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Local group reaches out to enhance cultural understanding

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig welcomes guests to a forum last week hosted by the Yolo DA's Multi-Cultural Community Council. At left is Witty Singh, a community member who spoke on behalf of the Sikh Coalition. Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | March 06, 2013 |

Did you know that Sikhs have five articles of faith that are required to be worn by the devout, including a small dagger, used as a last resort to protect the defenseless against violent acts?

There’s a chance (to avoid absolutes) that the answer is no. And it’s blind spots like those that Yolo County’s Multi-Cultural Community Council plans to highlight for local residents and law enforcement officers.

The hope is to solidify understanding — and fracture misconceptions — of various populations in recurrent forums. District Attorney Jeff Reisig developed the committee’s concept, and assembled more than 10 longtime activists as volunteers for its operation.

“The whole purpose is to have a vehicle in place to encourage open discussion between diverse groups of people, the D.A., and law enforcement,” Reisig said, “because there isn’t a lot of direct communication on a regular basis.”

Jesse Ortiz, a Woodland Community College professor who chairs the Multi-Cultural Community Council, began brainstorming with Reisig in summer 2012 to establish more consistent back-and-forth understanding.

In his 30 years of involvement with issues of cultural understanding in Yolo County, Ortiz said this is the first time he has been aware of a Yolo County elected official stepping forward to enhance long-term communication.

The cooperation has been imperative in the objective of “continuing the dialogue on cultural awareness, as it relates to the criminal justice system,” Ortiz said.

He and co-chairperson Carlos Matos have been tasked with organizing a series of public convocations, the first of which took place Thursday night at Woodland Community College.

About 90 community members attended the informational presentation and question-and-answer session about Sikhism and Islam. The turnout satisfied Ortiz, who said it’s not about the number of attendees but about the quality of information they leave with.

“If one person that has attended clears up a negative misconception or stereotype of a certain group of people, I think that it has been successful,” Ortiz said.

Also in the audience for Thursday’s talk were police officers from Woodland, Davis, Winters and West Sacramento, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol. More than a dozen officials, in uniform, lined the back wall of the small conference room.

Reisig said each police chief agreed it would be essential for law enforcement to be present the discussion. He attested to their — and his own — commitment to remaining sensitive to the issues introduced:

“It will matter when they’re making a car stop, or when they’re out in the community contacting people. It was the group’s decision to get as many cops out here as we can, because the more they understand, the better it will be for all of us.

“I learned a lot tonight too, and that’s good,” Reisig continued. “I mean, issues come up all the time in the D.A.’s Office where distinctions between cultures, religions and ethnic groups are important.”

An example of a take-home lesson was delivered by Witty Singh, who represented the Sikh community, in his description of etiquette for turbans worn by Sikh men and women. As the turban is an important part of their identity, it is not to be touched by others without permission.

“Beyond being super-fashionable,” Singh said, prompting laughs, “this is a required article of our faith.”

Khalid Saeed, a longtime Woodland resident and national president of the American Muslim Voice Foundation, spent much of his time at the microphone correcting the misinformation that has been disseminated about Islam.

He spoke of “Islamophobia” in America, using a report released by the Center for American Progress called “Fear Inc.: The Roots Of the Islamophobia Network In America.” It found that $42 million from seven foundations had fueled the rise of this hate in the past 10 years.

“Muslims don’t have any other way to reach out to the community, aside from times like this,” said Saeed, who estimated there are at least 2,000 Muslims living in Woodland alone. “Every opportunity is appreciated, and welcomed by us.”

Next to have their voices heard will be Native Americans, when members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation present at the same venue on Thursday, May 16. Upcoming forums also include the Chicano/Latino, African-American, Ukrainian and Asian communities.

The Multi-Cultural Community Council is proposing a Yolo County high school discussion sometime in 2014, to involve young people in a conversation about race relations.

Even with the number of activities planned, Ortiz said, there is never going to be a cure-all for the discrimination that has plagued history. However, that doesn’t make these efforts pointless, he added.

“We haven’t been able to get rid of it in more than 200 years, so I don’t believe our council will be able to,” Ortiz said. “But we can still make some improvements on developing better relationships, inclusion and understanding of people of color.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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