South Hills educators culminated a year of dialogue on hate and prejudice Dec. 7 by hosting a panel discussion, “Hate Has No Home Here,” before a packed house at Mt. Lebanon High School’s Fine Arts Theater. The nearly three-hour session, which closed with a standing ovation, featured a social-issues advocate, a hip-hop artist, a journalist and the former head of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.
The October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life building jump-started dialogue and several community events last year — and was referred to throughout discussion of anti-Semitism Saturday. But the conversation this weekend tackled everything from the white supremacist patriarchy, police violence against African Americans and LGBT rights to a Mt. Lebanon “Colonial Day,” Islamophobia and the neuroscientific roots of prejudice. Zack Block, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of Jewish nonprofit Repair the World, mediated the conversation.
Jewish multimedia artist and Repair the World staffer Julie Mallis brought the issue of bias right into the event’s backyard, unreeling the history of “redlining” — or blocking Jews and people of color from buying homes — in Mt. Lebanon.
“This history of hate is super-present here — that’s not comfortable and that’s not something to be proud of,” said Mallis. “We can commit to changing that narrative.”
Tereneh Idia, an African American designer and writer, kept things broader, repeatedly assaulting concepts of white supremacy.
“I think that hate is not strong enough a word,” Idia said. “When we talk about the white supremacist patriarchy, we talk about hate. When we name it, we can [see how] it absorbs and re-tells world history in its own image.”
“It makes ‘white’ the default,” she added. “We want to reflect the multiculturalism of the world. There’s no default human being.”
Wasi Mohamed, the former Islamic Center of Pittsburgh executive director now working with Forward Cities, and rapper Jasiri X tackled different angles.
“People who have met Muslims are way less likely to hate us — that makes me feel good about this country,” said Mohamed, who became known to many in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community when he helped facilitate donations of approximately $250,000 to Tree of Life. “We are taught we are born pure … It’s not the seed, it’s the soil. If it’s the soil, it’s important for us to start focusing on that.”
He said it’s also important to focus on these issues outside of election cycles.
“We are being divided and being taught to hate each other … for the benefit of 1% of the population,” Mohamed said.
Jasiri X started his 15-minute session by showing a harrowing video about police violence, then rapping.
“Antwon Rose, he’s got a name, too,” he rapped at one point, calling out, among other shooting victims, the black teenager killed by a white police officer in East Pittsburgh. “I pray to God that we never gotta name you.”
“We have a responsibility, we have to acknowledge: This is wrong, this is a structurally racist place, whether you’re talking about Mt. Lebanon, whether you’re talking about Pittsburgh, whether you’re talking about America,” Jasiri X said.
“These are four people who are teachers to me,” mediator Block responded. “I am glad we can receive these lessons. There’s a call to action at the end of the story.”
During a robust question-and-answer session, the holding of a “Colonial Day” in Mt. Lebanon schools drew fire from the panel and occasional shouted interjections from audience members.
“That’s f-ed up,” Block spat.
“If you want to have Colonial Day, tell the whole story,” Jasiri X said. “We murdered [indigenous] people, we killed these people — tell the whole story!”
“Kids are never too young to be taught reality and truth,” Mallis added.
Mt. Lebanon social studies teacher Julianne Slogick, who helped organize the event with Mt. Lebanon Public Library, said the community conversation was an attempt to be inclusive and spark more dialogue.
“I think, for many, this is seen as a jumping-off point into something additional for our students and the community,” she said.
Mt. Lebanon residents Alan and Betsy Hohlfelder came out Saturday due to their interests in social issues and activism.
“I think the tone of the country in the last three or four years has been terrible — the divisiveness, people not being able to talk to each other, to be civil,” Betsy Hohlfelder said. “I think we all have to do something about that.”
At the end of the evening, she was glowing.
“That was amazing,” she said, smiling. “So much to think about — I’m glad I came.” pjc
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.