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Brothers in faith tackle issue of racism

By JASON PEREZ-DORMITZER, Standard-Times Correspondent

NEW BEDFORD -- For William "Smitty" Smith, there's a magic bullet that will cure race issues.

"It's called moral courage," he said. "There's no panacea, and there's only us to solve these problems."

Mr. Smith and his colleague, Hooshmand Afshar, talked last night about strategies to help overcome racial struggles here and elsewhere.

Titled "Brothers of Different Cultures," the two presented a discussion at New Bedford Public Library that included an introduction of a handbook, "A Neighborhood Conversation on Race: A Talk Worth Having." In it are guidelines for a five-week session in which neighbors discuss race in a way he said would go to the heart, not just the mind.

He said the concept of moral courage came into play for him when he tried to reach out to his own neighbors to have the conversation.

"I walked around the neighborhood for three weeks trying to build the courage to put invitations in the mailbox," he said. "This isn't for the weak of heart."

He said he eventually handed out the invitations and had 12 of his 18 neighbors come over to his home, and he said they all wanted to talk about race.

"I was shocked. They said they just never had the opportunity," he said.

Mr. Afshar said one of the main purposes of the conversation is to get across the concept of oneness of humanity.

"It is a scientific reality: We are all part of the human family," he said. "We are all cousins, whether you like it or not."

Mr. Afshar and Mr. Smith make presentations like the one last night every couple months. The two are both CEOs, Mr. Smith at the nonprofit PEVUE Inc. and Mr. Ashfar at Taj Engineering, and they met by chance working on the Big Dig.

Mr. Smith, an African-American, said he referred to Mr. Ashfar, of Iranian descent, as a brother, confusing onlookers. But he said they were brothers as followers of the Baha'i faith.

The two talked about their different experiences with racism and persecution growing up in their respective lands -- Mr. Smith in a racially divided South Carolina and Mr. Ashfar in eastern Iran, where Baha'is are looked down upon.

Their relationship evolved and led to speaking tours and the booklet, which they wrote with other members of their faith.

"A basic principal of the Baha'i is oneness of humanity. We were walking the talk with the booklet," Mr. Ashfar said.

There was no discussion of the 160-year-old Middle Eastern religion at the presentation, and most of those in attendance talked about definitions and the history of racism.

Many said they were displeased with what they said were racist views that are included in school textbooks.

"There has to be a paradigm shift in education," said one attendee. "For instance, we don't live in a melting pot where we all become the same. A better image is a salad bowl where we are different, but together. We have to teach that in schools."

The discussion was sponsored by the New Bedford Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs and the New Bedford Race Relations Project.

This story appeared on Page A3 of The Standard-Times on July 17, 2003.

©Copyright 2003, Standard-Times (NEW BEDFORD, CT, USA)

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