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Fund for Teachers Spotlight: Tamra Plotnick Breaks Bread and Cultural Barriers

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    April Hattori

Tamra Plotnick, a teacher at James Baldwin School in New York and 2015 Fund for Teachers grantee, observed cultural norms and practices surrounding social acceptance and anti-racism programs through her FFT project in Sweden and Switzerland. Her main vehicle: conversations between native Swedes and Swiss and immigrants. The aim of her learning: to support students’ socio-emotional skills, work towards bias and prejudice reduction and elimination, and promote self-awareness and cultural understanding. Learn more about the FFT program and apply here.

Project Summary

The theme of my Fund for Teachers fellowship “Breaking Bread and Barriers” speaks poetically and symbolically for the initiatives I investigated. I focused on The Department of Invitations (DOI) in Sweden which fosters conversations where they would never have taken place previously between immigrants and native Europeans, and The National Coalition Building Initiative International (NCBII) in Zurich, Switzerland, which runs over 400 programs designed to promote cultural understanding and decrease racism, prejudice and ethnocentrism in Switzerland and beyond.

I have gathered that grassroots projects such as these are much more than “We are the World” great ideas; they are necessary for everyone’s survival. It was vital to pursue this study because our world is facing even more migration now than it was in June and the stakes are extremely high with many inadvertent tragic repercussions.

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Swedish hosts prepare a dinner for immigrants.

“It was vital to pursue this study because our world is facing even more migration now…and the stakes are extremely high with many inadvertent tragic repercussions.“

Classroom/Community Impact

All of the realities of the closed natures of various “Western” cultures, along with the rising tide of migration currently and the fact of small grassroots initiatives to negotiate the intermingling of cultures are working their way into the course I am both teaching and creating currently, “You-topias; Redesigning Your World to Avert Dystopia,” in which we evaluate utopian and dystopian ideas as well as intentional communities and then refine our notions to design our own “Group-topias”, intentional communities that reach for a more peaceful, healthful, just and ecological world. In the course design, I have added a component that asks students to design regular rituals (that may account for including newcomers, scheduling collective food preparation, etc.) for their intentional communities as well as address questions of ecological, social, spiritual, and educational aspects of society.

Beyond this, I imagine that this will also impact the Swedish students with whom we will exchange conversations and information. Ideally, my students will be able to participate in cross-cultural conversations about utopian ideas and what sorts of intentional communities are desirable. This should be extra-enriching for my students as Sweden enjoys a more socialistic government/culture, in which the safety net is more reinforced than what we have here in the United States. Therefore, as students interact, they will learn about other possibilities such as free post-secondary education and quality health care for all as well as parental leave and housing for all. The intercultural exchange should both expand the students’ world views and promote intercultural understanding.

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The woman in the photo migrated to Sweden three years ago and had never visited the home of a native Swede.

Open Response

Exploring “Breaking Bread and Barriers” brought hands on learning to me, which I can then pass on to my students. Already, since realizing the profundity of the empathy, relationships and conversations that emerge over meals, I created a shared meal early in my new crew’s semester. (Usually, we would wait until we developed deeper bonds and then celebrate toward the end of a semester of marking period.) I can see by doing this early, we have formed a basis for trusting relationships based on spoken and unspoken sharing over food. I believe the trust arises from a deep-seated human survival instinct and when we cooperate on this form of survival by sharing nutrition, we automatically enter a web of interdependence, both conscious and subconscious.

By having the honor of co-creating and participating in such a meal in Sweden, I felt the power of this sharing over cultures. I realize that as much as my students and I reside in the same country, state and city, we also live in very different cultures, separated by differing language, neighborhood, generation and values. Sharing a meal together helps us both find common ground and understanding our differences with empathy.