Friday, May 17, 2013

Fostering Dialogue Among Neighbors

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams (left-center) visits the Museum of Jewish Heritage with high school students and teachers from Brooklyn College Academy and the Yeshivah of Flatbush as part of a cross-cultural event commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Month, organized by Council Member David G. Greenfield and him. 
Photo Credit: Keith Dawson/NYC Council
Museum Educator Loren Silber shares her perspective on a unique student visit.

Meeting Hate with Humanity is the Museum’s most popular tour for school groups. In fact, educators at MJH conduct this tour for most of the 50,000 students who visit annually.  But last month, this tour took on new depth and meaning for both our staff and a special group of students from City Council District 45 in Brooklyn.

It all started with Councilman Jumaane D. Williams’s idea to create an educational gathering that would foster better understanding among the younger residents of his district.  He recruited 9th graders from Brooklyn College Academy (BC) - a school with predominantly African American and Hispanic students, and 10th graders from the Yeshiva of Flatbush (YF), along with their teachers, to participate in a day-long program of cultural exchange and communication, starting at MJH before continuing over lunch at City Hall, and concluding with a trip to the African Burial Ground National Monument.

In preparation MJH education staff met to strategize about how to work with this unique group.  The challenge was to find a way for students who had never met before, and who had very different backgrounds, to be able to talk and share their experiences. To achieve this, we decided to expand our usual group question and answer format to allow students to engage in one-on-one discussions in response to our prompt questions. We would organize the students into small groups to have equal representation from BC and YF in each one.

We approached the first artifact, the Schacter Family Tree, and soon the high-schoolers chatted away in answer to my first questions. “What do you know about your name?” “What does your name tell you about your heritage?” I asked. Working in pairs (one student from BC, one from YF) each shared the story of her name, an important aspect of personal and family identity, with her partner. One of the sweetest exchanges I overheard was between two girls who found a common bond, both having been named after their grandmothers.

With each artifact my group became more articulate and willing to share.  By the time we reached the Rat Catcher, a blatantly anti-Semitic illustration from late 19th century Germany, my group, all girls, couldn’t stop talking to each other.  This was a rare opportunity for the students to voice freely their frustration at being misunderstood, isolated from neighbors of a different race or heritage.  I hated to interrupt as they swapped stories of the discrimination and stereotyping they have already experienced in their youth, but more artifacts awaited them.

When the tour concluded, two girls told me how much they appreciated and enjoyed their visit. Although I couldn’t accompany them to their other destinations, I felt certain that as the day progressed, these two groups would continue to talk and bond in ways that would resonate for each of them personally and perhaps even radiate out to their communities.

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