES since 2016. She says that, during one lesson, then-third-grader Ivie Mangrum (now 10 years old and in fourth grade) made a remark during a Zoom lesson that led to the billboard 10 months later.
"We said there weren't a lot of signs in different languages in Ypsilanti," Mangrum says. "It didn't look like we were welcoming people. So we talked about that and thought we should do something about it."
Green immediately said, "You're right," and promised to reach out to city officials. The initial idea was for banner signs on light poles, much like the Eastern Michigan University signs posted around the city. Green ended up pitching the idea to the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority
"But they said, 'Hey, we have a billboard we specifically want to use to send messages to the community,'" Green says. "They loved the idea. They thought it'd be great to have students send a message to the larger community that we want the whole community to know we welcome you here in Ypsilanti."
The process took nearly 10 months, including attending municipal meetings and gathering student input on the design. Pupils did research about the most commonly spoken languages in Ypsilanti. They were aided by teachers and staff including art teacher Kathy Fisk and third-grade homeroom teacher Aimee McVay.
"There were a lot of languages, some of them I had never even seen before. It was so cool," Mangrum says.
The word "Ypsilanti" is made up of a photo collage of landmarks around Ypsilanti, from restaurants, schools, and parks to the Ypsilanti Water Tower. The word "Welcome" is painted in rainbow colors to represent the LGBTQ community. And the word "You" is painted in a variety of skin tones, from light to dark.
"One of our students made the period in the exclamation point into a heart to show we love you," Green says.
Green says she feels the billboard and the process behind it shows that "if we embrace people and work together, great things can happen."
"One little conversation with a third-grader has sent a huge message to the whole community," Green says. "One of the things we talk about at YIES is if you see something that's a problem, you should try to take some action. If this is not an example of seeing something and taking action, I don't know what is."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.