Presidents message - August 2017

Hello Rotarians,

Rotary-July 7-2017-1527.jpg Fellow members of the WGRC (World’s Greatest Rotary Club):

I chose “Building Bridges” as the theme for my year as Club President. Why?

I take my inspiration from the late Dr. Fred Armstrong, a former Saratoga Rotarian. A little more than 10 years ago, Dr. Armstrong organized a “Building Bridges” celebration at West Valley College: a day to experience, understand, and appreciate all the wonderfully diverse ethnic groups that call Saratoga home.

I had the pleasure of serving as the Master of Ceremonies that day, and I, along with the appreciative audience, was treated to a cavalcade of music, dancing, and other presentations celebrating the culture and history of The United States, Mexico, China, India, Iran, Ireland, and many others.

The event was a big success. But Dr. Armstrong did not go to the trouble solely for the sake of entertainment. He had lived in Saratoga for many years and had watched the ethnic make-up of his neighborhood gradually change. New families of high-tech engineers were moving in from India, China, and other countries, replacing the older, mostly European-Americans.

Not all of his older neighbors were happy about the changing landscape. Dr. Armstrong heard some hateful remarks being tossed about.

But wise and educated man that he was, Dr. Armstrong knew that ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hatred. He decided to do something about it. Hence, with the help of fellow Rotarian Cynthia Chang and others, “Building Bridges” was born.

I am inspired, because Fred Armstrong made a huge effort to bring about change when he could have been playing golf or resting on his backside. His efforts to improve understanding between cultures could have been met with backlash, but he was undeterred. He had the courage to do the right thing.

I’ve been thinking about Dr. Armstrong ever since the start of the 2016 election cycle because of a disturbing national trend: Certain elements of our society have felt emboldened to come out from under their rocks and spew their vicious and twisted message. They go by many names: Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, White Nationalists, “Alt-right”, etc. Theirs is an ugly, divisive, and hate-filled rhetoric aimed at minorities, women, immigrants, and any other group that doesn’t fit the bigot’s idea of what Americans are supposed to look like. As an American and Rotarian, I am nauseated. As a white male, I am deeply embarrassed.

But I also see that this hatred (exploited to great effect by some politicians) is fueled by fear, which in turn is fueled by ignorance.

All humans are, to some extent, naturally suspicious of other cultures. This may have been a survival mechanism for early mankind when we all lived in tribes. It was important then to adopt easily recognizable signs to distinguish the members of your tribe from those of hostile tribes who might kill you. If you looked and talked like me, and wore the same clothes, the same hairstyle, the same jewelry, ate the same foods, carried the same tools, worshipped the same gods, you could be trusted.

Humans were primarily tribal hunter-gatherers for many hundreds of thousands of years. We have become sedentary farmers for only the last few thousand. We’ve become an international, interracial, intercultural world for only the last few hundred years. Not enough time to shed our xenophobic impulses, even though they no longer provide any survival benefit.

Education is the remedy. When we understand another culture, we cease to fear it. When we travel to another land and live among its denizens, we learn that, despite our cultural differences, we’re all the same. We’re all members of the same race.

Rotary International was founded in the United States by white men. But it has grown to be a powerful international force for good by being inclusive of men and women of all nationalities, races, and cultures.

So here’s where “Building Bridges” comes in:  As a culturally diverse group of Rotarians, and as respected civic leaders, we are uniquely positioned to be ambassadors of understanding and acceptance in our community. I wish to inspire my fellow Rotarians to help fill the current moral leadership void in Washington by speaking out against bigotry. Welcome the new arrivals. Extend the hand of friendship to your new neighbors. Learn about their culture and teach them about yours. If you hear xenophobic talk, counter it with positive messages of inclusion and acceptance. Apply the four-way test!

And invite them to a Rotary meeting!

Although I’m not a Christian, I find much to like in the Pope’s recent quote: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”.

I do not interpret the Pope’s use of the word “Christian” to exclude followers of other religions. I take him to mean “people who care about others”.

I believe Rotarians are included in that group.