Building on New Foundations > Standing Up, Reaching Out

Chicago

Widad Albassam

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Director, Arab American Arts Council

The Field Museum sponsors a program called Cultural Connections, they do programming for public school teachers and parents. There are 19 other participating ethnic groups in the city — the Polish, Swedish, Vietnamese communities. Anything we do has to be in collaboration with other ethnic groups. There are particular themes each year, such as transmission of culture. This year we’re working with the Polish Museum; we showed a Palestinian wedding and a Polish wedding.

The program brings together parents of public school students from completely different neighborhoods. People from the Latino community came to Bridgeview for a full-day tour of the school, the mosque, businesses, meals, to meet with the imam. They begin with breakfast and go through the whole day together.

It led to some really interesting exchanges between our communities, they don’t even know we exist. Their questions reveal a lot of preconceptions.

The program has existed for nine years; the Arab community got involved after 9/11. Many institutions felt it was important to establish connections. We wanted to show that we exist.

We are partly to blame for our isolation — we are afraid to be conspicuous, afraid to assimilate, afraid to put ourselves out there. We don’t trust the interaction will be positive. We worry about how it will be misconstrued. We are more vulnerable.

Workshops are very effective for building relationships. We’re seeking funding from the Board of Education to do staff development with teachers. We received a great package from ACCESS after 9/11. We use their materials for workshops in schools and in resource centers for public school on the North Side and South Sides, small gatherings of 20-25 people. We develop the workshops and they bring the teachers.