From the shootings at two Muslim mosques in New Zealand last month, to the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., in November and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina in 2015, there is a rising tide of hatred.
But it doesn’t have to be that way – and that was the overarching message that La Convivencia and its keynote speaker sought to get across at the nonprofit group’s second annual conference, which was held on March 24 at Princeton University.
The translation of “La Convivencia” is “to coexist,” which is what the West Windsor Township-based group seeks to encourage through dialogue and the discovery of common ground.
Keynote speaker Rachel Wainer Apter, the director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, acknowledged the onslaught of attacks on individuals because of what they look like, how they worship and who they love.
Nationwide, there was a 17-percent increase in hate crimes between 2016 and 2017, said Apter, whose Division on Civil Rights is within the state Office of the Attorney General.
It was the single biggest spike in hate crimes – from swastikas and racist graffiti scratched onto bathroom stalls in schools, to nooses in an office and beer cans tossed at Jews on their way to worship – since the targeting of Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, Apter said.
“We need to vigorously prosecute hate crimes, because an act of hate against any one of our communities is a threat to all of our communities,” Apter said, adding that it is the job of the police – not her office – to prosecute crimes.
But the Division on Civil Rights can address some of the issues, she said. The Division on Civil Rights attempts to prevent and eliminate bias, prejudice and discrimination in housing, jobs and public spaces by investigating acts of prejudice and discrimination.
The Division on Civil Rights can require policy changes within the workplace, as well as requiring bias training and policies that spell out how incidents of harassment and discrimination are reported.
“We are taking the approach to evaluate the type of training and policies that might help us to understand and overcome our own stereotypical thinking, and to work directly with the community to break down barriers,” Apter said.
And that is the purpose of La Convivencia’s conference, she said. The goal is to create connections and break down stereotypes between different groups – to find what they have in common that unites them.
Apter pointed to Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who said that no one is born hating. It is something that has to be learned – and if hatred can be learned, then people can also learn to love, which is something that comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite, he said.
“In many ways that matter, we are the same. We all seek love and acceptance. We are all born with the desire to cooperate and help. We have a belief in fairness and the capacity for empathy and understanding,” Apter said.
But somewhere along the way, people learn stereotypes and pick up biases – sometimes from others, she said.
“We have to acknowledge that we all have stereotypes. We have to affirmatively act to counteract that corrosive thinking,” Apter said.
The first step is to create connections with others – to break stereotypes and acknowledge them. The second step is to seek out others who are different from us and listen to their stories, Apter said.
Community groups such as La Convivencia can organize events such as this conference to bring people together to share stories, she said. Children can be taught that “the ties that bind us are stronger than those that would tear us apart,” she said.
Circling back to the shootings in New Zealand last month, Apter said that one week after the incident, women and girls across the country – regardless of religion – wore a head scarf, such as those worn by Muslim women, in a display of solidarity with the victims.
The purpose of the head scarves was to move New Zealanders closer to one another, to discover their similiarities, to build relationships and to make the streets safer by living in harmony, she said.
“May we all go forward and do just that,” Apter said.