COMBATING BIAS: The most dangerous four-letter word in the English language, according to Dick Simon (inset), probably isn’t one that immediately comes to mind.
The word, he says, is “them.”
The Newton resident believes that what he calls “themification” has a devastating impact on geopolitical, societal, and interpersonal levels, as people ultimately see and hear what they expect from the labels and stereotypes they have created. He is combating preconceived fears of “the other” through an effort he recently launched, the kNOwTHEM Initiative.
The germination of the concept has a long history. As a Caucasian of Jewish descent, Simon said, he was bullied on daily basis in middle school in Roosevelt, N.Y., a predominantly black town on Long Island. He attributes the experience of feeling like an outsider, as well as his parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement, with his passion for social justice, which he has also tried to instill in his own children.
Fourteen years ago, he and his wife, Patty Simon, traveled with their three kids — then ages 6, 8, and 10 — to 24 countries within the span of a year to learn about cultures outside the United States. (Their adventures are chronicled online at www.simonfamily.org.) After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he “became really energized about what I could do to make a difference in the world.”
Simon, an entrepreneur, focused his efforts on bringing together top business leaders from opposite sides in conflict regions through the Young Presidents’ Organization, a network of 21,000 chief executives in more than 125 countries.
Also a passionate photographer, Simon was further inspired to address the concept of “them” when some friends attending an exhibition of photos he took in Syria in 2010 reacted to one of a man wearing a traditional Arabic headdress by demanding to know why he was “spending time with terrorists.” The man in the photograph was a Bedouin entrepreneur who had welcomed Simon and his family into his home.
Simon estimates that today he travels one-third of the year performing conflict resolution work, and leading delegations of business leaders and philanthropists around the world. The goal of his new initiative is to raise individual and collective awareness about the power and dangers of misunderstanding “the other,” which he said is the root of conflicts ranging from bullying to genocide.
The initiative’s website, www.knowthem.org , includes photo essays, articles, a blog, and the TEDxBeaconStreet talk he delivered in November exploring the impact of stereotypes, strategies for combating them, and ways to better understand our own biases.
Although Simon travels extensively, he emphasizes that it is equally important to break down perceived barriers locally.
“Be conscious, be curious, be compassionate, and challenge, challenge, challenge themification,” he said. “And remember, there is no ‘them’ once you know them.”
For more information, visit www.dicksimon.com.
GIFT OF GIVING: Cynthia Edelman (inset), director of French in Acton, believes it is just as awkward for teachers to accept holiday gifts as it is for students to give them.
For the eighth year, she and the other two teachers at the school instead requested donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. On Jan. 13, Edelman presented an all-time-high donation of $2,415 to Theresa Waite, senior development director of the organization’s Massachusetts and Rhode Island chapter.
According to Edelman, the fund-raising effort’s cumulative total has topped $15,000. The latest charity drive ran from Thanksgiving week through Dec. 31 at the French language school, which has approximately 80 youth and adult students.
Edelman, who lives in Acton, selected the charity because her nephew and niece, 24-year-old Paul and 17-year-old Olivia Brendel of Pittsburgh, have cystic fibrosis. She is continually touched by the generosity and kindness of her school community, such as the woman who writes a thank-you note each year for the opportunity to contribute.
“I like to view [donations] as tacking on days, weeks, and years to the lives of these young people,” Edelman said. “It’s a measurable way of making a difference.”
PROFESSIONAL GROWTH: Two recipients of grants from the Foundation for Educators at Lincoln-Sudbury will discuss the professional development trips they took with the funds next Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Goodnow Library, 21 Concord Road in Sudbury.
Established in 2000, the nonprofit foundation awards enrichment grants of up to $2,500 to enable the regional school system’s faculty and staff members to pursue personal and professional interests outside the classroom.
Watertown resident Thomas Danko, who has taught science at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High for 23 years, traveled to Japan for 17 days last August to study the history of Hiroshima, shrines and temples in Kyoto, and Japanese food and culture.
While the Western philosophy of cooking seeks to create new and original tastes, he said, Japanese cooking honors the natural flavors and essence of the ingredients — often seafood, noodles, rice, and vegetables — being prepared. Danko will illustrate his presentation with bite-size examples.
Newton resident Anne Walker, who taught art at the high school on a part-time basis for 23 years before retiring last June, toured China with 32 other Boston-area educators in April. The nine-day trip included visits to Beijing, the nation’s capital; Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Army; and Shanghai, China’s largest city.
Walker was impressed with the vitality and economic growth of the region, and the curiosity and friendliness of its people. After returning home, she said, she urged students to take Chinese language classes.
“I’m so grateful to FELS and its support of teachers as individuals,” said Walker, a former board member of the organization. “Anything that enriches you as a person enriches you as a teacher.”
The free event is part of the Sunday Afternoons at the Goodnow cultural series.
VALENTINE’S TEA: Wellesley senior citizens are invited to the annual Valentine’s Day tea taking place Feb. 10 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Beveridge Hall at the Dana Hall School, 45 Dana Road in Wellesley.
During the free event, which dates to February 1990, students in grades 6-8 serve tea and treats, and sing, play instrumental music, dance and read poetry for the seniors.