Finding a voice for speaking up, speaking out and embracing differences
Earlier this year, amidst a storm of media attention they never asked for, local residents and business owners Adrian and Lori Iraola’s daughter shared this quote: “Every storm runs out of rain.” Now, they are standing strong as parents and community members more determined than ever to speak against racism and urging others to do the same.
The reality of racism
Adrian Iraola was the target of a racially charged comment at a February 3 Saline community meeting. A video of the incident went viral and in the immediate aftermath, it brought the Iraolas, along with the town of Saline and the Saline School District, into the international spotlight. Beyond the glare of cameras, social media posts and the viral video, are real people with real questions about what to do about racism and discrimination and how to address it in our community.
The Iraolas explain there is no easy answer but “first and foremost, we owe each other respect and tolerance,” Adrian said. The couple speaks from the heart and from experience, as parents and community members. Adrian, who immigrated from Mexico in the 1980s, married his wife, Lori, an Ann Arbor native, and the couple has three children in their twenties. All of the children attended Saline Area Schools and the couple coached soccer in Saline for years. Lori Iraola is the equestrian coach for Saline Middle and High School and the couple runs three popular Mexican restaurants in the area, all named Chela’s Restaurant & Taqueria.
The Iraolas simply intended to show support for minority students who had been the target of racist comments through social media when they attended the February meeting. Adrian Iraola spoke that night, highlighting the struggles with racism his own now adult children had experienced when they attended school in the Saline District years ago, to illustrate that racism and bullying are not a new problem.
The couple and many in the room were shocked when another parent asked Adrian Iraola why he didn’t “stay in Mexico.” The comment drew an immediate rebuke from the audience but also illustrated the underlying attitudes that contribute to bigotry, not just in Saline, but across the United States. “We know that there’s a lot of ugliness in the world,” Lori Iraola said, “but when it’s sitting right behind you and it’s so bold as to as to say something that ugly in front of a group of parents and educators that are there to facilitate a meeting for diversity and inclusion in Saline Schools…we were just shocked.”
Both Adrian and Lori say racism has been a continuing problem in the school system and Saline is not unique in that regard. “Saline is a wonderful town, and I want to underline that,” Adrian said. “Saline is a wonderful city with a great educational system. It was really unfortunate that Saline was put in the spotlight for a racist incident because that’s not what Saline is about.” Lori relates that the couple’s children made lifelong friends in the community “but the racist comments hurt. And what we’ve seen is that they continue to hurt students.”
So what can, and what should parents do, especially if their children become the target of racism or bullying?
“The message is to speak up,” says Adrian Iraola. “Talk to people in authority. Let them know that this is not okay. Nobody has the right to bully you. Talk to your teacher. Talk to the person in charge. Let them know that this bothers you. Perhaps people don’t know that they are saying something mean or using the wrong adjective.”
In retrospect, Lori said, although they did talk to the school when their children had issues, she wished they had done more and that the school had done more. “When our kids were in school, there were fewer minorities in Saline than there are now, so we really felt as though we were standing alone. I’m proud of the families in Saline right now that are standing together and really trying to make changes.” Adrian advocates that children are entitled to a hostility-free educational environment. More teacher training is needed on how to address these issues. “The fact that this went viral is an indication of how many people have experienced this type of harassment.”
Community and school response
While attention brought to these situations can bring threats and disparaging comments made through social media, there is also a more positive side. The Iraolas are encouraged by the conversations that are now taking place across the community and in the schools and their children have expressed pride in their parents for speaking out. They have also been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people who have come to their restaurants and shared stories or written letters from all over the country. “We have a renewed interest in looking at situations that are affecting children and education. We have to be better human beings and we have to participate to help each other,” Adrian said.
Last year, the Saline Schools created the SAS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee made up of students, community members, school board members, school staff and school administration charged with helping to create a more inclusive environment. Since the most recent incidents, Saline Area Schools has issued statements condemning racism, hosted numerous community conversations on racism and is taking steps to train staff in equitable practices. Saline Schools Superintendent Scot Graden has provided updates on progress. Community members have also held rallies and forums; and students are making their voices heard through active engagement in groups like the Society for Student Resistance Saline.
Embrace differences and find common ground
All parents should teach their children to embrace differences, Adrian Iraola explains, “Parents need to tell their children they should be accepting of people with differences. They should make friends with someone who is different, and they may find they have more in common than they think.”
The quote about storms running out of rain that the Iraola’s received from her daughter was one poet Maya Angelou heard in a song and shared during an interview in response to a question about what to say to someone when all they see are clouds.
“We would follow that with a storm can bring damage but it also can bring rain that is needed for the rebirth of flowers and plants,” Adrian said. “People have more goodness and love in their hearts than meanness and hatred. The vast majority of people are good people. We’re all capable of doing bad or mean things but we are more capable, and our nature tells us to love or respect one another. We are definitely optimistic that things are going to get better.”
To find more information about activities, events and resources from the SAS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee go to
For information on talking to kids about racial differences and racism, go to healthychildren.org.