Have you wondered why there is so much violence in our schools or in our society? Mass murders, school shootings, teen suicides and other acts of violence have almost become somewhat common place. The news of such does not even shock us anymore.
People with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC) are all too familiar with the conflicts that can easily turn into violence. They work with schools and businesses to eradicate prejudice and discrimination through education.
Bullying has reached epidemic proportions, and teachers and school administrators are hungry for support in finding remedies. Through VCIC workshops, dangerous behaviors that often plague classrooms and playgrounds are discussed in nonthreatening ways. The change in attitudes and behaviors is astounding. When VCIC partnered with a local high school a few years ago, a powder keg of emotion that could have easily exploded was dissolved by students simply talking to each other.
It was Confederate History Month and some of the students were wearing Confederate emblems on their clothing. That offended some students with a few actually feeling threatened. VCIC had conducted workshops in that school the previous year so the trained students coordinated meetings between the two factions to discuss the issues. Within a few days the matter had been resolved with the offended students learning that the true motives of the celebrating students were not to threaten anyone, and those students also acknowledging how people could easily find their actions offensive.
VCIC’s executive director, Jonathan Zur has led the organization for several years. He is supported by a small staff and boards of four VCIC chapters.
"I see attitudes and behaviors change every day," he shared. "Education, people talking with one another and listening, really listening, is the key to resolving problems before they surface to do harm."
VCIC’s work goes further than the classroom or office. Every year the organization recognizes individuals and businesses for their work in bridging and strengthening communities. This year VCIC acknowledged five individuals and one company for their outstanding humanitarian services. The five people recognized are all proudly "50-plus" and very much a part of the community.
A native Richmonder, Kathleen Burke Barrett has served her community in immeasurable ways. An avid fundraiser and cheerleader for any number of charitable causes, Barrett is a proud graduate of St. Gertrude High School, an institution that helped instill in her a sense of community and the value of giving back.
Actually one of her earliest memories of discrimination was when she attended St. Gertrude. "Unlike other school systems, Catholic schools were always integrated," she said, "But when we wanted to go on school trips we couldn’t, as the black girls could not stay in the same hotels as the rest of us. We held our proms in church basements or Catholic retreat centers as hotels would not host an integrated party." I learned at an early age in Catholic Schools that we are our brothers’ keeper. I learned that we can all make contributions regardless of our financial status. It was a gift to be taught the joy of giving."
Now the chief executive officer of St. Joseph’s Villa, a nonprofit serving some of the area’s most vulnerable children, Barrett previously served as the CEO of the American Red Cross.
Her desire to help charities through raising money includes the Red Cross, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Bon Secours where she serves on their foundation board. She also raises money to free the wrongly imprisoned through DNA testing.
M. Imad Damaj was born in Beirut, Lebanon. He attended the University of Paris where he earned his PhD in pharmacology in 1991. He is currently a professor of pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
If there is one word that describes Damaj, it may very well be the term "bridge-builder," as much of his life has been dedicated to connecting peoples from different faith communities. His involvement with the Virginia Muslim Coalition of Community Affairs, Council for America’s First Freedom, the Bon Air Interfaith Trialogue and the Muslim-Catholic Dialogue, and the Muslims- Evangelical Christians Dialogue are but a few examples of his good work.
Damaj is known throughout the Greater Richmond area as the unofficial ambassador of the Muslim community. Community activists will tell you that whenever someone is needed to help build trust between the Muslim community and other facets, whenever a discussion of peace and justice issues is needed, it is Imad Damaj who is called upon. As one friend put it, "When we are looking for such a person, Imad is at the top of the list."
Delores McQuinn is a fixture in Virginia politics, Richmond faith communities and a leader in the efforts to educate society about the plight of enslaved Africans. A graduate of Highland Springs High School, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University, she has remained in her native Richmond as she has lived a life of community service.
