I Hope That Now We Are Not Strangers

by Ramin Ganeshram

It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: The month during which Muslims believe the holy books of all Abrahamic religions were handed down. The month designated to put aside all worldly pursuits and attend to the spirituality of one’s soul. The month for welcoming the stranger.

This idea of welcoming the stranger is a core concept in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Torah says when the prophet Elijah appears as a beggar at the home of a poor couple who give him the last of the their food they are rewarded with plenty from God. The Bible tells us that Jesus lived as a poor wanderer  who depended on the hospitality of strangers for his livelihood. In the Quran, the Prophet Mohammed clearly outlines the charitable treatment of those who are the most needy or the most unknown.

As a mixed-race, mixed heritage person with ties to Christian and Islamic heritage I’ve always found these stories compelling. Perhaps it is because,  I often feel like the perpetual stranger: The layers upon layers of my ethnicity, the religions encompassed within my family, and our tribal and geographic associations make it hard to find a niche and stay in it. Like the jack of all trades and master of none, the multiplicity of my background allows me nothing to singularly call my own. While, I long to be e pluribus unum  but I’m mostly just e pluribus.

That’s why when I was invited with my family to an Ramadan Iftar dinner hosted TEAM Westport and Westport’s Interfaith Council I was a bit trepidatious. (Iftar is the meal taken after all day fasting during the month of Ramadan) I went so far as to tell intrepid event host and organizer, Dolores Paoli, (who does yeoman’s work representing the Muslim voice at TEAM Westport and in the larger community) that despite my cultural background being partly Iranian, I wasn’t Muslim and was that ok?

Even as I was indulging the persistent  “imposter” syndrome that often plagues me, Dolores quickly and kindly put my fears to rest. She assured me I was most welcome, that there would be people of all faiths there, including those like herself, who had participated in various religions in their lives.

In short, she welcomed me completely–not as the stranger I saw myself to be–but as a friend.

The event, which in part honored a Syrian refugee family sponsored by the Interfaith Council and the volunteers who have helped them, was enlightening. It afforded an opportunity to teach my young daughter not just about Islam–the faith of her sufi maternal great-grandfather–but to witness first-hand the excitement of a shared meal and shared experience among people who despite their unique faiths shared the common religion of humanity.

As I listened to the Qu’ranic recitation that accompanied the breaking of the fast I felt awe and appreciation for the lyrical quality of verses being read in song-like chant–so like Roman Catholic Latin chant or a Jewish cantorial song.

But what I most noticed was how readily and happily people greeted each other, asked one another’s names and listened carefully to the response. I looked around and saw no one looking at their phones or staring off into the distance. Little kids ran around playing–sometimes “interrupting” even–but no one was angry. In those few hours, people committed to carving time out to getting to know one another.

Looking around, I remembered  a greeting from my father’s Caribbean heritage:

“I hope that now we are not strangers?”

It’s an opening gambit toward the possibility of friendship. It is a willingness to put aside being strangers by making those most unknown to us into those most welcomed by us. This welcome to the stranger is also a program commitment that Team Westport is making in the coming months  so please keep an eye out for events, posts, and more around the theme of Welcoming the Stranger.

Perhaps you’ll join us in our goal that one day soon we may no longer be strangers and perhaps we might even become friends.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Passed Down

What’s Passed Down

By Catherine Onyemelukwe, Team Westport

 

In late May my husband and I attended our grandson’s graduation from Cornell. Our daughter Beth and her husband Kelvin got to the graduation early to hold seats. They got places in the eighth row up, right behind reserved seats for legacy families.

We sat right behind the Gellerts. At least thirty people were in the group. They all wore red T-shirts. On the back were the names, years, and in most cases the degrees, of all the Gellerts who had graduated from Cornell.

The earliest was 1927. The list ended with Jason, TBD.

It was fun to see. They were having a lovely time.

But it also reminded me of the privilege that can get passed down through generations to some of us and denied to others, specifically denied to people of color.

At the end of the U.S. Civil War freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule. The promise was not fulfilled. Starting with nothing, former slaves who had been denied an education had to make a living.

Very few Black people were even admitted to Ivy League colleges and universities in the 1920’s when the first Gellerts attended. There has been little or no opportunity to develop legacies like theirs. As many white people became property owners during the last century, Black people were denied mortgages, so had little access to property ownership. There are so many other instances of injustice.

But I kept thinking, is it fair?

Catherine Onyemelukwe, CFRE, served in the Peace Corps, taught and ran her own company in Nigeria before returning to earn her MBA at Yale. She is a volunteer fundraiser for her Mt. Holyoke class.  She chairs the Racial Justice Task Force at her Unitarian Church and serves on the board of the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office.

Event: A Conversation about Political Correctness

On April 23, Team Westport and The Westport Library will host our next installment of our Conversation series, in which we have open, respectful discussions about matters of diversity, civil liberties, and social issues that our affect our community.

During this conversation we’ll explore the following questions: How did civil discourse become associated with political correctness? What does it mean to be “politically correct” and why does it carry a negative connotation? Who decides what is hateful or unacceptable speech? TEAM Westport invites you to join the dialogue to continue the effort to foster understanding and greater trust regarding complex multicultural issues in our community. Reverend Alison Patton, pastor of Saugatuck Congregational Church, will moderate the discussion

 

WHEN: Sunday, April 23, 2017, 3-4:30pm

WHERE: The Westport Library, 20 Jesup Road, Westport, CT 06880

RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/1955509301348015/

Free event.

