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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Let Us Strive Toward Openness

  Tom Vona
  Tom Vona
Senior Associate and Mentor

The word “openness” can be viewed in myriad ways. Because of world events, things I have witnessed in my life, and two fine women I have in the New Pathways to Teaching in New Jersey program where I teach, I have been thinking about openness from the point of view of being open to another person, another religion, another race, or another culture different from one’s own. I am amazed that in the year 2011 so many people in our country are still so intolerant when it comes to accepting people who are different in some way.

Awareness of a lack of openness was first planted in me when I was a young boy and saw on television the effects of the integration of schools and integration in general on the South after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and later during the Civil Rights movement. I couldn’t believe that people could act toward other people in the way that I saw people acting as events unfolded on TV. It had a profound effect on me that has stayed with me throughout my life.

Before I became a school administrator, I was a history teacher for many years. When I taught U.S. history, I often observed that one thing that made America great was the fact that it was made up of people from so many different places who either came here themselves or whose ancestors came here and brought with them what was best from the lands they left. This mixture, this blending of people caused our country to grow and prosper. I told my students that while this was one of the things that made our country great, it was also one of the causes of so many of the problems we have faced as a nation. Even after all these years of living in a land of immigrants or ancestors of immigrants, we are still, in many respects, not a country where openness to others who are different than we are prevails. As one example of this phenomenon, think back to World War II. Why were only Japanese Americans put in Internment Camps during the war, when we were also fighting against other nations? Might it have something to do with the fact that it was much easier to identify Japanese Americans than it was German Americans or Italian Americans? A much more recent example: Why do we hear so many questions about President Obama today? Was he really born in the United States? Is he really a Christian? Wasn’t he brought up in Kenya by his African father? Even after such questions have been answered, and the answers proven, many continue to bring them up—even some who would like to become President. Are they questioning this President’s origins and religion so vigorously because he is our first African American President? This is certainly not an example of openness, and the more I hear about the “birthers” and others like them, the more I wonder that President Obama was elected in the first place.

Where do the ideas that lead to a lack of openness begin? Our parents are our first teachers, of course, and shape our earliest beliefs. Recently a friend who teaches in a primary school with a small African American population told me a most upsetting story. She learned that when the students in a kindergarten class were told to hold hands for some activity, one of the white students refused to hold the hand of the black student standing next to him. At 5 years old, he knew this other student was different, and he wasn’t open to holding his hand. Where did this idea come from? This isn’t something that a 5-year-old child does without having heard something about it before. This is how intolerance and a lack of openness to others who are different are passed down from one generation to the next.

I have two Muslim women in my New Pathways class this year, both of whom teach in an Arabic elementary school. They come to class each week with their heads covered and have never tried to hide their religion. I have never before known Arabic individuals personally, and it has been a great pleasure to get to know these kind, wonderful women. I have visited their school, where I was warmly welcomed, twice since the beginning of the year. I have observed them in their classrooms on each occasion. These extremely interesting visits served as learning experiences for me.

One topic we discuss in my class is multiculturalism. Along with that topic come such issues as prejudice and discrimination. We performed an activity that allowed students, if they desired, to share whether or not they have ever felt discriminated against. Eventually my two Muslim students shared how difficult it has been for them in this country since 9/11. They spoke of being out with their children and having strangers yell at them, “Go back to your own country,” and other even more derogatory phrases. Of course their children do not understand the reasons for such expressions of anger and say, “But Mommy, we were born in this country; this is our country.” Sharing their story in class took a great deal of courage and showed how comfortable they have come to feel with their peers and with me. When I heard their story, tears came to my eyes. If only people could come to know these two women, and countless others like them, the way my class and I have, instead of seeing all Muslims as the same, the result would be much better for them, as well as for the U.S.

Openness is the key to such change. So many individuals distrust all Arabs because of 9/11 and what has occurred since that cataclysmic event. They have lost the ability to see (if they ever were able to see) that there is good in every race, in every religion, and in every culture. It’s wrong to stereotype everyone because of the acts of a few. And thus we heard of the preacher who burned a Koran in Florida and planned an anti-Muslim rally. Where will it end?

While our situation has improved since that young boy watched the news of the uprisings in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, as integration became a fact of life, we still have a long way to go before our country lives up to its potential as a land where openness prevails. Of course, we can never give up the fight. Those of us in education are in a unique position to help this nation strive toward openness. Let us continue to spread the message of the dignity of all people, fight against bigotry and discrimination in every form, and help to make the American dream a reality for all people.

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