The event has been in the works for more than a year, but “Building a Better Community” took on a new poignancy when a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 59 people dead and about 500 others injured.
“It just adds the emphasis that anywhere at any time, events of this nature can happen,” said Garland Egerton, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries. “They seem to happen for a variety of reasons and sometimes it appears to even be no reason … We think it’s important to bring people together to have these types of discussion to find common ground to address these issues.”
Three experts on violence, including the areas of school shootings and hate crimes, will be in Wichita for a daylong event Wednesday, Oct. 11. The event is held by Inter-Faith Ministries and Wichita State University at the Hughes Metropolitan Complex on campus. Sessions are free, but reservations are required at http://interfaithwichita.org/events or 316-264-9303. $7 box lunches also are available.
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Steve Wessler, human rights advocate and educator, said the United States is as divided “as he can remember” – divided over religion, race, immigration and more.
“What has happened is we’ve become polarized and the anger is great,” Wessler said. “If you add into that what happened in Charlottesville where we had anti-Semitic and racist white separatists marching with flags with swastikas and chanting things about Jews and people of color, we really can look at this in two ways. One is that the level of anger and division in the country is high, but the risk of escalation to violence is also high.”
Jack Levin, professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, said the United States is currently seeing a spike in hate crimes. The trend is likely temporary, he said, since hate crimes tend to spike after a “threatening episode” and then decline.
After 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims spiked, Levin said. When Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, hate crimes against gays and lesbians increased. When Barack Obama was elected president and then inaugurated, hate crimes against African Americans increased.
Levin said he wasn’t sure if there was a single precipitating event that had sparked the current uptick in hate crimes.
“For decades white working class people, especially men, have felt ignored and victimized,” Levin said. “They’ve felt as though their advantaged position, whatever that happened to be, was being taken from them, but the anger was suppressed, it was underground. In the last several months, leaders at the top have voiced some pretty nasty remarks about various groups in society … and as a result, a lot of that anger that used to be deeply hidden has now come into the open.”
Hope for change
Wessler, Levin and Eric Madfis, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma, all said their talks Wednesday will be about prevention.
In Madfis’ research, he traveled to schools where shootings were averted. In every case, the shooting was averted because students had come forward. Research, he said, shows positive school environments can stop violence.
He’ll also talk about restorative school discipline, a system used widely in places like Australia and New Zealand. Rather than a punitive response, restorative discipline seeks to “repair the harm that was done.”
“Parents think that sometimes the best solution is more security, and it can be in some situations, but it in some cases can make things worse, not better,” Madfis said. “My goal in this talk is to try to present some stuff that is actually working.”
Violence is never the beginning, Wessler said. Preventing it comes earlier, including speaking up when someone makes degrading comments about other groups.
“When nobody speaks up, then the people who are saying degrading, biased comments think everybody agrees with them,” Wessler said. That, he added, leads to violence.
Building relationships toward common goals is essential to stopping violence, Levin said.
“But if it stops after my presentation, then it would be a shame,” he said. “We’re talking about a very profound problem in American society. … It’s not just earthquakes and hurricanes that plague us. We’re also victimized by our own intolerance.”