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'Crashing' Into Each Other

Residents discuss fear, bias and human behavior in times of crisis.

An African American FBI agent, a white woman who had formerly served in the Foreign Service, a young white Muslim woman, a white woman from the South and an Indian male Sikh.

Despite their obvious differences, these five people share two things in common — they all live in McLean, and they all sat at the same round table at the McLean Community Dialogue "Bias-Fear-Crisis: How Can Our Community Cope?" on Thursday, April 6.

This was the fourth community dialogue held by McLean Community Connections, a group that was organized in 2003 by local McLean community residents. The goal of the organization is "to promote deeper understandings and conversation within our diverse community, and to strengthen community resilience for times of emergency, unrest or crisis." The dialogues are organized in conjunction with the Fairfax County Community Interfaith Liaison Office in the Department of Systems Management for Human Services.

"This is our fourth dialogue and they have all been hugely successful," said McLean Community Connections Steering Committee member Jackie Eghrari-Sabet, a member of the Baha'i McLean Spiritual Assembly. "Most people describe this as a very worthwhile experience, and a life-altering experience in terms of community awareness."

Eghrari-Sabet joked that as a woman from an Iranian, Irish, Jewish, Baha'i background, she could have a dialogue with herself.

"I crash into myself all the time," said Eghrari-Sabet.

Eghrari-Sabet made her comment in reference to the fact that the dialogue began with a viewing of several particularly dramatic scenes from the 2006 Academy Award winning Best Picture of the Year "Crash." The McLean Community Connections Steering Committee decided that the racially charged issues raised in "Crash" offered the perfect segue into discussions of bias and fear.

"They did a really good job in the film of expressing bias and how people dealt with it, of showing how they expressed those biases and how they reacted in a time of crisis, and of showing how it affected them afterwards," said Steering Committee member Gregg Skall, who is also a member of Temple Rodef Shalom.

DIALOGUE PARTICIPANTS were broken down into tables of six to eight people. A steering committee member and group facilitator sat at each table and helped to run the discussion which consisted of three questions on bias, fear and human behavior during times of crisis. The first question asked attendees to recall times in their life when they experienced biased behavior or were treated disrespectfully because of their race or gender. Facilitators also asked their group members to think of times when they had let their own biases rule their behavior toward others.

Samuel Feemster, an FBI agent and Pastor of First Baptist Church in McLean, said that he has experienced discrimination his entire life — starting with his father's decision to enroll him in a white school when integration first began in 1965.

"The presumption was that I was behind in my studies and that I wouldn't be able to keep up," said Feemster. "I had six fights that year, but I won them all."

Feemster said he continued to experience racial discrimination in college, and that he even encountered it when he attempted to buy his home in McLean in 1985 and had difficulty obtaining a mortgage. Feemster said that over the years he has "learned to return some of the aggression" in a passive manner, but that he feels he is ready to try and tackle racial obstacles head on.

"I don't speak to people so they don't speak to me," said Feemster. "If I pass a white female in the hallway and she doesn't speak to me I won't say anything to her… but at 52 years old, I've decided to stop running."

Feemster said that although his dual professions as an FBI agent and a minister keep him balanced, he is tired of simply trying to cope with discrimination.

"I am tired of running and tired of being made to feel like I don't belong," said Feemster. "I have given my country 23 years of service."

Harpal Singh, an Indian Sikh who has lived in McLean for 31 years, attended the dialogue because he said he has grown weary of his community not being an active part of the McLean community.

"We are the fifth largest religion in the world, but we are a really shy people," said Singh. "We should be mingling more with people."

Singh said the need to interact with his community members became even more clear to him after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks when he and his fellow Sikhs were mistakenly assumed to be Muslims and Arabs, simply because they wear head wraps and have brown skin. Singh said this assumption has been a source of discrimination for him on various occasions, including one time when he and his family waited in vain for a table to open up for them at a local restaurant.

"They bypassed us at least three or four times," said Singh, who finally grew tired of waiting and left the restaurant.

"But before I left I went up and said to the man, you know you've got to realize that the world is not all white anymore and that things are changing," said Singh.

Jena Luedtke, Director of Public Relations for the Rumi Forum, an organization founded in 1999 to foster interfaith and intercultural dialogue, has also experienced discrimination as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although Luedtke is a white American woman, she is married to a Turkish Muslim man. Luedtke says that when she tells people that she is Muslim, and when she travels with her husband, she feels the discrimination that has been instilled in people as a result of the attacks.

"I feel a sense of being an outsider and I have a sense of being an other," said Luedtke. "September 11th has definitely changed our lives and sometimes I wonder if it's to the point of paranoia."

This paranoia is partly what led Luedtke to become involved with the Rumi Forum. She feels it is her duty to help fight cultural ignorance.

"As far as I'm concerned, Muslims cannot be terrorists and terrorists can never be Muslims, and the term Islamic terrorist is an oxymoron," said Luedtke. "I feel like I am here to help people not be afraid, Islam is not about the things you see on the news."

Bob Rayle, a member of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, and the first member of the McLean Community Connections Steering Committee, has had different experiences than Feemster, Singh and Luedtke.

"I'm almost embarrassed to say that I have never been discriminated against," said Rayle. "I don't think I'm a racist, but a couple of years ago I was called a racist by a black person and that startled me, and so I am trying to overcome my heritage."

Margaret Reuthinger, a member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, can sympathize with Rayle's desire to escape his upbringing. Growing up in the South, Reuthinger recalls her mother referring to her as "a communist" for her refusal to use a common racial epithet for African Americans.

"There are expectations of Southern women," said Reuthinger. "I just never really did those things."

THE DIALOGUE concluded with each table sharing a centralized theme of their discussions. Clarice Scriber, the facilitator for Feemster, Singh, Luedtke, Rayle and Reuthinger's table, commented on the group's focus on resilience in the face of a crisis.

"We talked about resiliency and being able to be honest about what we are feeling, and being able to go back again and engage in being honest," said Scriber.

Eghrari-Sabet said that she was pleased with the turnout of last week's event.

"It is so very comforting to me to come out and meet like-minded people," she said, adding that she was especially happy that the attendees of McLean Community Connections dialogues are "really beginning to be a family and a community."

Steering Committee member Leah Rampy, a member of Lewinsville Presbyterian Church thanked participants for sharing their personal stories.

"Dialogues do not work unless you are willing to share," said Rampy. "A dialogue is not like a typical conversation that we have in the course of our day… you have to be incredibly curious about what the other people at your table are thinking… and you have to be willing to examine your assumptions and the judgments that you hold."