Friday, November 09, 2007

NY Daily News Article: Mosaic Coaltion

Mosaic Coalition wants neighbors to learn about different ethnicities by Clem Richardson, Nov. 3, 2007

Rufus Arkoi artfully summed up how we all can sometimes feel alone in a city of 8 million.

"We sit next to each other, but we do not speak," Arkoi said.

The Mosaic Coalition of Staten Island is looking to change that by sponsoring a bevy of programs that help residents learn more about the many ethnic groups that call Staten Island home.

The hope is that familiarity will breed understanding.

That's why, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, the group will hold its annual Celebrate Diversity 2007 program in the Wagner College gym.

Local groups representing six countries - Egypt, Ghana, Ireland, Liberia, Mexico and the Philippines - will feature their food, music, dance and history at the free event.

More than 1,200 people attended last year's celebration.

"This is a way for people to learn about their neighbors," said Mike Baver, coalition co-head. "There is theater and a puppet show, and food is available cheap. Most of [the event] ... is very interactive, so children can enjoy learning about other cultures."

Nineteen cultures have been spotlighted since it began in 2002.

Mosaic Coalition executive committee members include co-heads Baver and Julian Nierva, Arkoi, Elizabeth Bonici, Rhoda Frumkin, Sam Owusu-Sekyere, Dawn Rannie-White, Susan Rosenberg, Lori Weintraub and Jon Young.

Each represents one of Staten Island's cultural communities, including Jewish, Irish, Filipino, Korean, Ghanaian and Liberian people. That's what Baver - who also is president of the New York Center for Interpersonal Development, a nonprofit group which, among its many duties, offers dispute resolution services with an emphasis on constructive problem-solving - intended when he co-founded the Mosaic Coalition.

The group was born after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, when cultural and ethnic suspicions were running rampant through the city.

"I wanted to do something to help heal the community," Baver said. "I saw that we needed a process for healing and for dialogue.

"Everyone here wants to be here, has their heart in it, brings different things to the table. But it doesn't matter where you are coming from - we all want to make things better."

"We want to change the fact that people are afraid to talk to their neighbors," said Rosenberg, Wagner's associate coordinator of graduate studies. "People are afraid to talk to someone who doesn't look exactly like they do. We want to get over that.

"We want people to understand it's important to reach out and interact with each other."

Weintraub, a Wagner College history professor and coalition co-founder, said Wagner's support of coalition projects - the college is co-sponsor, along with the New York Center, of tomorrow's event - allows the coalition to be a bridge between the college and the community.

"The celebration is a chance to remind Staten Island that we are all neighbors," Weintraub said.

Wagner's participation in coalition programs is not limited to the annual diversity event. Group members have picked up garbage and planted flowers in the Park Hill community. They also hold monthly potluck dinners - Nierva's egg rolls are always a hit - where they focus on interactions between cultural groups.

"We try to practice what we preach," Baver said. "It's sharing things, from talking about what triggers we have, individual triggers that set us off, or we can talk about what is your favorite dish from your community or from a community we visited.

"All of these meetings have food, because food is a great way to learn about each other and about different cultures," Baver said.

Nierva, an attorney of Filipino descent and first-generation American, said he joined the coalition "because my family has always been very grateful for all we have enjoyed here in the United States. I want to be able to give back to the community which gave my family so much."

Under the coalition, Wagner students visit homes of people of different ethnicities throughout the year. There they listen to stories about the group's concerns and sample the culture's cuisine.

"Wagner is one of the institutions that stepped up to make this program work," Baver said. Wagner also has created a scholarship for students from different ethnicities, he said.

A coalition member for the last five years, Owusu-Sekyere said the group has taught him mediation techniques he has been able to use in his Richmond Terrace neighborhood.

Despite a reputation for sometimes being less than welcoming to diverse groups, Staten Island "is a very nice place to live," said Owusu-Sekyere, who has lived there for 10 years, since immigrating from his native Ghana, West Africa. "I'd rather live here than in any other borough.

"The diversity of our community is a motivation to learn more about other cultures," he said. "People from different backgrounds tend to think differently about different things. If you learn more about them, you learn more about how they think."

RANNIE-WHITE, an artist, said he joined Mosaic "because they're a bunch of really good people."

"Just look around the table, the diversity around this table," said Arkoi. "We come together as community leaders, talk about what we're doing, then when we separate we can connect our communities with the other people. We're all benefiting from knowing each other."

"However we got to this table, clearly the people here believe in this type of work," Baver said. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people on Staten Island and in this state and this country who don't see this as something to be valued as we do."

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