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Living-Room Diplomats Take Steps Toward Peace

April 21, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Henry Wyle began a recent evening with the jaded optimism of a lottery player who expects to lose, but plunks down his dollar anyway.

Ten people from diverse backgrounds were gathering in Wyle's Irvine living room to talk about the things that separated them--color and class, faith and family. The goal: to find a path to peace and understanding in a world skewed by hatred and intolerance.

The odds, Wyle admitted, were long.

"One series like this, in one living room, doesn't mean anything," Wyle said, a plastic cup of soda in one hand as people filtered in for the third and final "living room dialogue" he hosted with his wife, Hilda.

"But if we get hundreds of these [dialogues] in hundreds of living rooms, then maybe one hothead will stand up sometime in the future and one of his own people will say, 'Shut up and sit down,'" Wyle said. "That would be marvelous."

In the seven months since the Sept. 11 attacks, Southern California and the nation have shared a nightmare of shock, grief, anger and, in some quarters, a thirst for vengeance. These are the reactions of a family dealing with sudden loss, with emotions magnified on a national scale.

But community activists say the attacks also have unleashed people's pent-up desire to shed their cloaks of isolation and better connect with their communities and the world.

Organizers are devising strategies to capitalize on these emotions, from the "living room dialogues" arranged by the Orange County Human Relations Council to an upcoming social mixer at a Los Angeles art gallery to entice young professionals to involve themselves in community programs.

The efforts include major grant-making foundations hoping to advance tolerance of Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs.

"One of the things we wanted to do was reach into communities and support programs that focus around reducing hate and increasing understanding--particularly understanding the culture of Arab Americans and Muslims," said Gwen Foster, program director for the California Endowment.

This month, the endowment granted 15 organizations a total of $2.4 million to combat intolerance.

Because the goal is to affect attitudes and beliefs, success will be hard to gauge.

"I would be looking for indications that people are coming together, that there is increased dialogue and reduced fearfulness among people," Foster said. "How we measure that, I don't know."

Although some of the programs make use of existing structures, such as interfaith movements, others try new methods to draw people in.

The Wyles' sessions involved one Egyptian American, an Indian American Sikh, two American Jews and a Japanese American Buddhist; two representatives from the gay community; and 14-year-old Anson Stewart, who runs a youth diversity program in Irvine.

The discussion covered how individuals and groups responded to the terror attacks, the role of the flag as a symbol of unity, and what steps can be taken to broaden interactions among sometimes insular groups.

"Volunteers tend to be active within their own community. This we need to change," said participant Magdy Eletreby, chairman of the Islamic New Horizons School in Irvine. "We learned the hard way that it is not right to limit your involvement to your immediate community. We need to branch out as much as possible. The people who stood by us are the people who knew us."

Four of the participants were from a sociology class at Orange Coast College, where students were given a choice of joining a dialogue group or writing a 10-page paper. Expecting an easy grade, some of the students said they were surprised by the intensity of the discussions, and revelations about themselves.

One, Bonnie Pak, said she considered herself to be open-minded, but the sessions forced her to confront a blind spot: homosexuality.

"Now I realize I was pretty close-minded about certain things," she said. "I never realized how isolated I was. I was raised Christian and I always thought gays and lesbians were wrong....I'm trying to get a sense of awareness. I want to have an open mind."

The beginning of such personal evolutions, organizers believe, lies in conversation. But first, they have to draw people together.

Using a two-year, $100,000 grant, Orange County's branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice hopes to create a Community Cousins Program, drawing families from different faiths and backgrounds to link up with Arabic and Muslim families.

The first session, to involve 30 to 40 families from several churches and temples, will be in a park; later sessions will move to family homes in hopes of establishing long-lived friendships, said William Shane, the group's Orange County executive director.

"People will have dinner together, then maybe go to movies together. You'll go to my kid's Little League game and we'll go to your kid's play," Shane said. "Eventually, we'll have Thanksgiving dinner together."

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