On Thursday, January 16th, 2013, I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of visiting historians from Macedonia as they participated in discussions and lectures around Boston, focused on history, discrimination and approaches to cooperation and conversation in the United States. The group, consisting of ten professionals from a variety of Macedonian national institutes and universities, is in the United States visiting Washington, D.C., Boston and Atlanta, to compare different experiences and approaches to U.S. history. Specifically, they are focusing on the Civil War and repercussions from that time that are still felt and dealt with today. The visitors, with varying backgrounds in history, politics and education, are looking at the often complicated and misconstrued intersection between history and politics, and through examining and learning about the United States are finding ways to establish new relationships and alternative solutions outside of government policies.
Our first meeting was with Mr. Robert Stains, Senior Vice President for Training, and Mr. John Sarrouf, Director of the Family Dinner Project, of Public Conversations Project (PCP). Public Conversations is a local non-profit working to improve communication and facilitate discussion around an array of divisive and controversial issues. They believe that strong community, healthy relationships and communication is the key to resolving conflict, a methodology that originated out of the idea that methods of family therapy could be applied to larger societal issues. The discussion focused on PCP’s methods of bringing up and mediating difficult conversations, something that our guests from Macedonia were very interested in hearing and emulating back in their home country where conflict persists between the ethnic Albanian minority and the Macedonian majority. The conversation was very successful and constructive for our visitors, as Mr. Stains and Mr. Sarrouf used their techniques for facilitating conversation directly in the group’s discussion, in the end demonstrating how effective their methods can be and making it a very valuable experience for everyone.
Later in the day, our group met with Mr. James DeWolf Perry, Executive Director of the Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery and a descendant of one of the most prominent slave traders in U.S. history—U.S. Senator James DeWolf of Bristol, R.I. He held a lively and discussion about the history and misconceptions that often surround slavery in the northeastern United States. They additionally met with Commissioner Julian Tynes and General Counsel Constance McGrance, Esq. of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) to discuss the state’s methods for preventing and prosecuting cases of discrimination. Both conversations were directly applicable to current issues of discrimination and persecution in Macedonia, and our group was especially interested in hearing how the state is able to prove and treat cases of discrimination now. Coming from an environment where virtually every section of their major cities is divided and segregated, our visitors were excited to hear about MCAD’s testing and training programs that are an alternative way of addressing and preventing discrimination.
As my first trip out with one of WorldBoston’s International Visitor groups, I was extremely excited and honored to be able to sit in on these discussions about such relevant issues in both the United States and Macedonia. Although not previously expert myself on the topics that were discussed, I found each conversation to be very engaging and exciting, and hope our visitors as well as our local partners can continue to learn from our past, apply successful approaches to facilitating healthy and productive conversation, and ultimately work towards ending longstanding conflict and discrimination.
It was clear that unlike I had thought before with my limited knowledge of the program theme, these topics are useful not only to countries like Macedonia who are currently in conflict, but especially with the approaches to communication, can continue to be applied here in both smaller community and large societal settings. Additionally, with such little prior knowledge of Macedonia and its tumultuous past, I found that, with a surprising majority of the group able to fluently speak English, I learned not just from the group’s discussions but also heard firsthand about the events of the past decade that have been plaguing the country and how these individuals were affected. It was also fun to share in each visitor’s excitement of seeing a new city and ocean—despite intense fog—and hearing their opinions of places they had already been and what they’re still most looking forward to seeing!