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May 28, 1999


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Building Bridges Across Cultures

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Anju Bhargava

The human need to be understood and accepted is felt by every immigrant in America. So groups work to minimise differences and emphasise similarities. Today, we Indian-Americans are in the midst of a diversity and identity debate. We are trying to find our balance.

As we look around, we see almost all new immigrant groups experience the unique American process of assimilation -- from an "alien", an outsider, to a citizen, "one of us". Fortunately, we live in a time when the notion of the mosaic rather than the melting pot is in vogue. We have the environmental freedom to be whatever we want to be while working towards a more assimilated society.

The question then arises: how is the Indian-American community faring in this effort?

I believe we are just beginning to understand the importance of the historical point of our entry into America.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the struggles of our African-American brethren changed the restrictive immigration policies and opened doors for us. When America celebrates Dr Martin Luther King's Day, it reminds itself of the universality of the message of peace, brotherhood and principles of Truth. In a letter from Birmingham City Jail, April 1963, Dr King wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

It is well known that Dr King was strongly influenced by Gandhi's thoughts on non-violence. Globalisation of thought has existed from the beginning of time. Last fall, when I went through my training at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, I saw this relationship continually honoured. Congressman John Lewis recalled how the Gandhian principles were taught in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. In a March 1936 article, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could."

Thoughts flow freely across all man-made borders and no know limitations. This points to the importance of building multicultural coalitions. For diverse groups to come together in a unified manner to achieve common goals.

Early this year we too experimented with such an idea in my hometown, Livingston, a suburban community in New Jersey. Livingston, in many ways, is a microcosm of America. It has seen an influx of many different people. As a resident of 18 years, I have seen the growing diversity.

Most established residents have accepted the newcomers. Our award-winning Blue Ribbon school system has led the multiculturalism education effort.

But as expected, there are always a few voices of dissension. These rumbling undercurrents surfaced in a minor incident. Though an insignificant event, it broke the public silence of the impact of changing US demographics.

Our town takes pride in meeting the needs of its residents. Once people became aware, they started taking proactive steps towards easing assimilation. They expanded outreach to adults.

So, recognising the need to honour Dr King's message, public schools in Livingston were closed for the first time on January 18, 1999. A two-day observance honoured Dr King as a person who not only brought together the African-American community, but also welcomed people from all races and walks of life to work for equality and justice. We felt everyone in America has benefited from the Civil Rights Movement and the observance was a reminder of the ideals for which America stands.

Livingston celebrated the occasion in a meaningful way, bringing the community together for a day of service with the theme... a day ON, not a day OFF. This was not just another shopping holiday, but one filled with people reaching out to others.

Realising the dreams and hopes of both Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian-American community came together to participate in a programme that promoted these teachings. Many in our town were surprised to see the whole-hearted participation of Indian-Americans in what was seen historically as an African-American holiday. We, and other members of the steering committee, helped the community see this day as an American holiday, symbolising the inclusion of all.

In the spirit of the day, we partnered another volunteer group from our local church to do a unified service project titled "Friendly Visitors". We reached out to neighbours and offered friendship and brotherhood by jointly sending volunteers out to visit elderly shut-ins in Livingston.

Our small group of volunteers was unsure how the elderly would react to us. We projected our internal fears externally! Would they see us as strangers imposing ourselves on them? Would they allow us to enter their homes? Would we know what to say?

We were pleasantly surprised. In the pouring rain, we knocked on the doors of our elderly residents and found out how much they looked forward to our visit. Through this interaction, we learned to see our neighbours as people just as they did.

A group of us visited the local nursing home. For many it was our first encounter with senior citizens in long-term care. It made us aware of our own mortality. One of our group members sang while the residents ate a simple lunch. After the meal, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair came over to our young singer and gave his dessert -- chocolate cake -- to her. It was his way of saying thank you. A moving moment indeed.

Faith-based activities are an integral part of a community's life. Our diverse culture and mode of being, including our place and way of worship, is different from the European or Western way. In our desire to be secular we often reject the importance of faith-based values which are necessary for our spiritual growth. Though many of our non-Judeo-Christian religions, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, do not have a central body governing it and function independently, individuals can bridge these gaps. In our town we have no Indian-American clergy person, but an individual is part of Livingston's Interfaith Clergy Association.

The association revised the service honouring King and included a newly formed 'Asian Indians in Livingston Bhajan Choir' along with the Korean Choir. The bhajan choir also adapted its format to the protocol of the service.

A hallmark of Mahatma Gandhi's approach was to build unity and attain freedom by integrating the principles of Truth and using peaceful methods to advocate self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We shared Gandhi's message and sang a few of his favourite bhajans (devotional songs). The much-appreciated musical interlude is sparking a larger concert that will showcase the diversity of our town.

Livingston has initiated the integration effort. Our efforts in the King celebration continue the process of demystifying our traditions and helping our neighbours to see us as just another citizen.

But the Indian-American community has yet to realise its own collective potential. As we build bridges of understanding with our neighbours, we need to address our internal societal issues. Many Indian-Americans are still mired by class and regional distinctions and "look down" on volunteerism where a "big name" is not present. And the simple idea of service, to just strengthen the many communities we belong to, is often lost. We need to develop our civic consciousness and make a difference in the fabric of the country we have adopted as our own.

The Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties influenced and changed America. We need a similar movement today to understand what it means to be part of a much more diverse America. We hope that communities across America will be inspired, daily, by King and Gandhi's approach of inclusion, brotherhood, peace and non-violence. We hope they will understand the issues and get involved to strengthen and empower themselves and their communities.

The author, a community worker and management consultant, writes of her experiences in a small New Jersey town.

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