Graham Elementary and Middle School students come from all over Columbus.

Seventh-graders from the University District charter school came together with community leaders from central Ohio last week as part of what dean and director James Kutnow described as an ongoing and evolving project relating to how different cultures interact.

Among the people interviewed by small groups of GEMS students were Paolo DeMaria, Ohio superintendent of public instruction; Jeff Cabot, former Franklin County administrator and Columbus school board member; John McCollum, cofounder and executive director of Asia's Hope, an organization that helps provide residential care for orphans and abandoned children in Cambodia, Thailand and India; Mike Stinziano, a Columbus councilman; Wahru Cleveland, founder of Sistah Ngoma, a women's multicultural drum, song and dance group; and Angela Stoller-Zervas, GEMS board member and director of the family central program at YWCA Columbus.

The Feb. 20 event was another step in a curriculum created four or five years ago by a GEMS teacher who had served in the Peace Corps in west Africa, Kutnow said.

The interviews with community leaders were another aspect of what's come to be called "When Cultures Collide," he said.

"It just kind of evolved over time," Kutnow said.

"Students have done a lot of background-building on this," said Cassie Farrell Muller, seventh-grade team leader.

The interviewees included Clintonville resident Doug Rutledge, co-author of "The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away." Rutledge has worked with the refugee population in the United States, and Columbus in particular, for the past 15 years, most recently focusing on the large Bhutanese-Nepali community that has settled primarily in the Northland area.

Rutledge said he wanted to impart to the GEMS students how much the refugee population has strengthened central Ohio.

Nia Richardson is a GEMS graduate and currently a junior at Columbus State Community College and the Graham School in Clintonville. She said internships she has served with justice organizations in the region helped lead her to organize a youth group called Voices of the Unheard.

"I want them to ask questions about how they can do it, too," she said.

"I had a wonderful time talking with young people about important issues that affect them," said Bill Owens, executive director the Clintonville-Beechwold Community Resources Center. "We were able to have a really meaningful conversation around gun culture and how that plays out in their households and how they see that affecting society overall.

"It was gratifying to see young people so engaged about social issues and to be so positive about them."

Solomon Ayalew, an Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant who works with the Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services refugee settlement organization, said his goal in attending the GEMS event was to "help some children and young adults better understand the struggle of immigrants."