Monday, October 10, 2011

Commemorating Tragedy by Fostering Unity in Diversity, Instead of Victimhood-Inspired Patriotism: The 9/11 Acts of Kindness day of service

This year, I chose to commemorate September 11, 2001 by volunteering at the annual Acts of Kindness (A-OK) community service event. I wanted to mark this occasion by doing something meaningful, rather than just attending or hosting a memorial, or creating some two-dimensional display of patriotism.

The problem I have with such displays is they commemorate America as a victim. The way I see it, individual Americans can be victims, but America itself is too powerful to be a victim. This is why it’s so important to foster service and dialogue on such an anniversary rather than just focus on memorials and building monuments to those poorly-chosen victims of a hate organization’s response to the U.S. government’s interference in other nations’ governments and resource allocation.

What’s most tragic to me is not the loss of thousands of people on this day ten years ago in such a horrific display of desperation and hate, but that loss combined with the probably millions of Americans who have learned nothing from the tragedy. Tragedy brings out the best in some people, but in others it brings out the worst.

As a result of what happened on September 11, 2001, many Americans have become even more ethnocentric and prejudiced against anyone and anything they perceive as “un-American,” rather than think seriously about why something like this could happen to America.

So, rather than—or in addition to—memorials, ten years later hundreds of Americans in Detroit decided to talk and serve with people they might otherwise not have any opportunity to work or even socialize with, and learn something about each other. They took an important step toward creating a more cooperative, accepting, and honest society that can help slowly shift the paradigm away from nations and groups thinking that attacking each other is the effective way to keep themselves safe from each other.

This year’s A-OK event, held at Focus:HOPE in Detroit, was the largest such event in the nation, with over 600 registered participants and 800 or more actual participants. The event was co-organized by the Interfaith Leadership Council (IFLC), Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit (WISDOM), City Year Detroit, Americorps,and other national and Detroit-area organizations. It featured a dozen or more simultaneous service projects around Focus:HOPE’s two- or three-block complex on Oakman in Detroit.

When I arrived at 12:30 p.m., two whole parking lots were filled with people, representing many different ethnicities, nations of origin, and religions. The large number of Muslim participants was particularly noteworthy, and was a great demonstration of the usually-overlooked fact that extremist Muslims are the exception, not the norm, among “typical” Muslims. 

I chose to join the group packing food boxes to be delivered to homebound elderly people around Detroit. I saw a few people I knew there, and became acquainted with many new people. After registration, there was a rally led by the service youth of City Year, and featuring speeches by a representative from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office, the director of Focus:HOPE, a federal government representative from the Americorps office who flew in from Washington for this event, and a couple of other noteworthy people in the realm of community service.

Then we all split up to do an hour’s worth of community service. After the service component, we all went into Focus:HOPE’s administrative building to eat pizza and talk with people in our groups. There were conversation-starter prompts on the round tables to help us open up a dialogue with people from other cultures or religions, particularly about how we deal with any prejudice we encounter about our religions or cultures, and about how we reacted on September 11, 2001.

I sat at a table with mostly young Muslim women of Arab descent, most of whom had been born here or immigrated here when very young. In many ways they were no different than other American college-age and young professional women: Pretty, feisty, respectful of their cultural and religious heritage but still wanting to fit in to American mainstream society, and apparently doing a good job of balancing both.

They came from families that allowed their American daughters the freedom to choose how much they wanted to demonstrate their Arab and Muslim identity when outside the house, particularly regarding wearing the hijab—some did, some didn’t—and if they wanted to get an education or hold jobs.

I wish we could have videotaped the conversation to broadcast on the national news to show that it’s really not nearly as hard as many people think it is to have comfortable conversations with and befriend people of different cultural and faith traditions, nor should it require an event like this to initiate such cross-cultural contact.

In the meantime, though, I’m glad we do have events like this and organizations like Focus:HOPE, City Year, WISDOM, IFLC, and others to help people get over their fears and misunderstandings regarding diversity, and to help gradually get us to a point where people can form cross-cultural and interfaith bonds without requiring the help of such organizations and events.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2014; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, white gel pen, metallic gold gel pen

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