Tolerance — are we there yet?

GDC councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown

COLUMN

Last week it was 100 years since the birth, in the South African village of Mvezo, of Nelson Mandela, one of the most visionary and influential political figures the world has seen. For many, he will forever be the man who led his people to freedom, who suffered under and then vanquished the evil of apartheid in South Africa, and who built a new democracy with magnanimity, wisdom and vision. What is remarkable, and what gives us hope for the future, is how his life and legacy continue to inspire the younger generations.

He famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I have just returned from a trip to Los Angeles and San Diego with our own local Ambassadors of Tolerance, a group of Year 13 students from Lytton High who have been learning about the story of the Freedom Writers.

The Freedom Writers is founded on tolerance when, after the LA riots, a teacher found herself face to face with the realities of racism and intolerance. She used education to challenge the mindsets of a group of poor African-American and Latino students who hated different races and especially “white people”.

We gave our students the opportunity to visit the US-Mexico border to see the fence that separates the two countries, the Museum of Tolerance in LA that shares the horrors of the Holocaust, and a couple of high schools. The students were fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein’s museum in Huntington Beach and meet his daughter, who told us we were the last group to see the art in the museum as it was closing down. Mel was the only survivor from his immediate family and spent years travelling back to Auschwitz to collect items that he turned into art pieces. Some of us were gifted copies of Mel’s autobiography By Bread Alone.

Giving young people the opportunity to see these sights and consider their worldview on these issues has been a valuable experience. I hope they will use the experience to challenge intolerant behaviours they see, but also reflect on how tolerant they are.

I returned home to a meeting with some Gisborne residents who feel at risk from our prisoner reintegration system, and a Gisborne District Council meeting where conversation over lunch included references to the killing of local Maori when Cook arrived, and according to a couple of my colleagues, “not enough were killed”.

We still have a way to go when it comes to tolerance and understanding, and yet some would say we have had better education, so why do such strong attitudes exist?

While Nelson Mandela didn’t train as a teacher, he taught us all what it means to make choices, to sacrifice for something greater than oneself. He taught us to forgive when we can, and be humble in asking for forgiveness when we need to. He taught us to belong, accept and include. He taught us to cherish democracy, he taught us to share and to be kind, and he also taught us that in teaching we can give all young people hope, opportunities and the courage to make the world a better place.

Last week it was 100 years since the birth, in the South African village of Mvezo, of Nelson Mandela, one of the most visionary and influential political figures the world has seen. For many, he will forever be the man who led his people to freedom, who suffered under and then vanquished the evil of apartheid in South Africa, and who built a new democracy with magnanimity, wisdom and vision. What is remarkable, and what gives us hope for the future, is how his life and legacy continue to inspire the younger generations.

He famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I have just returned from a trip to Los Angeles and San Diego with our own local Ambassadors of Tolerance, a group of Year 13 students from Lytton High who have been learning about the story of the Freedom Writers.

The Freedom Writers is founded on tolerance when, after the LA riots, a teacher found herself face to face with the realities of racism and intolerance. She used education to challenge the mindsets of a group of poor African-American and Latino students who hated different races and especially “white people”.

We gave our students the opportunity to visit the US-Mexico border to see the fence that separates the two countries, the Museum of Tolerance in LA that shares the horrors of the Holocaust, and a couple of high schools. The students were fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein’s museum in Huntington Beach and meet his daughter, who told us we were the last group to see the art in the museum as it was closing down. Mel was the only survivor from his immediate family and spent years travelling back to Auschwitz to collect items that he turned into art pieces. Some of us were gifted copies of Mel’s autobiography By Bread Alone.

Giving young people the opportunity to see these sights and consider their worldview on these issues has been a valuable experience. I hope they will use the experience to challenge intolerant behaviours they see, but also reflect on how tolerant they are.

I returned home to a meeting with some Gisborne residents who feel at risk from our prisoner reintegration system, and a Gisborne District Council meeting where conversation over lunch included references to the killing of local Maori when Cook arrived, and according to a couple of my colleagues, “not enough were killed”.

We still have a way to go when it comes to tolerance and understanding, and yet some would say we have had better education, so why do such strong attitudes exist?

While Nelson Mandela didn’t train as a teacher, he taught us all what it means to make choices, to sacrifice for something greater than oneself. He taught us to forgive when we can, and be humble in asking for forgiveness when we need to. He taught us to belong, accept and include. He taught us to cherish democracy, he taught us to share and to be kind, and he also taught us that in teaching we can give all young people hope, opportunities and the courage to make the world a better place.

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Jodie - 1 month ago
Wow, I feel like we are a few generations away from freedom writer tolerance, based on my own experiences in Gisborne city as a Maori woman from the Coast. Interesting colleague conversation - I would have liked to have heard your response Meredith

Rose - 1 month ago
How disgraceful that GDC councillors would say such racist, vile things about Maori, "not enough were killed". These people need to be named and fired!
Outrageous. I dont want my rates paying for racists. I feel 100% offended and disgusted. Who are they Meredith?

Neil - 1 month ago
What an absolute hypocrite! Let her name and shame these people. You know what, she can't because this didn't happen!

Te Hamua Nikora - 1 month ago
Neil, I know it is true because I know Meredith.
I await the revealing of these people's names . . . . It will hit the fan then!
Racism is ugly.
Wanting people dead is akin to murder.
Neither of these are good traits for a councillor.

Paula, Wellington - 1 month ago
Neil, racism is unacceptable, especially in local government. And it's not just in Gisborne, it's everywhere. I thank the heroes who will use this story to create positive change.

Keola, Hawke's Bay - 1 month ago
I find this sad. Where is the compassion, the sympathy or kindness? Some people can have such a narrow view of things. To say such a thing is cold.

Bev Murray-Orr, Gore - 1 month ago
You are doing a fantastic job Meredith . . . exposing this sort of conversation will make people look at the way we treat each other. I hope out of this a very valuable lesson is learned.

Ruth Edwards - 1 month ago
Would these be the same people with colonial attitudes such as "Maori should 'get over it!'".... think about this though, Maori invade your home after you humbly accept them on your property, kill some of your family, make you wear their clothing and eat their food, kick you out of your house and off "your" property, make you pay them for practically anything and everything, then tell you to get over it. Because the example the colonials showed towards Maori was of such high standards huh?! And no I'm not racist toward pakeha, I am what we used to call a "half caste dirty ass" lol, and I've done research on the subject because mainstream schools didn't teach the whole truth! These attitudes keep the divide from ever closing, especially if they're in influential positions. Named and fired alright. Keep up the good work Meredith :D

Lizz Crawford - 1 month ago
This is a health and safety at work issue which needs to be addressed, as well as a human rights issue. Simply unconscionable.

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