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Queens College promotes diversity with new center

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The Center for Ethnic and Racial Understanding at Queens College is slated to open late this spring, thanks to $285,000 in federally appropriated funds from a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D−Bayside).

The center will be based in the college’s Center for Jewish Studies and aims to foster unity among the diverse residents of Queens through cultural outreach activities, including social events and volunteer activities, sociology professor William Helmreich said. Helmreich, who wrote the original proposal for the center, will administer the new program.

Helmreich, who has studied race and ethnic relations for 35 years, said the center will focus on bringing together individuals in the city who are from groups that have traditionally been in opposition to each other, such as Turks and Armenians, Bosnians and Serbs, Jews and Arabs and Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus.

“A major goal of the center will be to influence and change the people who feel and exhibit hostility and who are confrontat­ional,” Helmreich said. “In the past, programs of this type have almost always attracted the more tolerant members of the groups in conflict, but they are the people who least need the interventi­on.”

The professor, now working on a book about how the city has changed over the last 35 years, said it is important to bring together individuals from groups who are most at odds with other races or ethnicities in order to “get to the root of the problem.”

Students who work with the center will be trained in conflict resolution and will then go out into the communities in order to bring these different groups together, such as through volunteer activities like cleaning up a church or visiting a veteran’s hospital.

“We bring people together and do not initially discuss their differences, but try to find things they can focus on that they do have in common,” Helmreich said. “For example, say we had white people in Howard Beach and we bring them together with black people from East New York[, Brooklyn]. When we bring them together, we don’t say, ‘Why do you hate white people?’ or ‘Why do you hate black people?’ if they do.

“Instead, we ask them what they need, such as better housing, or if they’re interested in crime reduction. When you have things in common with someone, it’s much harder to reject them,” he said.

The money for the center comes from the Omnibus Appropriates Bill, sponsored by Ackerman and passed by the House in February and the Senate in March. The proposal for the center was reviewed and approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“With students coming from 140 different countries and a campus located in America’s most diverse county, Queens College is the ideal place to base an initiative dedicated to promoting ethnic and racial harmony,” Queens College President James Muyskens said in a statement.

Ideally, the Queens College center could serve as a model for similar programs around the country, Helmreich said.

For more information about the center, contact Helmreich at helmreichw@aol.com.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

Posted 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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