Taking tolerance overseas

Stemming hate violence
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 15, 2007
SPEAKING OUT: Stephen Wessler in
Lewiston, 2006.

Hate violence between Catholics and Protestants plagued Northern Ireland for decades, but over the past several years, that animosity has abated. For proof, look to the July 31 official cessation of Operation Banner — Britain’s 38-year policy that placed troops in Northern Ireland to keep the peace (or contribute to the turmoil, depending on whom you ask) among religious groups.

But the region has yet to rid itself of factions and hostility. As religious prejudice dissipated, racial intolerance — aggravated by an influx of Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants — swelled. Earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Assembly debated a Racial Equality Strategy; one member cited 1000 incidents of racial violence in 2006 as motivation. The BBC reported in June about a south Belfast family from Nepal that has been the target of racist slurs, graffiti, and an acid bomb that was thrown at its house. In a Belfast Telegraph article about Anti-Racism Week earlier this year, one local official was quoted as saying: “We don’t want to replace sectarianism with racism.”

To that end, the Portland-based Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence is bringing its model of prejudice prevention to three Northern Irish middle schools this fall — one Catholic, one Protestant, and one with students from both religious groups.

These programs — all slated for multi-year contracts — will tackle European discrimination just as they’ve dealt with it in South Portland, where many students are from Eastern Europe or Central America, or as they did in Lewiston earlier this year when a middle-schooler tossed a ham sandwich on a cafeteria lunch table where a group of Muslim Somali students were eating lunch. Muslims believe that pork is unclean. The perpetrator was disciplined (whether or not it deserved to be, the incident was deemed a hate crime by members of the media as well as school officials), and staff members from the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence (CPHV) — which had been working with the Lewiston School Department since 2001 — were called in to collect information and work with the students in groups.

In these local communities (as well as in a few far-flung districts in Tennessee and Portland, Oregon), the center has implemented its Unity Project, which takes a long-term approach to training teachers and student leaders alike to curtail degrading behavior and language in and out of school. This is the model that staff members in Northern Ireland are currently learning — the center’s executive director, Stephen Wessler, believes it helps transform “large numbers of kids...from being passive bystanders to becoming active bystanders.”

Many of us may recall occasional, episodic hate-prevention forums in middle or high school. The CPHV goes beyond that: “Our feeling is, that’s helpful — but it’s not how you make sustained change,” Wessler says. Instead, the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence offers multi-year trainings that lead to continuity and, hopefully, lasting tolerance.

The program in the United Kingdom is just one example of how Wessler is attempting to raise his organization’s national profile. This spring, he traveled to Bucharest to work with non-governmental organizations in Eastern European countries to address issues of anti-Semitism and prejudice — specifically against immigrants, and Roma (gypsies).

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