Her civic interest and involvement in politics began at the age of 14 when she first campaigned for a candidate’s election to Richmond City Council. Little did her parents know what a driving force their teenage daughter would become. McQuinn gives her parents credit for being a major influence, "teaching me the importance of doing for others," she said. She also credits Senator Henry Marsh III for being one of the greatest mentors in her life.
She served on Richmond City Council for 10 years, serving as vice mayor and vice council president. She was then elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 70th District. Her service has included breast cancer awareness legislation and advocating for the rights of seniors.
McQuinn is well known for her work in historical heritage as she fostered reconciliation and healing in light of America’s shameful past involving slavery and institutional racism. For many years she has been at the forefront to help enlighten and educate people of diverse ethnicities about the struggles of enslaved Africans and how their faith enabled them to endure the harsh realities of their existence.
"No man is an island," she shared. "We live in a world of diverse cultures, ethnicities, religions, beliefs and customs. Inclusion cultivates acceptance and not just tolerance to the beautiful differences that God has created among us."
Amy Nisenson was instrumental in making the inaugural years of the VCIC program, Prejudice Awareness Summit, a success. VCIC leaders said that without her vision and support the program would not have succeeded, much less become the major accomplishment it is today.
The Summit is a collaboration of many organizations to encourage conflict resolution with a better understanding of diversity and inclusion among middle school students. Since its inception, more than 2,500 students have participated in the program.
Motivated by the examples of her parents, Nisenson witnessed their generosity in giving. "My sister and I were both encouraged to do the same," she said. "As a child I was active in my temple, as a teen I was active in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and as a college student I was active in a Jewish sorority."
In her professional role as the executive director of the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, Nisenson provides financial support to nonprofits throughout Virginia. She is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the $90 Million Foundation and the due diligence and allocation of $4-5 million in grants annually.
Her community contributions include teaching classes in nonprofit management and grant writing and board development; serving on the boards of United Way, Leadership Metro Richmond, The Richmond Forum and the Jewish Women International.
VCIC recognized Rabbi Martin P. Beifield , Jr. with the Jeffery B. Spence Award for Interfaith Understanding. He considers his greatest contribution to the community his willingness and ability to "articulate, represent forcefully and stand proudly for the values and teachings of Judaism and the Jewish people."
Much of his inspiration has come from the examples set by generations of rabbis who saw service to their community as an intrinsic part of their rabbinates and also the encouragement of a very patient congregation which understands his involvement in the community.
Rabbi Beifield is the Sophia and Nathan Gumenick Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Ahabah, the 6th oldest synagogue in the United States. He is only the fifth rabbi in the Congregation’s last 100 years and only the 11th in the Congregation’s history. Rabbi Beifield has been instrumental in growing Beth Ahabah’s work related to peace and justice issues, ensuring that all feel welcomed, that the temple is inclusive. He has overseen a rapid expansion of Beth Ahabah’s programmatic and educational activities.
CarMax was this year’s recipient of VCIC’s Distinguished Merit Citation. The company’s approach to diversity and inclusion is based on one word: respect. CarMax respects its employees, customers and vendors. It acknowledges their individuality and values their contributions to the company’s success.
CarMax sees diversity as an integral part of everything their culture, the same as the company’s other core values such as integrity, teamwork and continuous improvement.
For example, approximately 45% of the company’s 18,000 associates are from diverse backgrounds. More than 24% of their associates are women compared to 18% of the auto dealership industry. About 45% of their overall management teams are women and/or minorities.
CarMax developed a summer internship program for high school students from diverse backgrounds and matches them with internal departments and mentors. The annual Richmond banquet for the United Negro College Fund, resources and financial support to African American college students has been provided by CarMax.
CarMax has supported other programs such as FeedMore, the NAACP, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Business League which advocates for smaller, minority-owned businesses.
Extinguishing the flames of prejudice begins at home when we teach our children that differences are not something to necessarily fear. Be it skin color, religion, a person’s last name or how much they weigh, we might find that we actually have more in common than in difference.
For more information about the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, visit www.inclusiveva.org.FP