April 2017: Perspectives from the Field IV: E Pluribus Unum

Lead NJ 2017 Seminar on Diversity & Inclusion, April 20-21, 2017

By: Andrew Musick

The LNJ Class of 2017 convened at the Islamic Center of Central Jersey for our April seminar “Embracing Cross-Cultural Diversity” to focus on the topics of diversity and inclusion.   What transpired over the course of the next two days was an emotional, honest, and at times uncomfortable experience, one that I can barely begin to scratch the surface of in a short blog post.

What began as a presentation on understanding the dynamics of privilege, turned into an eye-opening exercise called the Privilege Walk.  As I was asked to take steps forward or backward, many different thoughts crossed my mind.  From a sense of pride for the childhood my parents were able to provide for me, to jealousy towards those who didn’t have to take out college loans or were able to travel abroad as a child, and to guilt as I realized that what I took for granted was not the reality for everyone else.

At the end of the exercise, I opened my eyes and looked around at my classmates that stood ahead of me, behind me or on equal footing.  During the debrief, and the remainder of the seminar, my classmates and presenters shared stories of their experience with poverty, immigration, and broken households, or how their encounters in the workplace, in public or with the police were shaped differently than mine because of their race or gender.  These experiences were not common to me and I became acutely aware of the privilege that I was granted whether I had been aware of it or not. 

While I experienced many highs and lows over the course of both days, I felt that we concluded the seminar on Friday afternoon on a positive note.  During our final debrief it was apparent to me that the leaders gathered in the room were determined to create a more diverse and understanding community than they may have experienced growing up.  The conversation moved away from a focus on society, or the local community, towards where they could have the greatest impact, their children.

My classmates shared stories of the lessons they were passing on to their children, or perhaps more importantly, the lessons their children were teaching them.  I left the seminar thinking about the specific actions I can take, but also with the confidence that the next generation is well positioned to build upon, and surpass the progress that has been made in regards to race, diversity and inclusion in society.

2017-04-20 11.40.45

The Privilege Walk exercise, conducted by Elizabeth Williams-Riley, LNJ ’14, American Conference on Diversity

Lead NJ 2017 Seminar on Diversity & Inclusion, April 20-21, 2017

By: Sudha Iyer

Diversity and inclusion and the need to be open minded about religious, racial and cultural differences – our Lead NJ class lived this hot topic for two days. The highlights of the first day was taking a peek at the Muslim experience in contemporary America. The second day included a stirring panel discussion on bias motivated matters – bias motivated by racial and religious prejudice.

We all bring different perspectives to the table – perspectives born off our own experiences which may or may not be unique. Here I recount my experience of coming to the United States as an immigrant in 1992. My husband and I came to the US as green card holders (we waited about 12+ years to acquire the ‘right of residency’ in the US commonly referred to as the ‘green card’) with our two small children – a 6-year-old son and a 1 year old daughter and $2,000 in our pockets. We first arrived in Atlanta, Georgia with a lot of doubts and fears but also with hope and a resolute will to make it good – there was no look back option for us.

We came to live in this “land of opportunity”. We did not expect to be handed the American dream on a platter and nor did we feel that it was our right and we deserved it merely because we were immigrants. We brought with us our educational skills, a strong work ethic and worked hard. Success was a slow, hard but steady climb and followed with earning a high level of regard and respect from colleagues and friends.

In our second day of panel discussion we talked about racial prejudice. Some of it is to be expected – through evolution a tendency to be prejudiced is hard-wired into all of us; it’s almost as if it’s in our DNA. Immigrants who come to the United States face discrimination just as foreigners in any other country do. Our experiences found that our colleagues and friends were tolerant, welcoming, curious, interested and open-minded. I will always warmly remember the dinner that one of our “American “friends hosted for us when we left Atlanta (‘the deep South” as they called it 20 years ago) to move to New Jersey. Cathy, a born and bred Southerner cooked a delightful Indian dinner from scratch for us.

I certainly do remember a couple of occasions when I was confronted with racial discrimination – I also remember when on one of such occasion my “American” colleague stepped in, strongly admonished the perpetrator and rescued me from this unpleasant experience. What I am trying to say is that except for a few minor incidents which could likely have happened anywhere in the world including the country I hail from, our experience as immigrants has been truly exceptional and America has been welcoming and embracing of us, our culture and what we bring to the table – which is why after 5 years of residence in the United States we elected to become citizens. We realized the need for and embraced assimilation both culturally and in terms of our civic responsibilities. Good citizenship requires assimilation so that one has a stake in the nation and a duty to contribute to the common good. I do not believe that assimilation precludes one from retaining one’s heritage. In fact, we did not find assimilation to be at odds with retaining our heritage and vice versa. In fact, we have been very fortunate to be able to imbibe and retain the best of two worlds – Indian and American.

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