Across the Cultural Divide – Reaching Out

Facilitators: Sima Lichtschein, Nedinma Jibuike-Blount, Professor Mark Rosenblum, Nicole Nowbahar, Jessica Graves, Benjamin Galang, George Festin Lorenzo

By Cathy Rainone

Born in Bangladesh, Raza Khan immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was a year old. They settled in Queens, the most diverse county in the country.

But growing up, Khan, a Muslim, only made friends with Bangladeshi Muslims or Muslims from other countries. And that continued when she enrolled at Queens College, where 140 countries are represented.

“I wouldn’t interact with people from other cultures,” says Khan, 25, who got married at age 18. “I would go to the Muslim Student Association club to pray, eat and then head out to class.”

Khan says she had prejudices against people from other cultures that she’s too embarrassed to talk about now. Her attitude began to change three years ago when she joined the Center for Racial, Ethnic & Religious Understanding at Queens College. Now Khan counts not only a Muslim but also a Christian among her close friends.

“I have friends who are Jewish, Christian and atheist,” says Khan. “I have learned to open up to people, bond with them. We have so much in common I couldn’t believe it.”

Queens College history professor Mark Rosenblum founded the center with Steven Appel, his former student and the center’s assistant director.

“I noticed as an undergrad that Queens College was very diverse but everyone was in their own cultural bubble,” says Appel. “There wasn’t a mechanism to get students to talk about the future of the country, no center on campus where students enjoyed cross-cultural music, theater, arts, or getting together to talk about all sorts of issues. Many students, who probably would never have interacted with each other, developed friendships because of the center.”

The focal point of the center’s work is training students in difficult dialogue. Each semester, the center recruits a diverse group of about 25 student facilitators. Through training sessions facilitated by members of the center and coordinated by John Vogelsang, students learn how to engage in a meaningful discussion on a host of issues. Rosenblum wanted to create a program that would train students in conflict mitigation, enabling them to reach across cultural divides and bring about social change and promote cross-cultural understanding.

“We train them in effective listening and then anchor the center’s work around what the students do,” says Appel. “They come up with ideas for programs, facilitate the programs  — they’re the crux of the center.”

Being a participant or a facilitator at the center counts as an extracurricular activity, but students receive $500 a semester to recruit students and organize cross-cultural events on campus or in the community. Khan joined the center because she said the concept sounded interesting and money was an incentive. Along with center program manager Sophia McGee and a Jewish friend, Khan organized a screening at a synagogue of “Arranged,” a film about an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim, two women who develop a friendship and along the way discover that they are both going through arranged marriages.

“I found the program to be so powerful; I didn’t know dialogue could be so powerful,” says Khan, who started as a participant and is now a dialogue facilitator. “In my group I had a U.S. soldier, Patrick Saladrigas. He’s an amazing person. I come from a Muslim background, and before I imagined that soldiers are coldhearted, they shoot people. I was shocked to find out that he was no different that I was. Even though we came from different backgrounds — he’s Christian — we want the same things for our children, and we have the same morals. When you talk to other students, you connect with them, there’s a sense of understanding.”

During one dialogue exercise, students are asked to remain silent until a person they disagree with has the opportunity to fully express his or her opinion. The idea is to teach students to listen. So far the center has trained about 400 students in conflict mitigation work.

“The goal was to develop communication and training for young students that would teach them how to maximize a dialogue in which the goal is not to win a dispute but better understand the other,” says Rosenblum. “I want them to see the other side, understand it. Feel empathy for the opposing side if they don’t feel it.”

The center was created in 2009 with a multiyear grant from the U.S. Department of Education, but Rosenblum sowed the seeds for it a decade before in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“My students witnessed the attacks from the campus, and immediately we began experiencing the pointing of fingers,” Rosenblum recalls. “By the end of that day we heard rumors of Muslims that were involved; the blame game had started. I understood that there was going to be an enormous internal conflict within Islam and it was a dramatic oversimplification to cast it as a war between the West and Islam. It would lead to xenophobia.”

Rosenblum, who is an expert on the Middle East and has met with major players in the region, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and with President Barack Obama, thought he needed to react quickly. The idea was born for a curriculum, “America and the Middle East: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds?” that later won him a Ford Foundation grant. One of the courses requires students to study the pains and claims of a religious or racial group that they have little understanding of, or sympathy for, and then make a genuine attempt to “walk in the other side’s shoes.”  The students also write a research paper making the best case they can for the other side. The curriculum laid the ground for the center for Racial, Ethnic & Religious Understanding.

Rosenblum also invited Israeli and Palestinian speakers as well U.S. government officials with different points of view to class to speak about the conflict. The curriculum was a hit on campus and has gained attention in the national media.

And he has launched a series of cultural and educational programs meant to bridge the cultural divide, including “Common Chords,” which brings together diverse musicians to talk about the cultural influences of their music; “The Art of the Possible,” featuring cross-cultural art and dialogue; and “Search for Common Ground,” a program that sponsors interfaith, interethnic and interracial dialogue. These initiatives became part of the center’s offerings. The center has also presented  “Lake Success: A Real Time Simulation of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” one of a series of award-winning courses.

“We are clearly and intentionally seeding America with what we hope is a new generation that will advocate, but advocate only after they understand complexities of conflict and see how the other side feels,” says Rosenblum, who also directs two other centers on campus, the Center for Jewish Studies and the Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change. “We hope students develop deeper analysis without political paralysis. The principle is, ‘If you think you know everything, you know nothing.’”

Rosenblum was influenced by his parents, who were Jewish activists engaged in the civil rights movement in Illinois. Jesse Owens, an African-American track star who stunned the world and Adolf Hitler when he won four gold medals at the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin, also had an impact on him. Rosenblum’s mother invited Owens to speak at community events. He slept at their house and Rosenblum, 8 years old at the time, says he followed Owens to synagogues and churches.

“I saw white people get up and walk out, leaving in protest that he was there,” says Rosenblum. “I couldn’t understand it. He was the greatest American hero, the fastest man on earth and carried himself with such dignity.”

At Queens College, Rosenblum is more than a professor and mentor. He has personally helped several students grappling with arranged marriages or whose families were insisting they not go to college, and, in several cases, securing housing for students for multiple semesters. Many students became like family.

“He’s had a significant impact on my life and the future direction of my career,” says Appel, who wants to become a politician. “He instilled skills in me that encompass humility and listening — skills that if politicians used, government would look different.”