Lessons from Brooklyn

America, flag, eagle,

On days when fellow Americans tell me they don’t want to talk with anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs…I wonder whether or not E Pluribus Unum is even a remote possibility.

E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

In 1782, this Latin phase was adopted by our leaders as part of the Great Seal of the United States. It is not the official motto of our country, but many have adopted it as our motto. Over time, out of many states, one nation has come to represent for many Americans, out of many peoples, one America.

I wonder if E Pluribus Unum reflected the feeling of the people at that moment in time? Or was it aspirational — acknowledging the legal reality and yet knowing that the disparate people who lived in the United States had a long way to go before they’d see themselves as one nation.

As we reflect on the challenges that have faced our nation over the last few centuries — several wars, the Great Depression, social movements calling for the end of institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and domestic and international terrorism — I have no doubt that ordinary citizens like me, of every generation, have wondered — is this even possible?  Did our foremothers and forefathers set us up for failure? Are we as human beings capable of learning to live together despite our deepest differences?

When I spend time with adults, I feel much more pessimistic about the possibility. When I spend time with children and youth, I see that in many ways they have already figured it out. As adults, many of us don’t go out of our way to engage with people who are different from ourselves, but children don’t seem to have the same barriers.

Last week I was on a bus headed to Los Angeles International Airport to catch my flight back to Washington, D.C. The bus was full. Looking at the sea of faces, I was struck by how this group represented the rich diversity of America. Next to me sat Brooklyn, a 2½-year-old who insisted she was 3. In the 15 minutes that I talked with her and watched her engage with the people on the bus, she helped transform the bus from a group of strangers staring at their phones to a community of people laughing and engaging in conversation. With a big smile, Brooklyn talked with everyone, asked us questions, introduced her 8-year-old brother and stuffed Minion to us and told us all about her friends at pre-school. She giggled and smiled, talked and asked questions and waved goodbye to each person as they got off the bus — a perfect example of kindness and hospitality.

As executive director of the Religious Freedom Center, I do a great deal of traveling, speaking and educating about religious freedom and religious literacy, helping equip community leaders so they can protect the rights of people of all religious traditions and none. This is First Amendment work, but it is also integral is to the larger diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work that is happening in universities, schools, businesses and communities across the country.

Often when I talk about religious diversity and inclusion, religious freedom and religious literacy with adults, either I receive “Yes this is an issue, but we don’t have the time to deal with it,” or “We haven’t had any complaints — we don’t have those issues in our community.” These answers often come from people who haven’t had to think about these issues or are benefiting from systems of privilege that don’t force them to address the issues. When it comes to basic human and constitutional rights, pretending these issues don’t exist is probably not the best policy. The better way, although the harder way, is to dig in.

The first step is recognizing that diversity already exists in our schools, businesses and communities. I’m astonished when people tell me that their communities aren’t diverse — there is so much they aren’t seeing. Diversity encompasses many things — race, ethnicity, language, military status, marital status, economic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, learning differences, physical and mental ability, just to name a few.

The second step is to start asking the questions that Trudy Arriaga, Ed.D., asks in her book “Opening Doors” — “In what ways is the door slammed shut to certain groups? In what ways do we exclude and marginalize? In what ways do we send the message that our community, our school or business is not inclusive — not for everyone? In what ways do we ignore the systemic ways that prevent equal access?”

To have equity for people of all religions and none, we must guarantee fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all — not just for the people who look like us, think like us, and believe the same things we do. Dr. Arriaga reminds us that we need to take a hard look at our institutions and systems that create barriers and deny access. Once we put new equitable structures and systems in place, we still need to create environments where everyone feels welcomed, respected and fully valued.

We are making progress as more school districts, businesses and universities are putting an emphasis on DEI training and initiatives, but we still have a long way to go. The recent shooting at Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego County is another reminder of how we can’t ignore the growing anti-religious sentiment in this country. According to FBI hate crime statistics, hate crimes motivated by biases based on religion continue to rise. The increase in attacks on Jewish, Muslim and African-American communities over the last few years has raised alarm across America as communities continue to be devastated by shootings, arson and vandalism.

“Once we identify the barriers and start eliminating systems that systematically prevent people from access and opportunities, we can build new inclusive models and create an environment where all people feel welcomed, respected and valued” (University of Houston Center for Diversity and Inclusion). This is the long view — the work of years, decades and generations.

On days when fellow Americans tell me they don’t want to talk with anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs or roll their eyes and say things are just fine the way they are, I wonder whether or not E Pluribus Unum is even a remote possibility.

I was feeling that way when I left Los Angeles, but then met Brooklyn, who taught me a valuable lesson. She reminded me that there is an easy place to start this difficult work. She treated each person on the bus with kindness and in that very simple act made us feel valued, respected and welcomed. The nation’s founders placed the words E Pluribus Unum on the nation’s Great Seal. Brooklyn and others in future generations challenge us today to make them more than that.

Kristen Farrington is executive director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at kfarrington@freedomforum.org.

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