A local organization works with businesses and schools to reduce discrimination in all its forms.
Thursday, July 27, 2000
When Alberto Cornejo moved to Greenfield from Mexico City in the 4th grade, he was ahead of his peers in math and was quick to pick up English. But that didn''t stop his classmates from discriminating against him and other immigrant students who occupied the "bilingual wing" of King City High School in the late 1970s.
"The white kids would say things like ''Go home, you stupid wetback,'' and call us ''beaners'' and ''greasers,''" says Cornejo. "It was like they were at home and you were a visitor. I would tell them, ''why do you call me that? You don''t even know me, I didn''t even cross the river.''"
Cornejo, now a preschool teacher and a domestic violence counselor, is sharing these painful childhood experiences as part of a workshop put on by the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) for his YWCA domestic violence training course. Eight fellow volunteers-in-training watch Cornejo with rapt attention.
The YWCA group is spending three hours with NCBI trainers Ann Jealous and Evelyn Kahan, looking inward at their own prejudices and reflecting on times in their lives when they have felt oppressed by other people. In a particularly revealing exercise, the volunteers are asked to say the first thing that comes to their minds when they hear "black man," "Latinos," "white girl," "gay/lesbian" and other labels.
Cornejo says the NCBI training raised difficult issues but ultimately fostered group cohesion. "The training broke the ice and brought people together," he says. "We saw that we are different but also alike in a special way. It put people on the same level as human beings."
Close to 10,000 Monterey County residents have gone through NCBI work- shops since the local chapter was started in 1993. NCBI''s motto, "all for one, one for all," means that it works to overcome all the "isms," including racism, ageism, sexism, weightism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and classism.
That''s a tall order, even in a county like Monterey that fancies itself a relatively well-educated and enlightened community. Local NCBI member Ann Jealous says that the Monterey area is a microcosm of the larger American society and faces the same problems of social oppression.
"There''s a tremendous amount of unconscious racism and anti-Semitism in this community, in my mind," says Jealous, who remembers being the only African-American woman in Carmel when she lived there in the early 1970s. "People might not recognize it, but they''re acting out of it."
In Jealous'' eyes, the issues are separation and fear. While the county is very diverse--at approximately 46 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 6 percent African-American and 1 percent Native American--its ethnic communities tend to live more separately than in large cities. This separation, according to Jealous, leads to stereotypes about every community from Seaside to Pebble Beach, fostering rivalries and suspicions along the way.
Jealous, a therapist and college teacher, says she was distressed by the geographic divisions on the Peninsula when she arrived 30 years ago. It was Jealous'' husband, counselor Fred Jealous, who organized to bring NCBI to Monterey in the wake of a violent attack against an African-American couple at a Monterey gas station. As a white man in an interracial marriage, Jealous wanted to create a community of people interested in addressing issues of prejudice. A group of 30 people met for a year of community building before bringing in the national group to train them in 1993.
Sue Parris joined that initial planning group to overcome her isolation as a white woman. "All I knew how to do was feel guilty for being white, and I wasn''t developing close relationships with people of color," says Parris, now coordinator of Monterey County''s NCBI chapter. "NCBI said that we all need to be powerful allies in overcoming prejudice. I found a strategy better than guilt."
Since 1993, NCBI has shared that message with children and adults at 140 locales throughout the county. The groups that most frequently call on NCBI for diversity awareness training are county government offices, nonprofits and schools. Many local businesses have also received training.
Although the majority of requests come for preventive workshops, the group is also called in for conflict resolution work after a crisis. "We get calls from school principals saying, ''We''ve had a racist incident and we don''t know what to do. We''ve heard you folks are the ones to call,''" says Parris.
When a racist slur was shouted from the bleachers at a Monterey High sporting event in South County, area schools called on NCBI. A total of 60 Monterey Peninsula Unified School District students and staff got trained in 1994, leading to the founding of a student chapter at Seaside High, one of the area''s most diverse campuses, with near equal percentages of Latino, African-American, white and Asian and Pacific Islander students. NCBI also has student chapters at Cal State Monterey Bay, Salinas High, and Palma High School in Salinas.
In the future, NCBI hopes to spread the word about its services by reaching out to target groups where diversity awareness takes on a heightened importance, such as area police departments. (NCBI played a major role with the LAPD after the Rodney King incident and in Seattle after last year''s WTO protests.)
NCBI''s message boils down to coalition building. "Division is unnatural, even if it is common. We don''t come into the world with predetermined prejudices about the people around us," says Ann Jealous. "We want to better understand others and ourselves. It''s a way of getting closer to how we were when we came in, arms wide open to embrace the world."
For more information, call Sue Parris at 373-4606.