Diverse group meets to heal Richmond Hill

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They sat in a row: a white woman, an Asian man, a Jewish woman, a man who is both Indonesian and Puerto Rican, a black woman and a Sikh man.

They all spoke about their experience with racism.

In an effort to eliminate the divide that has developed in the Richmond Hill community since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, The Panel of Americans — a non-profit organization that confronts the roots of racism — held a face-to-face community dialogue on race, religion and ethnicity.

In the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church at 86-20 114th St. in Richmond Hill Saturday, the six people from all walks of life spoke to a group of about 26 at an event billed as an opportunity to learn about the diversity of Queens.

“The panel provides an attitudinal awareness and a motivation to look at a different point of view,” said Rego Park resident Shira Fishkin, who has been a member of the organization since 1989. “We try to broaden people’s minds a tiny bit.”

She said the audience often confronts the panel and is angered by what is being said. But once an angry person realizes the panel wants to hear what he or she has to say, Fishkin said the anger subsides and a dialogue can be started.

Gwen Sonnenberg, the board president of The Panel of Americans, said she organized the event because she had read in newspapers how Sikhs in her community were being attacked.

The organization wanted to hold the event to help racial tensions, which have been on the rise, Sonnenberg said. After the event she received “positive feedback and hopes to do it again on a larger scale.”

The Panel of Americans, founded in California in 1942, is a mixture of educators, parent groups, corporate personnel and community activists who try to “build bridges” between people. The organization is now based in New York City and runs the majority of its programs in the five boroughs.

Holding workshops, educational programs and experiential training in schools with community-based organizations and in the business community, The Panel of Americans tries to help “young people and adults unlearn stereotypes and eliminate prejudice based on race, class, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.”

Bayside resident Alan Chen has been a panel member for a number of years and said that all of the group members have had similar experiences. He said that many times at these dialogues people in the audience begin to realize that all minorities have had to confront racism.

“I am finding that my children are breaking the barrier” among people of different ethnicities, he said. “They are getting to know people on several levels.”

Bob Tobin, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Indonesian, told the group that many people ask where he is from and his response is Brooklyn. He said people often are shocked when they meet him after speaking on the phone.

People’s reaction to meeting Tobin in person is that “my voice does not match my appearance,” he said, which drew acknowledgment from the audience.

Hispanics’ purported ability to fix cars is one of the stereotypes he constantly confront, he said. Everybody thinks he can repair cars because many Hispanic people fix cars in the street.

“You are the sum of all your parts,” Tobin said, which is why one of his daughters marks “other” on forms requiring a racial designation. Along with some audience members, he questioned the limited classifications found on race.

“‘Other’ does not do justice” to them, he said.

Gladys Harburger, a panelist from Manhattan, said people in the room were not the same and there were broad cultural differences, but everyone is a human being and shares the same needs. She said people should figure out what they can do to help fight prejudice.

“We need to do more of this — it is important,” said Pritpal Singh, of Richmond Hill and a first-time panel member. “It is important to be proud of who you are and proud of your heritage.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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