A World of Difference

By Karen Shen, Niagara Intern and Student at Northwestern


I grew up in a family that emphasized exploring diversity and experiencing cultures around the world, something that I took for granted all throughout my childhood. As a kid, I never understood why we needed to visit the empty, old temples on top of mountains that took forever to climb or the boring museums that always seemed to come with long, dull tours. Not once did I think about how unbelievably lucky I was for the opportunity to travel across the globe and appreciate the different people living in this world.

But now that I understand the purpose behind all those hikes and tours, I can start to help others embark on their own cultural exploration. Besides, what better place to discover cultures than in a city as diverse as Chicago?

When I first moved here for college, I wanted to find an organization with goals that aligned with mine, somewhere that I could continue to learn more about various cultures while giving back to people who never experienced what I experienced at such a young age. Changing Worlds fit those criteria almost to the letter, and I knew that working with them would be a great place for me to start.

Changing Worlds is a nonprofit educational arts organization that works with young students in several neighborhoods around Chicago to connect with their own backgrounds and with cultures around them to enhance their cross-cultural understanding and affirm their own cultural identity.

The people at Changing Worlds truly believe in the power of the arts to cultivate relationships between young people from many different cultures in order to improve student learning and strengthen academic skills. Not only are the programs at Changing Worlds giving these students the chance to constantly engage in artistic creativity, but they are also arming these students with tools that their own classroom curricula might not teach.

To truly gauge the lasting effect that an organization makes in their community, we need to look at the people they directly affect.  When I attended Changing Worlds’ eleventh annual benefit at the Westin Hotel in May, I mingled with some of the students in the Changing Worlds programs to hear their stories about how the organization had transformed their academic environments.

One girl in particular named Tatiyana Butler, 14, was asked to speak on stage about her experiences with Changing Worlds’ after-school hip hop dance program. Tatiyana talked about how her class learned a lot about the relationship between culture and dance. They even learned about how different “cultures have different moves… [and] what their dance moves mean.” After hearing her speak about how Changing Worlds helped her discover her love of dance, I knew that Changing Worlds was really making a difference in local communities by developing students’ appetites for the arts and harnessing that passion to further cross-cultural conversation.

Art and Music are a part of any cultural identity and help younger generations participate in cultural discovery.  However, children today are not connecting with each other through cultural exploration, despite constantly playing together on school swing sets and studying together in classrooms. Modern children are creating friendships based on what kind of video games they play or what kind of clothes they like to wear. We need to lead them in the right direction by providing gateways for them to talk about where their families come from and how they can learn more about the diverse places they live in.

At Niagara, we foster mutual respect and understanding of one another through the celebration of different cultures and religions. But cultural education through music and art, especially with younger generations is just as important. We are building the next generation of intellectuals. If we can help them engage in intercultural and interfaith dialogue from a young age, we can form a more curious and more open-minded new generation of young scholars and leaders. Maybe they can even lead our Turkey trips one day.


The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.