A Round of Applause for Fremont, USA

A new documentary details the hard but admirable work of getting along.

One of the most important and unforgettable phrases uttered in my
lifetime was Rodney King’s plaintive plea, “Can we all get along?”
King’s aphorism exemplifies a central issue of our time. How can people
from different backgrounds and cultures happily, respectfully, and
productively mesh their lives together in our American melting pot?

Culture is one of the reasons contemporary Americans sometimes have
a hard time getting along. While differences in ways of life have
always existed, increased immigration, population density, and the
instant flow of global information have thrust society’s cultural
distinctions in the face of many Americans. Perhaps nowhere is this
more the case than in Fremont.

Fremont became a city a little over fifty years ago, when five
mostly white farming communities incorporated into one city. Beginning
in the ’70s, a dramatic demographic shift began with Latino and Asian
in-migration. Today, fewer than one third of the residents are white,
and Fremont may be the most diverse medium-size city in the country.
According to Indian-American city councilwoman Anu Natarajan, residents
trace their heritage to 147 countries and speak more than 150 languages
in their homes. Diversity is especially evident in the city’s religious
landscape, which includes at least four mosques, three Buddhist
Temples, Sikh and Hindu houses of worship, and the iconic Peace
Terrace, a road on which Muslims and Methodists built houses of
religion side by side.

Fremont’s evolution has not always been smooth, but given the
potential combustibility of the mix, the city should be seen as a
success story of how different groups can live together.

With a dwindling few exceptions like Fremont’s NUMMI auto plant, the
post-Word War II industrial melting pot is but a distant memory today.
Cities provide the best present-day vantage points for viewing the
blessings and difficulties of cultural and religious differences.

This culture stew is the subject of a new film produced under the
aegis of the Pluralism Project, a group from Harvard University that
has been mapping US religious diversity. In Fremont, USA,
filmmakers Elinor Pierce and Oakland resident Rachel Antell tackle
Fremont’s laudable efforts to deal with cultural and religious
diversity through civic engagement. The film, subtitled A City’s
Encounter with Religious Diversity
, explores the cultural changes
that have come to Fremont.

The film focuses primarily on relations between Protestants and
practitioners of Asian religious traditions. All the figures
interviewed agree that the city council and bureaucracy have been very
supportive of the growth of different traditions and communities.
Fremont has an active Human Relations Commission and has made efforts
to employ a diverse workforce. For people concerned about the
relationship between government and religion, it is interesting that
Fremont uses communities of faith as a way to contact its ethnic
populations.

The horror of 9/11 tested the relative peacefulness of Fremont’s
diversity. Mosques and Afghani businesses were attacked. Fremont has
the largest Afghan population in the United States and the
second-largest Sikh community. In response, these groups realized that
deep concerns remained within the majority populations, in spite of
what seemed like fairly harmonious relations. A conscious decision was
made to reach out to the overall community in order to promote deeper
understanding. In a very cool event, the Sikh and Muslim communities
sponsored a “Wear a Hijab/Turban Day” to demystify these parts of their
culture. Anyone could come and be fitted for a hijab or turban.

Backlash against immigration has arisen on several other occasions,
flaring up in the public schools, around the city’s Fourth of July
parade, and whenever immigration is a hot topic.

But even with these occasional tensions, the film’s narrative of
life in Fremont seems surprisingly smooth — until the murder of
Alia Ansari. An Afghani mother of six, Ansari had come to California
with her family in 1986 to flee the fighting in Afghanistan. While she
was walking to school with her youngest child to pick up two of her
other children, a man walked up to her, put a gun to her head, and shot
her. The death had an immediate terrorizing effect on minority
communities in Fremont. The film portrays Fremont’s city officials as
incredibly proactive. The city’s mayor immediately visited the family
and allowed extraordinary memorial activities on city land. The
Presbyterian Church led a well-attended community memorial. Imagine how
things might have been different if Oakland and BART officials had
reacted similarly following the shooting of Oscar Grant.

Getting along is not easy. It takes time, and there are few external
markers of success. Productive interpersonal interactions seldom
produce outcomes that can be followed in a box score or tracked in a
bar graph, and Americans are too prone to dismiss things that can’t be
measured or quantified. Furthermore, intentional civic engagement often
seems bland and boring to many, especially if no immediate economic
interest is involved. Like many of my fellow Americans, I would rather
watch the car crashes and fantasy intrigue of the latest Jason Bourne
movie than sit around all day and talk about my feelings. But I know
that I am better off doing the hard work of getting to know and become
comfortable with the “other.” So, I work to nurture that part of
myself. It is demanding but necessary work.

When we think about the lessons of Fremont, Rodney King’s heroic
words still ring true. “We all can get along,” he told us. “I mean,
we’re all stuck here for a while. … Let’s try to work it out.” The
residents of Fremont show us one way to do this. Their efforts deserve
our admiration.

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