Building Bridges Newsletter

Newsletter Six

This is one of a series of newsletters written by Peter Porr and Paul Sjordal between September 1993 and December 1995 for the purpose of explaining the South-East Asia Center’s Building Bridge’s objectives, philosophy, and approach to learning.


For two years now, South-East Asia Center’s Multicultural Program has challenged  conventional wisdom in the field of multicultural education. 

At first glance SEAC’s model multicultural curriculum targetting children  in the multiethnic Uptown-Edgewater’s McCutcheon and Goudy Schools, seems not to be all that out of the ordinary. Curriculum focuses on developing  self-esteem, positive social interaction skills and cooperation skills with a goal of ultimately more peaceful, productive classrooms and society.  Students examine prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, victimization, conflict resolution, peer pressure, goal setting, problem solving, parenting, values, teamwork, communication and life skills all geared, of course, to age level.


However, SEAC discovered that many schools’ multicutural efforts, utilize, largely a “touristapproach.” The approach emphasizes the value of observing and less frequently also studying  superficial ethnic differences in ethnic dress, dances, music, food, etc.

While the touristapproach might be useful in limited situations, SEAC wanted a new, more profound approach that would delve into the reasons we do things the same or differently  while stressing our commonalties of basic human needs — the root of  human behaviors in any and all cultures. Only then with this understanding can we be empowered and motivated to solve our personal, family and societal problems in this new multicultural world, in short, ” to get along.”

SEAC also challenged the conventional wisdom that teaching ethnic pride is the best way to accomplish self pride and societal equity.


Ethnic studies although meant to foster self pride and societal equity have often made some of the same mistakes as Eurocentric studies. Pitting one ethnic group’s history and accomplishments against another’s is ultimately destructive to both minorities and to the society at large. 

These studies in an effort to bolster minority egos often warp and glorify ethnic history and culture. The “great” empires often become those that have been successful at (often interethnic) conquest.  Peacemakers or cultures that were able to avoid war– such as Eskimos, Hmong and other various hilltribesmen — are rarely glorified. How wars coul]d have been avoided is rarely if ever studied and warriors, not peacemakers, become the heroes and the “great” figures of history.

Such studies, furthermore, tend to exacerbate an interethnic competition thus ironically and tragically increase interethnic tension and violence rather than reduce it. Such studies institutionalize humankind as separate and chronically hostile human beings, rather than bringing us together as beings of a single race with the same common human and global needs as other human beings sharing space on a single, ever-shrinking planet.

Furthermore, such studies do not teach the reality that all peoples have skeletons in their ethnic closets, and all peoples still have cultural flaws which handicap individual and group fulfillment — this reality-bending, selective history making and inattention to clearheaded “Whys” vs ethnocentric “Whats,” only perpetuates minority status and self image.  Withholding of truth and knowledge are characteristic of tyranny, not of liberation.  On an individual level, lack of knowledge and understanding translates into disempowerment. Even worse, warping of reality translates into neuroses which prevent ability to effectively cope with one’s environment. Unwittingly we are depriving our own youth of the tools and skills needed to become mentally healthy and mature individuals with the  wherewithal to cope in a modern, complex society where reasoning, knowledge and understanding of how things work is essential to a modicum of survival.

Interethnic Competition

Secondly, when interethnic competition becomes the basis for self-esteem, several potential counterproductive results may arise. First, what happens to the self-esteem of all the peoples of cultures that don’t have the kind of history defined as “great” by the powers that be?  How do these ethnic histories affect the self-esteem of Hmong slash-and-burn hilltribesmen, of Aleut hunter-fishermen or of American Indian tribes all but decimated by invading Europeans? And how do they affect the image others have of such peoples?

 Do we all begin to believe that conquest, empire building, great monument building, city building, technological development translate uniformly into social progress?  Are all the pastoral, hunting and gathering, slash-and-burn societies and ethnic Americans whose forebears originated from those societies to be looked down upon as inferior? Does any one stage of historical development of society have a monopoly on purity or sin?  Should we be teaching that each culture’s mores, customs and ways of living are related to its historical environment and stage of technological development more than to a modern concept of what is right, wrong and great? 

Might it be wiser to understand these different types of societies and  what makes or made each work and not work so well than to be setting up a competition among ethnic groups based upon a poorly thought out set of values including inter-ethnic conquest, urbanization, technological development, etc. Might some values in certain degrees work better in some types of cultures than others, e.g., respect for the old and for tradition. Might some values of some of our ancestors be functional values today, e.g., respect for nature, focus on common vs. individual welfare.  In short, what can we learn from other cultures in terms of understanding ourselves and our society and can we become broader and more open in our thinking from exposure to the ways of other peoples?

