Conference panels call for education to help end discrimination, intolerance

CULLOWHEE — Education is the key to ending persistent problems of discrimination and intolerance in Western North Carolina, say participants in a recent Western Carolina University conference examining issues of cultural diversity and community citizenship.

“Our conference participants agreed that stereotypes emerge from not having enough knowledge about people from other cultures,” said Gordon Mercer, director of WCU’s Public Policy Institute. “That includes intolerance toward minorities, African-Americans, Hispanics and nearly all cultural groups, including Appalachian Mountain cultures. No group is exempt from stereotyping and prejudice.”

Students from Asheville High School suggested that cultural diversity is not limited to racial issues, but that “culture is where you come from.” The Asheville students said that culture includes such factors as gender, values, religion and sexual orientation.

Western’s Public Policy Institute, the Western Carolinian student newspaper, and the Asheville Citizen-Times co-sponsored last month’s event, “The 21st Century: A Conference and Workshop on Cultural Diversity and Community Citizenship.” In addition to hearing programs and viewing displays on cultural diversity and related topics, conference participants discussed recommendations on how to improve cultural diversity programs in the region. Among those recommendations, part of a policy report issued this week:

— Include more diversity in U.S. history and political sciences classes to embrace minority perspectives.
— Encourage students to learn how to constructively discuss their cultural differences.
— Require multicultural classes in grades kindergarten through 12.
— Encourage top school administrators to make multicultural education a priority.
— Invite more speakers on cultural diversity to campus.
— Hold more events and festivals celebrating different cultures.

Participants also recommended that existing cultural centers across Western North Carolina work together to enhance their individual efforts and programs, called for church leaders across denominations to become involved in cultural diversity training, and urged elected officials and public service providers to become better educated about cultural diversity so they can better understand the diverse population they serve.

The April conference was the third major activity of Western’s Public Policy Institute, established last year to study issues of importance to the WNC region and beyond, and to plan and develop policy options to address such issues. Previous conferences have tackled topics of domestic terrorism, and citizenship, responsibility and democracy.

For more information, contact Western’s Public Policy Institute at (828) 227-2086.