When Dorothy McFadyen goes to her line dancing classes at the Pimmit Hill Senior Center, she is typically the only non-Asian woman in the room.
"It's mostly Chinese ladies, and there are some Korean teachers, and most of the Chinese people don't really speak English," said McFadyen, who lives in McLean.
None of this bothers McFadyen one bit. She feels totally at ease because her fellow line dancers have made her feel that way.
"Whenever I get something right and do the dance moves correctly, they'll look over at me and smile and give me two thumbs up," said McFadyen.
Despite a language barrier, McFadyen knows that they are accepting of her presence by their gestures and their countenances — and that makes her feel good.
"We are one because we dance together," said McFadyen.
McFadyen shared this story at last week's McLean Community Connections' 5th Community Dialogue "We are Many … Can we be One?" which was held at the McLean Community Center on Thursday, Nov. 2. It was the third such dialogue that she has attended.
"After the first one, I was so impressed with the way it worked and the people we met," said McFadyen. "The inter-cultural atmosphere here is right up my alley."
THE COMMUNITY DIALOGUES were first initiated in 2003 by a group called McLean Community Connections, which was made up of McLean residents. The Dialogues were prompted by the post-9-11 environment of fear, distrust and anger, and were created in the hopes of dispelling some of those negative emotions. Over the past three years, McLean Community Connections has partnered with the Fairfax County Interfaith Liaison Office, Federal Government-Community Resilience Project, Faith Communities in Action, and the George Mason University Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
AFTER A BRIEF OVERVIEW and introduction, attendees at last week's dialogue were asked to move to one of several round tables set up in the community hall of the McLean Community Center. Leah Rampy, chair of the McLean Community Connections Dialogue facilitation subcommittee, asked that everyone avoid sitting at a table with people they knew.
"Think about how you can add an element of diversity to your group," said Rampy.
Rampy also went over some of the ground rules of a Community Dialogue.
"Tonight we're going to let go of the need to convince others that we're right," said Rampy. "When we listen in a dialogue the intent is to be incredibly curious about what the other person is saying."
Each table was manned by a professional facilitator who led their individual groups through a list of several questions designed to stimulate respectful conversations about personal experiences, beliefs and opinions. The diversity of the crowd was evident at each table. Facilitator Moghitha Alkibsi's group consisted of a range of people that included a Fairfax County Police officer, a Fairfax County Public School teacher and an ordained Unitarian minister, to name a few. Some, like Dorothy McFadyen, had come to previous dialogues, while others were experiencing it for the first time.
ALKIBSI, who is a Fairfax County mental health therapist, began by asking everyone to share an example of a time when they either felt connected with a diverse community, or separate from one. McFadyen described her positive experience at the Pimmit Hill Senior Center. Sandy Chisholm, a community interfaith liaison with the Fairfax County Community Interfaith Liaison Office, had a similar story of acceptance. Chisholm recalled moving from North Carolina to Washington D.C. at the age of 23 to take a manager job at a senior citizen center. She was the only white woman working there.
"When I first came in I felt very separated, and I wasn't quite sure how I was going to be accepted into the group, but I was," said Chisholm. "I didn't think it would come, but it did."
She knew she had been accepted when she started to be invited to birthday parties, dinners and other social gatherings.
Fairfax County Police officer Lt. Alan Hanson described how his job often places him in situations rife with cultural barriers. He cited the experience of pulling someone over for speeding as an example of a time when race can come into play.
"When you're following a car for speeding, you look at the speedometer and that's all you know about the car at that time," said Hanson. "I've had people yelling at me and saying that the only reason I pulled them over was because they were Arab, or African-American … I was so upset about being called a racist because I felt that it was so unfair."
AFTER SHARING their various personal experiences, Alkibsi encouraged her group to think of the advantages of having a united community, and to brainstorm ways to achieve it.
"I really believe that Americans should travel more, so they can see how other people live," said McFadyen. "It makes people less small-minded."
McLean resident Chad Akavan, an Iranian of B'ahai faith, said that he feels that parents need to take more initiative in educating their children about acceptance of others.
"It's really the duty of the parents to educate their child about having an open mind," said Akavan. "It's really difficult for someone with prejudice to get over it — it's possible, but it's a lot more difficult."
McLean resident Rhonda Williams, a music and art teacher, talked about her annoyance with the media's dedication to drama and sensationalism, rather than real truth and positive themes.
"The media has the power in the community to become the voice of the people," said Williams.
Mercedes Riddick, an African-American woman who recently graduated from college and works for the Fairfax County Health Department, agreed that the media helps foster negative stereotypes.
"I think people in general get their information from television, and our youth is watching TV, so that's all they see and that's all they know," said Riddick.
Alkibsi's group agreed that programs like the McLean Connections Community Dialogues were also extremely beneficial in fostering positive connections.
"We can only benefit from sharing ideas and growing from this kind of thing," said Williams. "It makes our lives more enriched."
Dr. Jackie Eghrari-Sabet, chair of McLean Community Connections, said that the organization is looking into holding pilot "mini-dialogues" in the future.
"People always complain that we don't do this enough," said Eghrari-Sabet.
Subsequently, attendees were asked to fill out feedback forms at the end of the Dialogue to help give McLean Community Connections a sense of how to plan future events.
"These Dialogues again and again are an opportunity for you to make new friendships," said Eghrari-Sabet. "It's always so assuring to find that there are like-minded people in the world."