Learning about diversity

Learning about diversity

“Hands up if you think Natasha is not Australian?”

A flurry of hands go up, eager to get the answer right. Natasha Nathanielsz is a young Christian woman of Sri Lankan background. She is one of three presenters at a Together for Humanity workshop being run at a Sydney primary school.

The next presenter is Taha Allam, a young Muslim man of Egyptian background. When asked whether they think Taha is Australian, most hands stay firmly put. “Who thinks Taha is not Australian?” A throng of hands shoot into the air.

Finally, the third presenter is Donna Jacobs Sife, a Jewish woman who leads the workshop in an animated and non-threatening way. She says: “What about me, do you think I am an Australian?” Almost all the hands go up, assured they have got this one right.

Taha and Natasha then stand behind a fold-out brick wall to signify their classification as “un-Australian”. Their dejected, sulky faces demonstrate what it feels like to be “placed in a box”.

Donna then asks Natasha and Taha whether they are Australian. They both say, yes, they are indeed.

Once all is revealed, the children are asked how they decided the presenters were not Australian. Their responses are open and honest and reveal some of the superficial differences we base our judgements on – the name did not sound Australian, their skin colour is different, he is wearing a beard (this one caused much giggles from the children).

Through this process of naming their assumptions, the children come to agree that regardless of how we look, what religion we follow or what our name is, we can still be Australian.

This is one of the key lessons of the workshop delivered by Together for Humanity. As a non-profit, multi-faith organisation, Together for Humanity works with schools, organisations and communities to build respect for differences of culture and belief. It has a long association with The Uniting Church through different interfaith projects. National Director Zalman Kastel spoke to The Uniting Church Relations with Other Faith Working Group at its meeting in November 2014. Their successful strategy is to bring participants into contact with people from diverse backgrounds, encouraging empathy and questioning existing prejudices.

Since 2002, Together for Humanity has delivered workshops to 75,000 primary and secondary students in Australia. They are particularly busy as Harmony Day is celebrated in schools. Earlier in the week, Year 5 students from Uniting Church school Ravenswood took part in the same workshop alongside students from nearby Jewish, Islamic and Armenian schools.

Three of the Year 5 students, Amelia Petrenas, Chloe Dickson and Sophia Barnard, wrote about the experience: “The most important lesson we brought back with us was that even though we have many differences, we actually have more in common than we thought.”

Donna says the workshops are an effective way to teach young people how to embrace diversity in all kinds of settings.

“When it comes to dealing with our differences and our prejudices, there are specific tools and skills that need to be learnt, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally,” she says.

Some of the schools they visit are mostly mono-cultural, others consist of a very diverse cultural background.

Donna says it is particularly important for those students who are not accustomed to difference to learn how to deal with it.

Together for Humanity runs a number of programs for schools including a one-hour presentation, interschool projects and a belonging and identity program for marginalised students.

Taha Allam, a PhD student and young Muslim leader, has been involved at all levels. Having experienced bullying as a high school student, Taha says he finds it rewarding to help bring about turning points for other young people.

“If a person grows up with a bias point of view and then progresses to become more understanding and tolerant because of the presentations, for me, knowing you have changed a child’s life and their behaviour, that is a blessed feeling.”

Through the more in-depth identity workshops, Taha has also inspired and encouraged other young people from diverse cultural backgrounds to believe in themselves.

“Once a student came to me and said ‘thank you so much for your speech that day’. I tell students that if you want to do something, don’t be afraid to do it, hold on to that ambition like a treasure. The speech had inspired him to continue in nursing at university so that he could one day go on to become a doctor.”

In finishing the presentation, Donna tells the students that the presenters, while different in their culture and beliefs, have much in common.

“We are Jewish, Christian and Muslim – we have different beliefs – but we are great friends. We are from ‘Together for Humanity’ and we hope that you will be too.”

For more information on the school workshops and for online diversity resources go to www.togetherforhumanity.org.au

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