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Facing up to color

Faces, 660 of them, adorn a mural Burnside Elementary students have spent all week constructing.

A closer look reveals the faces are not painted using the typical peaches, pinks, browns and yellows traditionally found in children's drawings.

Instead, the faces -- self-portraits, in fact -- are uniquely colored by the students using a blend of paints. The specific concoctions are a deliberate effort at getting the students to tackle the obvious -- but sometimes uncomfortable -- topic of skin color.

"It's good to get kids talking about it," said Samantha Midler, Color Project coordinator for the Minneapolis-based organization Tolerance Minnesota.

Students picked out which mixtures of six colors to blend in order to create a color that matches their own skin.

The hope, organizers say, is to make it OK for children to talk about skin color -- and embrace the message that each person is unique and does not fit neatly into categories like black or white.

It's important to reach students at a young age before influences lead them to making judgments based on skin color, Midler said.

"They're more aware of how society is telling them there are borders between people" as they age, she said.

While painting his own visage on the mural with other students from Deb Brody's third-grade class, Dimas Ontiveros said he enjoyed the project.

"It's cool," he said. "Other people have other skin colors, and that's OK. You don't have to be black or white."

During the project, Burnside students learned that human skin color is a result of melatonin levels, generally governed by exposure to the sun.

Midler, a Red Wing native, said her hometown was the project's first stop this year outside the Twin Cities metro area.

Reaching students in more racially homogenous populations like Red Wing is vital, said another project staffer. Outreach coordinator Curtis Kline said that's because many children will eventually live in more diverse communities, where tolerance and understanding are fundamental tools.

After traveling to various schools for the project, Midler said she found Red Wing students more hesitant to speak up about skin color than their Twin Cities peers.

She suspected that shyness is a reflection of the politeness Red Wing natives are known for.

"They think it's taboo," Midler said. "They don't want to offend anyone."

Burnside Principal Sheila Beckner said she hopes children embrace the project's message of diversity.

When complete, the mural will be a telling one, she said.

"We're part of one large group and we're all unique," Beckner said. "That's something to be celebrated."

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