Third, what happens when the wiser, the more critical, discover that the ethnic studies are filled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies?  They are certainly not then more enamored of their ethnic group for its hand in foisting this fiction upon them, and their self-esteem is certainly not bolstered by the discovery. 

In fact, the ethnic studies approach places the individual self-esteem upon a fragile specter of mistaken identity. The individual’s image of his or her own personal identity — his/her self image– has  not been fundamentally changed, but rather that image of an outside entity has been changed. 

Holiday Celebration

 Although it is not new to educators that some holiday celebration is inter-ethnically insensitive, the practice remains widespread and the repercussions seem yet to be fully understood and appreciated by teachers, media, toy makers, law makers, governmental units trying to impress ethnic groups and especially by the ethnic coalitions themselves that lobby for the celebration of holidays.

Following are some  of the inappropriate, stereotypical, superficial, or simply  innaccurate  messages that we are taught on ethnic holidays — and alternative approaches:

St. Patrick’s Day: Irish like green, leprechauns and drinking. Alternative: “Feed the Hungry Day.” Talk about Irish, North African, Chinese and other famines past and present, why they occurred, etc.

Columbus Day: Columbus discovered America.Alternative: “Newcomers Day.” Talk about all of the numerous peoples who have settled in America, their impact — good, bad or otherwise — and  how they have gotten along or not and why.

Thanksgiving Day: Our forefathers were noble struggling pioneers escaping from persecution. Alternative: Focus on  sensitivity to those who don’t “have” and how we might make our society more sensitive to others in need, not as powerful, etc.

Martin Luther King Day: The perception is that this is a “Black holiday.” Alternative: “Peace Day.” Celebrate peace makers and peaceful solutions throughout world history and how this magic was achieved.

Christmas and New Year: Everyone is or should be Christian. Schools, cities, etc. condone and support this religion over others. Alternative: “Winter Solstice” and “Lunar New Year.” Many cultures throughout the world for thousands of years have celebrated holidays around the solar and lunar new years. Why do they all celebrate these occasions, and what do the celebrations have in common?  What calendars are used throughout the world?


Sports and Multicultural Education       

Although sports is generally not seen as multicultural education per se,  sports is seen as playing a crucial role in minority education and minority youth delinquency prevention.  Unfortunately,  we see again conventional wisdom supporting sports activities which are supposed to teach skills of cooperation and teamwork,  build self esteem, “keep kids off the street”  and “burn off kids extra energy.”

Instead, sports  represents a unique multibillion dollar private and public sector industry including public school programs, university programs, park department programs, social service programs, professional sports businesses, manufacturers of sports equipment, advertisers and media sports departments all  with various objectives which may or may not include the welfare of children.  The historical evolution of sports, likewise, often had little to do with concepts of modern education.

Instead, we find youth spending time and energy supporting sports teams for the sake of ego gratification rather than time enhancing their own skills to make themselves more competent to be happy and successful. And again ego gratification from outside entities is a hollow sort of gratification which does not make for a maturity or mental health. It can be argued that many popular sports commonly discourage opportunities for communication, higher order thinking and sensitivity to anyone outside a tight circle. It can be further argued that many sports stimulate violence through violent and, or physically aggressive behavior that is condoned and encouraged by authorities.

Finally, many popular sports, it can be again be argued , damage as many egos as they bolster.  Competition assures that we create at least 50% losers in many sports. Likewise, short people, fat people, clumsy people, females, many immigrants who are short and frail and often have not had a lifetime of experience with a sport are all placed on an uneven playing field — if allowed on the playing field at all. Of course , with the great emphasis that our society and educational system places on sports, exclusion or lack of ability to win are an erosion of ego rather than a  bolster to ego.  Minority often overdepend on outside entities for personal self-esteem in the area of sports. 

It is not surprising then that the massive impact on children’s lives often, despite conventional wisdom, contributes to a  distraction of attention from activities promoting self esteem, mastery of the tools of self and societal understanding, from skills of interpersonal communication understanding and translates attention to — mid-night basketball, more inner city courts, media hype of  sports teams etc.

Holocaust/Persecution Studies

Can we justify focusing on one? or two? Haven’t many, many ethnic groups suffered holocaust, genocide, enslavement, persecution?  What ties them together?

Do we need to study why — the dynamics of … — more thoroughly than we do?  What causes the hate? How can we prevent such tragedies?

