Listening to each others’ stories

TM Garret is a former leading white supremacist who once was a rising star in KKK-affiliated organizations.

Dwania Kyles is a member of the famed Memphis 13, who led the integration of the Memphis public school system and whose family had a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Me, I’m just the Orthodox Jewish kid who was born and raised in Brooklyn and moved to the suburbs.

On a morning a few weeks back, the three of us were driving up the West Side Highway together, heading up to the Bergen County sheriff’s office for an event aimed at breaking down the barriers that exist in far too many of our communities — and we were going to do it for the next generation to see.

On very short notice, we brought together high school juniors and seniors from the Frisch School in Paramus and their counterparts from the Englewood public school system. We gathered these students together because largely unbeknownst to them, most of them had lived in the same small municipality all of their lives — and yet they never had met each other. These students might all be shopping at the same ShopRite in Palisades Court, eating the same ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, and passing by the same iconic monument in the center of their town, but their life experiences never much gave them any reason to cross paths.

All the students had two things in common — they could all talk about how hate is recognizably around them, and neither group truly had a meaningful feel for the other’s narrative.

It was for this very reason that the co-sponsoring organizations realized the imperative of showing all of the teenagers how we prioritized our own cooperation, if we are to instill such behavior in our children. It was for this reason that the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Bergen County Chapters of the National Urban League and the NAACP all organized this project together. We all are standing arm in arm together.

In order to combat hate, you first must understand its origins. That was part of Mr. Garret’s presentation; he can talk about it from firsthand experience in a manner that few others can. He opened up and let his defenses down and talked about the effect that childhood playground bullying, something that we only recently have taken with necessary seriousness, pushed him to extremism. He talked about what some people brush off as harmless banter, and how those children who might come from more difficult childhood circumstances, those who might be slightly more vulnerable, as he was during his adolescence, might interpret such behaviors and even act upon them.

Dwania Kyles was thrust into the limelight before she even turned 6 years old, when she asked to be brave, to challenge generations of hate-based segregation practices. We can only imagine the polarizing upbringing she experienced, on one hand heading out each morning into the abyss of the hatred of the peers who articulated their desire to rid themselves of her because of the color of her skin, but still coming home often to see the great Dr. King and his colleagues from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who were inspiring the nation toward tolerance, sitting at her very own dining room table.

Why did all this unfold at the sheriff’s office? Not at all because of the title “sheriff,” but because of the man who stands behind the shield — Anthony Cureton. Mr. Cureton is a former president of the Bergen NAACP, and he stood side by side with me and others just a year or so ago as we aimed to root out anti-Semitism in the township of Mahwah.

Who better to add to the practical symbolism of the moment?

While I am hopeful that the words they heard will prove valuable to the participating students, part of me believes that the demonstration of unity in and of itself, the collection of the different people, each with a different story, who each try to combat hate individually, showed itself to be even more powerful together. That it matters when you take the time to understand each other’s stories, pains, hardships, and historical challenges.

Even as Ms. Kyles, Mr. Garret, and I headed up the highway we realized how much we have yet to learn about each other and the places we each come from. I look forward to continuing the many layers of partnership we saw at this important event. Even more so, I look forward to such activities being continued by the students who will be responsible for carrying this burden into the future.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.