An enthusiastic, religiously diverse group of 31 women gathered at the Jowonio School on Oct. 20 for the first program meeting of the 2019-2020 WTB year. The programmatic goals for the year are to further develop and modify the theme begun last year as “Understanding the Other.” Today’s theme was: “Who Is Really the Other?” The setting for this meeting was the celebration of fall harvest time with delicious food.
Near the sign-in table were collections of items members brought to share in the community: 2020 calendars, empty pill bottles and packages of Jello mix for a project by the Syracuse Federation of Women’s Clubs, as well as gently used Halloween costumes to share with children of the Eastern Farmworkers Association.
In the large meeting room, two long and two shorter tables with tablecloths were arranged in a rectangle in the center of the room indicating to everyone as they arrived that they were there to eat. Buffet tables were along two walls which gradually began to overflow with delicious foods as women arrived bringing their contributions. One table was set with six different pots of soup along with crackers, dips, cheese, and breads. Another table was overflowing with desserts: pies, cookies, sweet breads, cakes, etc. Beverages were at a third table.
Barbara Bova, president, opened with welcome at 3:10 and invited everyone to begin eating after which we would have the program. Lively discussions occurred among the women in small groups while enjoying the delicious food. New acquaintances were made and friendships renewed.
At 3:45, Barbara announced we would begin the program. Betty Lamb read the WTB Mission Statement and Gay Montague read the Safe Place Statement to begin the meeting. Barbara then opened the discussion by saying that new thoughts have been raised about the way the question about understanding the other was focused last year. She asked “Have you ever received someone else as the Other?” and “Have you ever felt like the Other?” She read part of a contribution by Lilia Melani, CUNY Brooklyn Department of English:
“The Other is an individual who is perceived by the group as not belonging, as being different in some fundamental way. Any stranger becomes the Other. The group sees itself as the norm and judges those who do not meet that norm (that is, who are different in any way) as the Other. Perceived as lacking essential characteristics possessed by the group, the Other is almost always seen as a lesser or inferior being and is treated accordingly. The Other in a society may have few or no legal rights, may be characterized as less intelligent or as immoral, and may even be regarded as sub-human. Otherness takes many forms. The Other may be someone who is of…
- a different race
- a different nationality
- a different religion
- a different social class
- a different political ideology
- a different sexual orientation
- a different place of origin
As she ﬁnished the reading a person in the group added “or a different gender.”
Following that introduction, Barbara invited persons to share around the table, as they felt comfortable, examples of times when they, themselves, felt like “the Other.” There was deep sharing of experiences most of which can be roughly classified as those related to religious practices, language and/or immigration status, or gender. Some women shared stories of attempts they had made in the past to advocate for someone, who seemed vulnerable in some way, to feel acceptance.
The examples of persons who experienced being the Other due to religious beliefs or practices were numerous. A number of women, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, have experienced being the Other within their own religion. One person said she feels she experiences as the Other when there are expectations that her practice of Judaism differs from persons with more traditional or conservative practices. Giving an explanation of her choices feels alienating. A Muslim woman described her feeling like “the Other” when she decided to begin to wear the Hijab when the group in which she was raised did not support that practice. Another talked about belonging to a newer sect of Islam and the isolation that can bring when with the larger Muslim groups. A number of women who practice Christianity also shared examples of being different, isolated, or the Other when being raised with Christians from other denominations or groups in their community.
A number of both Muslim and Jewish women talked about feeling like “the Other” in situations in this society with Christianity historically as the dominant religion. One woman talked about being raised as the only Jewish child in a town where most were Christian. During World War II, she was identified by children with whom she played as being the “reason for the war.” She was told by other children “Go home. It’s your fault we are in a war. My brother is over there ﬁghting.” Her father said to her, “Now we know who are the anti-Semites.” Later in high school, she had two groups of friends — a group of Jewish friends, and a group of non-Jewish friends. She experienced discrimination in a number of ways.
The term “interdenominational” on a poster inviting diverse Christian denominations was a challenge to someone from a Jewish group who attended having thought this meant an inter-faith gathering.
Gender issues were mentioned by two persons who had worked in academia and historically male dominated situations. A person who was an educational administrator, often the lone female in a group, felt discrimination when the persons in the group were referred to by the chair as “gentlemen.” Also, being a female administrator brought change through a difficult process to the job expectations as women began to integrate family expectations and needs into professional practice. In some ways a number of women took on the challenge being the Other and made it into becoming change agents. Gender discrimination was felt by someone when she was referred to as “dear” or “honey” at work because she was a woman. These terms were not used for men.
Nationality and language/accents were also mentioned by some women as making them feel like the Other. One person talked about how she had come to New York City and worked as an immigrant woman and because of the diversity there hadn’t felt isolation. However, when she moved to Upstate New York, she experienced being the Other more often. The experience of being an immigrant woman was described as being a challenge by a number of women. Language barriers and being a minority religious person were identified as barriers to integration. Missing family and friends after immigration was difficult. The loss of homeland was especially difficult when the reason for emigration had been belief in and identification with a persecuted minority group. A number of women experienced this. One woman shared her experiences being an American in a European country. Although she knew the language well, because of her gender and her American accent she experienced being the Other and was treated rudely at times.
The experience of making a career as an artist and potter in this society was identified as contributing to the feeling of being “the Other” to the larger society.
Frequently expressed by women in the group was the importance in their lives of reaching out to those who experience being the Other in various situations. A number of women who had careers in education described how they did this in classrooms and other educational experiences. Identifying people as the Other was mentioned by someone as a power play, and Women Transcending Boundaries is working to diminish this in our society. As part of this, one woman said she deals with feeling like the Other by trying to get a conversation going.
The current situation in our country with national attempts to divide people was lamented by many around the tables. The question was always asked: What can we do as a group to decrease divisions? A psychologist affirmed for us again our belief that people can change.