Local Students Share Stories of Intolerance and Search for Solutions at Sen. Harckham Panel – River Journal Staff

Posted By on March 12, 2020

Hate in the Age of Multiculturalism

As a youngster growingup in Somers, Ihad dozens of experiences where a friend or classmate,or I, wastargeted because ofreligion or another personal characteristic.

Isawswastikas on every stop sign from my house to the school via the route I drove. I was told,I hate Jews but youre ok by a classmate while we sat in the guidance counselors office..I was invited to Sunday dinner at a classmates house and sat frozen as the adults around the table took turns telling jokes about Jews and Blacks.

In our senior group photo, two friends are behind me making the Nazi salute. While these are hateful actions, Im not sure thepeoplewhocommitted themwere fully aware ofthe effecttheir actionshad onme (whether they were joking or not).

I watched as my black friend was violently pushed back and forth down a line of males as she came down the stairs between classes. I stood by unsure how to help classmates who were called a fagorchink or spic. And I had to find a way to make peace with the fact that my friends were either oblivious to what was happening or also didnt know how to help.

Its whythisMartin Luther King, Jr.quoteresonates so strongly with me:

In theend, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.


With that as the backdrop, whenRJN(River Journal North)askedmeto cover a panel discussiontitledHate in the Age of Multiculturalism,hosted by state Sen. PeterHarckman, who represents District 40,I made no claim to being an objective observer.

This was the third event on the topic held by SenatorHarckham, but the first time thathe assembled apanelstrictlyof students.Theytalkedfreelyand bravely about the challenges they face, in the hope of finding solutions, or, at the very least, new approaches to try.

Held in late Februaryat Lakeland High School in Shrub Oak,N.Y.,andmoderated by SenatorHarckham,the audience of more than 150 students and educators heard fromsevenstudents,including six seniors from Peekskill, Lakeland, and Walter Panas high schools, and an eighth grader from Mildred E. Strang Middle School in Yorktown Heights.

They reflectedthe diverse cultures of the 40th Senate District, includingAfrican-American, Latinx, Jewish,and Islamic, and LGBTQ.


We heard from a16year old boywho said heand his friends were turned away from a party because of their skin color. A Muslim student was called terrorist by abusloadofmiddle schoolers and high schoolers. A young woman was threatened by two males at her camp, who saidthey were going to assault her.Shecould tell thatthey thought it was acceptablebehavior.

As the roomconfrontedhow to combat hate, a few questions were asked. Is it the responsibility of the parents or the school? What is social medias part in this? The answers amongst the panelists were noteasy to come by. Iknow the feeling and the frustration.

Sometimes were raised with beliefs from our families. Sometimes our beliefs are totally differentfromwhat weve been told.

Takepolitics.Thereprobably is at least one personin your family who doesnt agree 100% withyour point of view. As family and community members, we all have a responsibility totreat others as they would like to be treated, to coin a phrase,and to demonstrate that for our kidsandwith our kids.


Schoolsface a formidable challenge in coming to grips with bigotry andtheanti-social behavior thatanimatesit. Theycant appear to take sides in a way that marginalizes any one group. Their role isto remain neutralfor the most part, to sustaina sense oftradition to make some people happy,andto addcurriculum or ideas that satisfy others.

Teachers need to appear neutral onhot-button issues,whilenot being deprived of adhering totheir personal beliefs.

Some of social media is destructive and unproductive. Other times, its expanding my awareness and exposure to so much more out there, in a good way.

If that sounds complicated, and almost contradictory, thats because it easily can be.

One of the commendable aspects ofwhat SenatorHarckhamis tryingtoaccomplish with these community forumsis toencourage students and adults totalk and to listen toeachanother.

The panelists I witnessed weretransparent,vulnerable,kind,andthoughtfulinsharingtheirmany ideas onhowwemghtmakethings better. The audienceitselfwas full of diverse teens and adults who shared personal stories.


Ayoung maleexpressed frustration thathe was not represented on the panel. Some lashed out in knee-jerk reaction about hisbeing a white male (withoutactually knowingif that was 100% true). They said thiswas not hisopportunity. Others acknowledged that he showed up to be a part of the discussionabout inclusivity, pointing out the obvious irony of trying to justify the exclusion of someone like him.

Again, this is complicated.

All white malescan not, and should not, be painted with the same broad brush, any more than stereotyping other groups should be tolerated.Its easy togeneralizeand making assumptions about people we dont even know. Its easy to hate; its hard to understand.

In my professional life, Ive participated in sensitivity training for Diversity & Inclusion atNBCUniversal.

We immersed ourselves in workshops, speaker series, cultural events and volunteerism. Through those groups, I learned about the challenges people face. Ibecame more aware of how my reaction or passivityaffected my life day today.


If we appliedthat notiontolocal government andschools, itcould be a powerful first step.Volunteers would own and run their individual groups with the guidance of the institution or government office.

In schools, the students could host a music event for Hispanic Heritage Month (cultural), a volunteer project like a coat drive (perhaps with a church, a temple,and a mosque),or acareer day (where various industries are represented with executives and administrators of all colors, sexual orientation, religions and abilities).There could bea collaborative event that celebrates differences andraisesmoneyfutureschoolprojects.

In local government, a town could throw cultural events like Lunar New Year,Divali,or Cinco de Mayotoshine a light ondifferent traditions, bringingpeople together through food andcustoms.


There could be charities that workin unison on a jointevent. Smaller career development programs that arethoughtfully-craftedfor different groups of people can help local businesses in many ways.Imagineatraditionalcommunity dinnerthat invitespeopleof variouspolitical viewswhomeet each other and find commonalities. Because those similarities do exist.

The bottom line is that there is aneed to see and celebrate more diversity in leadership roles within our schools and towns.It means educators, coaches, town councils,chambersofcommerce. Its imperative to have different people in the room when decisions aremadeor ideas are generated to ensure a global point of view.

At the end of the day, every person (including this outstanding panel of students and the attendees in the room) wantsto feel heard, equal,and safe.

Hate comes from fear, from misinformation andfrom a lack of interaction with others not exactly like you.

Who wantsto burn energy fighting, hating,and feeling (or being)attacked.Better towake up and feel peace, love,understanding.

We cannot undo whats been done. We can only takesmallsteps each day in listening to each other and doing our best tonot reflexively judge.Myselfincluded.

You may agree with me. Or you may think Im Miss Mary Sunshine full of unicorns and rainbows. Thats your opinion,and I respect you for it.

More than 150 students and educators attended the February panel discussion hosted and moderated by N.Y. State Sen. PeterHarckham. Photo:Office of State Sen.Harckham/TomStaudter

Teach Our Children Well

Sen.Harckhamasked the studentpanelwhere theresponsibilitylayto teach tolerance,withparents or schools, or both?

Below is a sampling of comments by the student panelists

GenniferBirnbach is a writer and brand marketing consultant with a background in Diversity & Inclusion. Instagram @genniferwithag.inc

Local Students Share Stories of Intolerance and Search for Solutions at Sen. Harckham Panel - River Journal Staff

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