Needham residents spoke Monday about the importance of continuing the work started by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—digging deeper into the issues of prejudice and privilege and having conversations about what exactly it means to value diversity in Needham.
In his speech at the beginning of Needham’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, Dr. Abdul Cader Asmal shared famous quotes by King and other American leaders and emphasized the importance of speaking out against bigotry.
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people,” Asmal said, quoting King.
Asmal, a longtime Needham resident and director of the Islamic Center of Boston, said he had emigrated to the United States from South Africa to escape the oppression of apartheid and felt that “Needham was and is a haven for strangers.”
He remembered how proud he had felt seeing his two sons “rise through the ranks” of the public school system and both graduate from as valedictorians, two years apart.
Asmal said Needham was “a welcoming community, a community that strangers can quickly call home, a place where homelessness and hunger are within everyone’s radar, a place where the sick, the elderly, the downtrodden are taken care of.”
But Asmal also said he had not fully escaped prejudice after leaving his native country for the United States. While he had been judged a “second-class citizen” in South Africa because of the color of his skin, Asmal said it was only after coming to America that he had found his religion questioned.
He talked about the current politically charged climate in which “Islam-bashing has become almost a social norm” and observed that the hateful speech “once confined to xenophobes and bigots is now unashamedly exploited by presidential wannabes who use anti-Islam fear mongering to garner votes.”
“The silence of the media in challenging hateful, anti-Islamic rhetoric is reminiscent of Dr. King’s statement that ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,’” Asmal said. “Just like there is no radical Judaism or radical Christianity, there is no radical Islam. There are radical, fanatic and extremist Muslims, as there are Jews and Christians.”
Asmal emphasized the need for Americans to work together to combat extremism through education, conversation and understanding.
The Martin Luther King Day celebration, held at Needham High School at 10 a.m. Monday, Jan. 16, also featured musical performances by the combined youth choirs of and , the Teen Band Program, The Scala Trio, Lift Every Voice and the Roxbury Center for Performing Arts. Speakers included Asmal, Selectman Moe Handel, Needham activist Harmony Wu and participants in Needham’s 30 Actions program.
Funded though a Needham Education Foundation grant, the 30 Actions program began last year with a group of community members, staff from Needham Public Schools and a single student, meeting to talk about cultural competence and to develop action projects that will be completed in 2012.
“The 30 Actions group represents something very special about Needham, about having the courage to have conversations, to dig a little deeper to find out about different cultures, to forge connections with one another, to discover that the diversity which at times may divide us can also enrich us,” explained David Summergrad, an educator and member of the group. “In our schools, we often teach about Dr. King almost like a fairytale story from long ago, and everyone held hands at the end and his dream was achieved. In fact, there is much to be done.”
Summergrad said much has changed in the United States just over the past century but that prejudice, hate and bigotry are still very real issues that need to be addressed.
“In some ways what makes this a harder challenge now is that the issues are less blatant and less overt,” he said.
As one of the 30 Actions projects, Needham resident Michael O’Neal is developing a game called “Cultural Lens: The Game,” which is meant to help people learn more about their own viewpoints and what it means to come from a certain socioeconomic background.
“The game consists of seven players. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They’re diverse in terms of their sexuality and color. The people with the most money get to roll the most dice,” O’Neal said. “There are pitfalls throughout the game so just when you get to the point where you feel ‘I’m just about to win,’ somebody can pull a wildcard on you.”
The game is designed not to have winners or losers but to give players a chance to explore their own feelings and beliefs in a deeper way, O’Neal said.
Needham resident Naomi Sutherland and her son Jeremy, a middle school student and the only youth member of the 30 Actions group, talked about their project, which will involve a series of presentations to educate people about what they learned and how to get involved.
Another project, which Summergrad is involved with, will involve reaching out to high school juniors and seniors of color to help these teens and their families navigate the college application process.
Naomi Sutherland said residents should expect to hear more about the 30 Actions projects in the coming months.
The Martin Luther King Day celebration was sponsored by the Needham Clergy Association, the Needham Human Rights Committee, Needham Public Schools and the school district’s METCO program.