Honoring the African American Cooks Who Fed the Presidents

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TEAM Westport and The Westport Historical Society are proud to welcome Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and an authority on soul food, to speak about his new book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas” on February 22nd at 6:30 pm at the Westport Historical Society.
Required:
o Reservations – Call (203) 222-1424
o $10 Donation to Westport Historical Society
The book offers an in depth look at African American cooks—both enslaved and free– who have cooked for the nation’s presidents and some of the dishes they prepared. Some did not cook in the White House but for the president on the presidential yacht or elsewhere and some cooked just for the family but not for dinners given for visiting dignitaries.
“Mr. Miller’s book sheds light on a little known, yet important, influencers upon Presidential life,” said Robert Mitchell, president of the Westport Historical Society. “The African American cooks who performed the important service of cooking for our presidents have been a vital to the well being–and even the policies– of the men who have sat in the executive mansion.”
Among the influencers whom Miller writes about are Zephyr Wright, who supported herself through college by cooking for President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird. Wright began in 1942 and remaining with the family through Johnson’s presidency, which ended in 1969. From fielding press questions on President Johnson’s bean consumption to influencing his position on segregation, Wright was an outspoken and important part of the Johnsons’ life.
In his book, Miller recounts how Wright embarrassed Johnson in front of a dining room full of political friends when he told her to go ahead of him to the family’s Austin, Tex., home with the family’s black chauffeur in order to get ready for their arrival. She refused, telling the then senator she would no longer endure not being allowed to use the same bathrooms, restaurants and motels as Lady Bird and Lynda Bird due to “whites only” rules. Johnson put down his napkin and left the room, but years later, when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he gave Wright the pen, saying, “You deserve this more than anybody else.”
“We’re thrilled to work with the historical society to host Mr. Miller here in Westport,” said Harold Bailey, co-chairperson of TEAM Westport. “His book is an integral part of the growing scholarship that reminds us that black history is American history. “
Born and raised in Denver, Adrian Miller is a Stanford graduate and Georgetown Law trained attorney who once served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and later as a senior policy analyst for former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. These days, however, he refers to himself as a “recovering lawyer and politician.”
Miller’s President’s Day talk will include a reading and signing of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet.

2017 Teen Essay Contest Open for Submissions

As the nation faces historic social shifts relating to race and identity, young people will find themselves at the crossroads of a different America. In order to increase awareness, foster understanding and promote understanding in this arena, TEAM Westport and The Westport Library are co-sponsoring the fourth annual Teen Diversity Essay Contest for students in grades 9, 10, 11, and 12 who attend Staples High School or another school in Westport, or reside in Westport and attend school elsewhere.

Essay Topic: The focus of this fourth essay contest is the issue of ‘white privilege,’ which surfaced as a topic during the recent presidential election. This year’s invitation states, “In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’.

To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?” Essay Process Click here for Contest Application. Essays are due February 27, 2017. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Westport Library on April 3, 2017. Subject to the volume and caliber of entries received, at the discretion of the judges up to three prizes will be awarded. The first prize is $1,000, the second is $750, and the third prize is $500.

Click here for the Essay Contest Application

 

2017 MLK Day Celebration at Westport Country Playhouse

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Westport Country Playhouse was packed to the rafters January 15th as part of our celebration of the life and legacy of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day was put together in partnership with TEAM Westport, the Playhouse and the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council.

There was gospel music and spoken word performances but the highlight of the event was Keynote Speaker Dr. Tricia Rose, the Brown University Chancellor’s Professor of Africana Studies, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Professor Rose is an internationally respected scholar of post-civil rights era black U.S. culture, popular music, social issues, gender, and sexuality.

Dr. Rose first encouraged the audience to ask itself and each other “What Would Martin Do?” as a way to think about current events through the lens of Dr. King’s teaching, action, and writing. Most central to this idea, she said, was to first recalibrate the narrative of Dr. King’s life and work in order to understand fully what he was about.

Referencing the overarching popular narrative of Dr. King as a “dreamer” and the nation’s most famous Civil Rights activist, Dr. Rose reminded the audience in her signature style that the Atlanta minister did not consider the fight over once the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Instead, he continued to fight for the rights of the marginalized, whosoever they may be.

In what she called Dr. King’s “pivots”, Dr. Rose spoke about his work with as an anti-Vietnam war activist, his work on behalf of unions, and his work addressing unfair housing and the “ghetto-ization” of black communities as a response to major cultural shifts such as the great migration of African Americans to Northern States.

Many of Dr. Rose’s excellent points are also address in this article published on MLK Day in Politico.

Over the course of her talk Dr. Rose also addressed the idea of “color-blindness” as a reinforcement of racism and Dr. King’s approach of finding common ground among people that went beyond race and ethnicity—with respect to low wages and poverty, for example. In fact, as this interesting article in Vox talking about The Poor People’s campaign and this one outlining Dr. King’s fight for economic justice .

Before he was murdered in April of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been planning to bring his Poor People’s Campaign to Washington in a March later that year.

Ultimately, Dr. Rose told the audience we can surmise as to What Would Martin Do? endlessly and, ultimately, it would still be conjecture. We can, however, she pointed out go back to the enormous catalog of his sermons and speeches words for strength and guidance as we work to achieve a more welcoming and just society by doing what is right—not what it is convenient.

For more in-depth analysis of these interesting subjects, we encourage you to read and watch Dr. Rose’s work. Her groundbreaking and award-winning book 1994 on the emergence of hip-hop culture “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America” which spawned a new field of study in academia is widely available. She is currently working on a project called “How Structural Racism Works” and her YouTube channel offers excellent ongoing insight to her work. Check it out

 

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