SOMERSET, NJ - State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and community leaders from New Jersey and New York spoke to students about ways they can combat bigotry and hate at Rutgers Preparatory School’s Stand Up for the Other Day on Wednesday.
Senior Research Fellow with the Sikh Research Institute Harinder Singh, Rabbi Eli Garfinkel of Temple Beth El in Somerset, Rev. Ann Kansfield of the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn and Director and Vice President of Muslim Foundation Dr. Alex Kharazi joined Grewal at the podium and offered advice during the assembly.
The speakers encouraged the students to take a pledge initiated by Mohammad Ali Chaudry during a meeting of the Interfaith Advisory Council of the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness in 2015.
The pledge states, “While interacting with members of my own faith, or ethnic, or gender community, or with others, if I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and speak up to challenge bigotry in any form.”
Grewal told the students how he experienced hate and intolerance in his own life, making the pledge personal for him. That in a state as diverse as New Jersey, communities must unite to stop intolerance from spreading.
“Here in New Jersey, we are united against hate, united in our efforts to prevent these forms of intolerance from spreading further,” Grewal said. “Here in New Jersey, we treat an act of bias or hate against one of our communities as an act of hate against all of our communities.”
It wasn’t always that way, even in the classrooms of Rutgers Prep. A former student of the school, Kansfield, who is the first female and openly lesbian chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, told the audience about a conversation with another former student about how the school was “the most homophobic school ever.”
The story resulted in some nervous laughs from the students, but Kansfield used the opportunity to praise the school’s progress.
“The difference that Prep has made in the last 25 years is phenomenal,” she said. “I know things have changed and that's a big thing to recognize.”
Garfinkel shared practical advice with the students about how they can be agents of the same change that resulted in Kansfield being welcomed back to the school that was once hostile to her.
“Go meet people who are not like you, look into their eyes, don’t just hear what they have to say, listen to them,” he said.
The face-to-face interaction that Garfinkel advocated for is an antidote for what he said is the driving force for much of the country’s social issues: weakened communities.
Kharazi stressed the importance of student’s carrying the pledge with them anywhere life takes them and “standing up for the other in the privacy of your home, around your friends, and in public and private gatherings.”
After surviving the genocide of Sikhs in India with the help of a Hindu man, Singh has worked to combat racism across the United States. He reminded students that there is still darkness in the world. Growing up he could have let the darkness win and become violent, not knowing what to do with the fear and anger he felt.
“You have to figure out in your sequencing how you're going to develop to be an agent of light,” said Singh. “For me, it's conquering fear.”
After a student asked Grewal about systemic racism in American society, the attorney general broke down his office’s efforts to disrupt implicit bias across the state’s law enforcement and “leave the office better than we found it.”
According to Grewal, all law enforcement personnel will receive implicit bias training, with state troopers completing training by the end of 2019.
He also told students how his office stands up for civil rights in the state by seeking maximum penalties for perpetrators of bias offenses, helps those suffering from addiction and fights the scourge of gun violence.
“Each of the groups I just described at one time or another felt like the other,” he said. “But the AG can’t do it alone. We need each of you to play a role and a part in this.”
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