Strength in diversity: Panel shares perspectives at Covenant event

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Shavonne Potts
How well do we really know our neighbors? It’s a valid question that’s not often answered.
A group of individuals who made up a panel representing different ethnicities spoke during a forum at Catawba College entitled “Meet Your Neighbor.”
The panel of seven Rowan County residents that included an African, a native of Afghanistan, a Latina and a gay man discussed what makes up a community. The Tuesday forum was co-sponsored by the Covenant Community Connection, a subgroup of the Salisbury Rowan Human Relations Council. It was moderated by Salisbury Post Opinion Editor Chris Verner.
They all represent part of the neighborhood that is Rowan County, Verner said.
The group talked about stereotypes and how to dispel them as well as about their personal experiences in Rowan County.
The panelists were: Seddiq Behrooz, Dr. Bryant Norman, Dr. Yen-Wan Hung, Rabbi Dr. Andrew Ettin, Todd Adrian, Elia Gegorek and Dr. Samuel Dansokho.
Behrooz is a native of Afghanistan who has lived in Rowan County for more than 20 years. Behrooz is an engineer at Performance Fibers. He mentioned a time right after 9/11 when a UPS delivery was left on his doorstep. After the employee saw him come to the door, she ran.
Not all of his experiences have been negative; he’s had people show him compassion.
Norman, who is a Salisbury dentist and a native of Rowan County, said he left Rowan years ago because of segregation.
“There are still vestiges of discrimination,” he said.
Norman told the audience about the gradual changes he’s seen in the county over the years.
Hung is a native of Taiwan, who teaches chemistry at Livingstone College. She became a U.S. citizen in 1984. She grew up in a Christian home and said it’s been the foundation of her life.
Hung said getting to know your neighbors means making an effort.
“We isolate ourselves because we don’t know how to approach people. We need to create an atmosphere conducive to open, frank discussion,” she said.
“There will be differences in opinion … but discussion can help. Containing them cannot,” Hung said.
Rabbi Dr. Andrew Ettin has served as the spiritual leader at Temple Israel for nearly 20 years and teaches English literature and Jewish studies at Wake Forest University.
He is a native of New Jersey but calls North Carolina home.
Ettin said the people in the community do a good job of being civil to one another. He said there is some ignorance on the part of those who are not willing to dig deeper and really learn about others around them.
Todd Adrian is president of the local Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG) and has lived in Salisbury for 13 years.
Adrian said as a group, PFLAG has been welcomed in many circles, but how people treat members as individuals is important.
“When we start to recognize each other as humans, all the other differences will melt away,” he said.
Elia Gegorek is the owner of a local real estate firm and operator of a Spanish newspaper, La Voz Hispana en Rowan. Gegorek is a native of Mexico and has lived in Rowan County for more than 20 years.
She said her parents, who immigrated to California, were sharecroppers. They pushed education, she said.
Gegorek arrived in Rowan County in the early 1980s.
She said it’s difficult for outsiders to feel a part of the community. In the Hispanic community, she said, there are language barriers and cultural barriers.
She said it’s all about reaching out a hand to help our neighbors.
Dr. Samuel Dansokho is a professor at Hood Theological Seminary and a native of Senegal. Dansokho came to Rowan to teach for a short term at the seminary. He met his wife in Kenya. She is a native of Angola. He spent 12 years in Chicago before settling in Rowan. He was a pastor in Senegal.
He agreed with Ettin about the “perfect politeness” among people in the community.
Dansokho encourages people to start talking about the differences and the similarities.
“There is some healthy confrontation. I don’t have to belittle you in order for me to feel like somebody,” he said.
Following the panel discussion, many in the audience brought up more tough questions.
Some, like Genny Reed, would like to see another forum. “I thought it was very good. A lot of these issues we need to work on. They are things we have problems talking about,” she said.
Pastor Henry Diggs and his wife Joann agree.
“The only way to change is to discuss it without fear,” Henry said.
He said it began with the gang summit a couple of years ago. Also, many churches are working with one another. It needs to continue, he said.
“We’ve made some progress,” he said.
Joann said it can start in the classrooms, one pupil at a time. She would like to see a future panel made up of teenagers.
Organizer Betty Jo Hardy said she was pleased with the forum and thinks another community forum is possible. She thought Livingstone College would be a perfect place to have it.