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Tolerance — are we there yet?

Opinion Piece

Last week it was 100 years since the birth, in the South African village of Mvezo, of Nelson Mandela, one of the most visionary and influential political figures the world has seen. For many, he will forever be the man who led his people to freedom, who suffered under and then vanquished the evil of apartheid in South Africa, and who built a new democracy with magnanimity, wisdom and vision. What is remarkable, and what gives us hope for the future, is how his life and legacy continue to inspire the younger generations.

He famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I have just returned from a trip to Los Angeles and San Diego with our own local Ambassadors of Tolerance, a group of Year 13 students from Lytton High who have been learning about the story of the Freedom Writers.

The Freedom Writers is founded on tolerance when, after the LA riots, a teacher found herself face to face with the realities of racism and intolerance. She used education to challenge the mindsets of a group of poor African-American and Latino students who hated different races and especially “white people”.

We gave our students the opportunity to visit the US-Mexico border to see the fence that separates the two countries, the Museum of Tolerance in LA that shares the horrors of the Holocaust, and a couple of high schools. The students were fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein’s museum in Huntington Beach and meet his daughter, who told us we were the last group to see the art in the museum as it was closing down. Mel was the only survivor from his immediate family and spent years travelling back to Auschwitz to collect items that he turned into art pieces. Some of us were gifted copies of Mel’s autobiography By Bread Alone.

Giving young people the opportunity to see these sights and consider their worldview on these issues has been a valuable experience. I hope they will use the experience to challenge intolerant behaviours they see, but also reflect on how tolerant they are.

I returned home to a meeting with some Gisborne residents who feel at risk from our prisoner reintegration system, and a Gisborne District Council meeting where conversation over lunch included references to the killing of local Maori when Cook arrived, and according to a couple of my colleagues, “not enough were killed”.

We still have a way to go when it comes to tolerance and understanding, and yet some would say we have had better education, so why do such strong attitudes exist?

While Nelson Mandela didn’t train as a teacher, he taught us all what it means to make choices, to sacrifice for something greater than oneself. He taught us to forgive when we can, and be humble in asking for forgiveness when we need to. He taught us to belong, accept and include. He taught us to cherish democracy, he taught us to share and to be kind, and he also taught us that in teaching we can give all young people hope, opportunities and the courage to make the world a better place.