Metro

Unity, the answer to fighting bigotry, was theme at MIT gathering

Ramesh Advani, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Indian American Forum spoke during the Indian American Forum for Political Education in Massachusetts forum to discuss racism and hate.
JohnTlumacki/Globe Staff
Ramesh Advani, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Indian American Forum spoke during the Indian American Forum for Political Education in Massachusetts forum to discuss racism and hate.

The shouts came from men driving by in a truck in Harvard Square. “Get out of this country,” they yelled at Ramesh Advani, an American whose family is from Sindh, Pakistan. It was 1979, right after 52 Americans were taken hostage in Iran and apparently the men mistook Advani for Iranian.

Nearly four decades later, that vitriol remains seared in his mind.

“It is said bad things happen when good people do nothing,” Advani told a gathering Saturday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aimed at building alliances among diverse groups now also targeted for hate. “I need for us to use this as a call to action to get involved.”

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The gathering of more than 100 people, organized by the Massachusetts chapter of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, comes amid an apparent rising tide of bigotry and prejudice. Two high-profile incidents of racial slurs hurled last week at Fenway Park captured national headlines. But many other hateful acts are occurring every day with scant public attention, the conference organizers said.

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Anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts, including swastikas scrawled in schools and threats phoned into community centers, have jumped dramatically, according to recent data from the Anti-Defamation League. Members of the LGBT community in Boston are a top target for assaults, threats, and harassment, police data show. And hate crimes against Muslims nationwide have soared, according to the FBI.

Advani, board chairman of the Indian American Forum, told the conference that the most effective way he’s found to combat hate is for groups to speak out in a unified voice. To do that, he said, people need to build alliances first within their neighborhoods.

That theme was echoed throughout the two-hour conference, which featured a panel that included the chief of the state attorney general’s civil rights division, an outreach leader from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the executive director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, and Boston Police Commissioner William Evans.

The fatal shooting of an Indian man in Kansas in February by a man who yelled anti-immigrant epithets, horrified the South Asian community nationwide and continues to reverberate, conference organizers said.

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Roughly 250,000 South Asians live in Greater Boston, according to the latest census, and Indian Americans make up a large portion of that group.

Yet some who attended the conference acknowledged that the Indian community needs to do a better job of reaching out to others. On that point, Boston’s police commissioner agreed -- but also acknowledged it cuts both ways.

“You need to invite us to your events,” Evans told the conference.

“I got to say there is not the strongest relationship, because there has not been an ask on either side,” Evans said to loud applause.

The commissioner said his department has relied on simple strategies, such as officers riding ice cream trucks, to connect with families in communities where they need to build stronger relationships. He suggested pot luck dinners might be another approach.

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“I never had Indian or Pakistani food,” Evans said. “Don’t wait for bad incidents to happen to get to know us.”

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Kashif Syed, an outreach volunteer from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, said he has often used similar strategies to combat media portrayals of Muslims as terrorists. Syed said he has spent years teaching other communities about the Muslim faith, and he suggested the Indian community sponsor events in neighborhoods that have few Indians.

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“Invite churches over and do an event, and then say, ‘Let’s have dinner,’ ” Syed said.

Robert Trestan, executive director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, said his organization believes the best way to head off hate crimes and bigoted acts is to educate young minds. The league has been teaching diversity classes in schools for years, and has had a spike in requests since last year’s divisive presidential election.

Sonali Lappin, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Indian American Forum, said she and her sister grew up with a Jewish-American father, and a Punjabi Indian mother, so she learned early the importance of reaching out to other communities.

“Let’s not just reach across the aisle, but reach out to each other, and keep having conversations like this,” she said.

Then the conference closed with a spirited rendition of the song, “This Land is Your Land,” led by an Indian-American woman draped in a sparkling white sari.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.