What do a police officer, an activist and a surfer have in common? On Saturday, ‘Let’s Talk About It’
A police officer and a longtime progressive sit at a table discussing mutual concerns. A young Muslim mother meets her first transgender man. “Let’s Talk About It” will open our community to these conversations and more Saturday at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz. The event, in its second year, allows us to have conversations with people from marginalized and misunderstood communities and peel back our own layers of identity. With hate crime on the rise nationally and amid incidents of intolerance locally, it’s something we need, writes Tenzin Chogkyi, a longtime Buddhist teacher who works at the Conflict Resolution Center.
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A young Muslim woman wearing a hijab laughs with a surfer over their shared love of a good soy chai.
A police officer engages with a progressive Santa Cruz retiree about her reasons for joining the police force.
A local member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band shares her love of the land and how she and her family are bringing back their traditional “lifeways” with an Asian refugee who misses her own home country.
These conversations took place last July at the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz, as hundreds of people gathered to participate in an event called “Let’s Talk About It: Finding Common Threads through Conversation.”
The idea is simple: have a conversation with someone from a marginalized or misunderstood community and see what you can learn — about someone else, but also about yourself. About your own multifaceted identity.
It’s about to happen again.
If you missed it, come to the MAH on Front Street on Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. for this free event co-sponsored by the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County and the MAH. There is no need to register. Just come.
We need this in our community, and now is an excellent time.
Nationally, we continue to see upticks in hate crimes. In March, the FBI released a report showing that 12,411 people reported themselves victims of hate crimes in 2021, which is the most recent data available. Of those, 65% were reportedly targeted because of their race or ethnicity and 15.9% were allegedly targeted for their sexual orientation.
That’s up 21% from the previous year.
Here in Santa Cruz, we are not immune. At UCSC in April, a group of students held a birthday party for Adolf Hitler, complete with cake decorated with Nazi insignia. And two students also found a hand-written antisemitic and anti-LBGTQ+ flier on their windshield in downtown Santa Cruz. And the community has recently witnessed high emotions over an anonymous transphobic letter published in Good Times.
Right now, as we edge toward yet another presidential election season, it seems like our social divisions are even more pronounced than before. Many states are considering or have passed legislation banning gender-affirming care for transgender people. Congress is in a deadlock over much-needed legislation and the entire country feels as though it is at a standstill.
The level of threat and suspicion is so high that you risk your life ringing the wrong doorbell, getting into the wrong car or pulling into the wrong driveway.
As someone who has devoted much of my life to teaching compassion, first as a Buddhist monastic and then as a teacher of Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training, I have seen first-hand the power of empathy, understanding and compassion to build bridges. But this empathy-building is dependent on connecting with others and hearing their stories.
Social scientists know that getting to know someone is the best way to break down stereotypes and biases about the groups that the person belongs to — and this method has been shown to be even more effective than some anti-bias training.
I’m convinced much discord and misunderstanding and — yes — even hate crimes happen because we stay in our isolated bubbles and don’t take the time to get to know each other.
But what if you got out of your bubble and met someone new? In a small way, you can take agency over what you know and feel.
Until the COVID pandemic, I taught regularly in men’s prisons in California and other states and countries. I have been in rooms filled with rival gang members as we engaged in an exploration of their triggers for anger, sadness and other emotions. Over time, we were able to create a safe container for the men to share stories of their childhoods, their love of their families and their aspirations. As they heard each other’s stories and connected to their common human experience, they were able to feel closeness and connection even with their sworn enemies. How much easier might it be for the rest of us?
“Let’s Talk About It” will allow for conversations with representatives of identities as diverse as transgender, Muslim, Indigenous, war refugee, evangelical Christian and much more. The event will feature interactive art stations, including the “Communi-Tree,” in which participants will be invited to cut out an outline of their hand on construction paper and then fill the outline with descriptions of their identities, pasting their personal “leaf” on a large collective tree.
And local artist Andrew Purchin will return with the “Curious Scroll,” inviting participants to draw with him on a large scroll as he engages them in questions about their identities and values. Families are welcome to participate in this event together.
In these ways, the event will ask you to think about yourself. We’ll ask you to ponder your identities, seen and unseen — like being left-handed, the youngest child, neurodivergent, gay, straight, an immigrant, a Republican, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, or Buddhist, like me. These are identities that affect your lived experience, but might not be obvious to the casual observer.
The event is designed to build bridges, to encourage us to leave our silos and alter our thinking by meeting someone new.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate said, “We are all our brothers’ keepers. … Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers. … There are no strangers in a world that becomes smaller and smaller. … I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence.”
Can we be present for each other, even just for one afternoon? Who knows what might happen next?
Tenzin Chogkyi is a teacher of Buddhist meditation and philosophy, teaching locally at Insight Santa Cruz. She is also a 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 is passionate about social justice, and has taught in prisons in the U.S., Colombia, Australia and New Zealand. 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 Lookout opinion pieces are here.