‘You’re the first Muslim I’ve ever spoken to’: How quick talks with a stranger can challenge our stereotypes

Tenzin Chogkyi, Maha Elgenaidi, Rabbi Diane Elliot and pastor Steve Harms at a 2019 interfaith retreat.
(Via Tenzin Chogkyi)

Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi thinks the only way we can “move forward as a nation and as human beings” is to talk to each other and find “the threads of common humanity that unite us.” She gives suggestions and — in partnership with others — is offering us a chance to talk to strangers and get to know ourselves at the MAH on July 23. She’ll be there, too.

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My friend Maha Elgenaidi, founder of the Islamic Networks Group, based in San Jose, recently told me a story.

Maha is an Egyptian American immigrant with a graduate degree from Stanford University and is a well-known educator on Islam. She dresses beautifully and wears a hijab, a traditional head covering worn by some Muslim women. Just before COVID began, she boarded a plane, on her way home from one of her many speaking engagements.

As she searched for her seat, she noticed a middle-aged white woman in an aisle seat who looked nervous and was texting on her phone. It so happened that the woman was in the seat next to Maha. Thinking the woman was just nervous about flying, Maha started chatting with her, reassuring her and trying to distract her from her nervousness with conversation. They spoke about their work, their families, and their interests during the three-hour flight, and just as they were about to land, the woman said, “I have a confession to make.”

She told Maha that when she saw her dressed in her hijab — obviously a Muslim — boarding the flight, she texted her daughter in panic, wondering if she should get off the plane. Her daughter tried to calm her and tell her there was nothing to worry about, but she wasn’t convinced.

Until Maha started talking to her.

“You’re the first Muslim I’ve ever spoken to,” she admitted to Maha as the plane landed. “After our conversation, I will never have the same judgments and stereotypes about Muslims again.”

Connecting to common humanity is, indeed, the root of empathy and compassion.

It’s also the path to overcoming the judgments, stereotypes and divisions that keep us stuck. How different would our world, our nation, our workplaces, and even our families be if we could connect to the underlying common humanity in those we find so different from us?

Maha’s story shows us how powerful a single conversation between humans can be.

This principle forms the foundation of my work in both conflict resolution and as a compassion educator.

It’s also the basis of a project my friend Alaya Vautier, a restorative justice coordinator at the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County, and I are organizing. The idea is to help each of us have that same moment of self-realization that Maha’s seatmate had.

A moment of confronting the stereotypes — the ones we know we have and the ones we unknowingly carry — and disempowering them. A moment right here in Santa Cruz where we realize maybe we don’t know our community as well as we should, or would like to.

We’re calling it “Let’s Talk About It,” and it’s inspired by Denmark’s (lovely) international nonprofit the Human Library and StoryCorps’ One Small Step, which pairs people with different views and records their conversations for the public. We’re partnering with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (the MAH) and it will be in the courtyard outside the museum (known as the “Secret Garden”) on Saturday, July 23, from 2-6 p.m.

We will invite participants to have 30-minute, one-on-one conversations with partners who represent a stigmatized or misunderstood group in the community. This might include: representatives of the Muslim or Asian American communities; formerly incarcerated people; law enforcement officers; Black Lives Matter activists; people experiencing homelessness; people experiencing mental illness, and more.

Participants are welcome to ask any questions (as long as they’re respectful), and the partners — Maha will be one of them — will answer openly and honestly without judgment.

Local artist Andrew Purchin will bring his astonishing project “The Curious Scroll,” which asks us to paint while having a conversation about differences. We’ll also invite participants to write their identities on strips of cloth and then weave them into a communal tapestry, a visual representation of how our diversity creates a rich, colorful “social” fabric.

A flyer for an event co-sponsored by the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County and the MAH

For some of us, our identities are not obvious. How do you mark yourself as an only child, an oldest child or as self-employed? What about being left-handed or Buddhist or Christian or Republican? How do these identities shape the way we experience others and the world?

We will have a station in which participants can choose stickers with some of these unseen identities, which will encourage conversations about some of the intersectional identities we hold.

At our listening stations, participants are invited to sit with one of our trained community mediators and experience someone listening to them, without giving advice or passing judgment. “Deep listening” involves understanding the perspective of another and connecting to their lived experience through reflection and empathy. Being met with this level of connection is a validating and fulfilling experience and can be rare.

It’s increasingly important that we talk to each other.

The Supreme Court’s decision to rescind Roe v. Wade and the possibility of the rollback of other rights we have grown accustomed to has only deepened our political divisions. The COVID pandemic and looming recession have driven a deeper wedge between the socioeconomic classes. Attitudes across the country toward those of other races and ethnicities and the immigrant community are worsening.

Is there a way forward through listening to each other?

Staci Haines, a therapist who works with trauma survivors, suggests that underlying the behavior and opinions of all humans is the wish to fulfill three basic human needs: the need for safety, belonging, and respect or dignity. I have found when I feel disconnected to another due to our differences of opinions, views, lifestyles, etc., reminding myself that this person is just trying to fulfill these basic human needs with their views and behavior often provides me with the insight I need to move beyond my judgment, contempt and dismissal.

I truly believe these are the tools we need to move forward as a nation and as human beings, beyond our divisions and conflicts. We need to see the threads of common humanity that unite us all.

Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi is a Buddhist nun and certified teacher of Stanford University’s Compassion Cultivation Training and the Cultivating Emotional Balance program, a secular program for managing emotions that draws from Buddhism and was developed at the request of the Dalai Lama. She participates in interfaith collaboration for the Interfaith Speakers Bureau of the Islamic Networks Group of the Bay Area. She hosts the “Unlocking True Happiness” podcast. She started working at the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County in the 1990s and currently serves as a training and curriculum specialist. She has made Santa Cruz her “home base” for 30 years. Her previous Community Voices piece was published in June.

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