What are any negative effects of teaching an ethnic group that they have been persecuted? Is there a  way to teach such studies without the negative repercussions? What are we trying to accomplish by such studies?


As we started working with teachers at McCutcheon, they urged us to concentrate on grades one to three, because they believed that children could be captured by the “streets” by fourth grade or earlier. They believed that character education would be much more effective than character reformation. We followed their advice and have been very pleased with the results.

The cooperation from dedicated, McCutcheon and Goudy teachers has been excellent. Their constructive criticism has been invaluable. Initially all McCutcheon classes were scheduled for two thirty minute periods per week. Some now are 40 minutes once a week. The classes for 6th-8th graders at Goudy are longer and held once a week.

We found that many McCutcheon students, especially first graders, brought a lot of negative baggage that makes instilling a cooperative attitude a challenge. These students have learned such messages as: “If I don’t win, I’m a loser; if I share, I’ll get cheated; if I ignore a threat, I’ll be taken advantage of; if I don’t fight for my position (literally and figuratively), I won’t be treated fairly; if I don’t get even now, I’ll get even later.”

The teachers told us that by necessity they were spending considerable time trying to instill cooperative learning values and socialization skills at the expense of academics. They said without positive character “building blocks” in place in the classroom, classrooms became an adversarial battleground with the teacher playing more referee than teacher. They stressed, “Only when students learn self-control and cooperative skills, can their academic skills soar.”


McCutcheon teachers try to instill “building block” socialization values that are not yet in place. The schools can’t be solely responsible for child socialization. Community organizations such as our Center can help the schools bridge this gap. I believe our curriculum significantly helped McCutcheon teachers instill “building block” values.

Although our Center has not had the time or resources to conduct scientific research on the effectiveness of the program, McCutcheon and Goudy teachers have been very pleased with our curriculum. Teachers and professional staff who have reviewed the curriculum and observed classroom instruction give it high marks for content, approach and results. They also told us that an adult, coming from within the community, who is concentrating on character education provides a perspective that they can’t provide.


Perhaps, the students provide the best barometer. They are very enthusiastic when Center teachers enter the classroom or see them on the streets. It’s hard to judge the lasting impact we have on the students, but incidents like the following encourage us. Omar, a third grade student who was in my class last year, stopped me in the main school hallway and asked why I didn’t come to his class any more. After I explained my time constraints, I asked him how he was doing this year, he said, “Fine. I get along with everyone. I don’t clown around and get in trouble like I used to. If you’re still doing Miss Jenny’s class (his teacher last year), tell her I’m doing good now.“

During the same week, another student from last year after going through the same initial discussion I had with Omar told me, ”I’ll never forget, when opportunity knocks.”  He was referring to a verse in a Coop ”Rap“ that I wrote and he learned, ”When opportunity knocks, we won’t be late, we’ll work together, so we can graduate.“


Our curriculum uses games and activities to underscore the lessons. We found that even first grade ”street smart“ students can talk a ”good game“ telling us what they think we want to hear instead of their true feelings.  When during a team activity students have to show cooperation skills to succeed,  their true feelings about how much they like to cooperate usually come out.  For example, in a team activity where each member has to unscramble a word written on the blackboard and write it on a piece of paper before their team can raise hands and try to beat the time of other teams, students learn how to handle teammates who are slower or faster thinkers and writers and less skilled spellers. The activity can bring out a lively discussion on cheating, winning and losing.


The Center’s motto of ”building bridges“ between ethnic groups is a primary goal of the curriculum. Self-discovery activities, cooperative games and anti-bias exercises are used to improve understanding and cooperation between ethnic groups.

An example of self-discovery learning involves showing the children shoes from around the world. Some foreign shoes and sandals, such as the Japanese wooden Geta sandal with its high ridges, can seem weird or stupid when first encountered. After learning to walk in them and discovering the Geta keeps an expensive Kimono dress from getting dirty, the Geta design seems pretty sensible.

An example of an activity for younger children on stereotyping is to show them a fancy wrapped box and a crumpled sack and ask them to decide which has a surprise in it. The sack contains the surprise demonstrating that you can’t always tell what is in the inside of a package or a person from outside appearances. The surprise is a 11 x 14 inch framed picture of ten happy babies in diapers who are of varying skin color and races. The point is raised that the babies don’t care what other babies look like and that all of us are alike in our needs. Above the picture is the question posed by Rodney King after the L.A. riots, ”Can’t we all get along?“  At the bottom of the picture is the answer many of us strive for, ”Yes we can!“

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