“We are at a critical moment in history. We can choose to self destruct—or create new discourse and be in the presence of the best of our humanity.”
Brenda Rosenberg and Samia Bahsoun
VALENTINE’S DAY 2014—Tears welled in Brenda’s eyes as she walked into the funeral for Michigan civil rights and interfaith leader Dan Krichbaum. Dan had worked tirelessly to build cross-cultural bridges since the ‘67 Detroit riots. Brenda had devoted herself to improving interfaith relations since 9/11. Dan recruited Brenda to serve on a board and honored her with a community service award.
As mourners gathered at the Birmingham (MI) United Methodist Church, Brenda sat next to Steve Spreitzer. Steve headed the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion (MRDI, the board for which Dan recruited her as the first female member). Steve and Brenda shared their concern at the growing hostility between police and communities across America.
Then, Steve invited Brenda to the next meeting of ALTPACT (Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust). Re-connecting with Steve at Dan’s funeral, Brenda had a feeling Dan was still guiding her, as her “peace angel.” Brenda, who’s Jewish, attended that next ALTPACT meeting in Dearborn, MI, which has a large Muslim population and some of the nation’s leading mosques. Listening to the conversation, she took notes on accusations going back and forth between law enforcement and community leaders.
Community complaints: “Disrespected.” “Harassed.” “Bias against blacks.”
Police complaints: “People spit on us.” “Our lives are in danger.” “Blacks don’t trust us.”
At that point, Brenda already was experienced in facing cross-cultural challenges. She had teamed up with Lebanese-born Samia Bahsoun to work on interfaith relations. They created a program, Tectonic Leadership, to bring people together to bridge cultural, ethnic, religious and economic chasms. Steve thought their approach could foster better police/community relations. Brenda was put on the agenda for the next meeting of ALTPACT.
At that meeting, Brenda read aloud the complaints she had heard. “Hearing the other” is the first of 4 steps in the Tectonic approach.
“Both community and law enforcement saw the possibility in addressing the tension to build alliances,” Brenda says. “I left the meeting feeling elated, receiving only hugs. Not one formal handshake.”
Brenda got busy. She met with police chiefs, community and religious leaders, and educators. She and Samia finalized “Future Tectonic Leaders,” a program they hope will prove a model for communities across America. Their 10-week program starts next January, in partnership with Roseville, MI, police and Roseville High School. They aim to “inform, engage and empower” students to become problem solvers working with police to find solutions together.
Before devoting herself to pursuing peace, Brenda spent over 25 years as a fashion exec pursuing (and creating) fashion trends. Naturally, her Future Tectonic Leaders program includes a sweatshirt.
Just to name a few of her prejudice-shattering efforts: Brenda was the first Jewish person to deliver a Ramadan sermon at a mosque in Michigan. She placed Jewish libraries in four area mosques. She produced Reuniting The Children of Abraham, a multi-media educational program that brought children of different religions together in dialogue, and eventually in a theatrical production that later was featured in a CBS-network documentary. She has presented her ideas in Amman, Jordan, hosted by Prince Hasan.
Samia, a telecom exec and a Muslim, was born in Senegal, Africa. Raised in southern Lebanon, she lost her grandmother and grand aunt to an Israeli raid. At prep school in France, she was so antisemitic that whenever she saw Israeli oranges in a market, she squashed them. Nevertheless, she and Brenda have become dear friends and partners in pursuing peace.
Brenda is one of my closest friends. (When I was treated for stage 4 cancer, she supported me all the way from visits to the oncologist to designing my wig to countless calls and visits.) I’ve witnessed the skepticism and hostility Brenda has endured, accused of naivete or worse. I marvel at her resilience.
This week Brenda was honored with the Community Leadership Award from the Detroit Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. I was there, cheering her on. In accepting, Brenda quoted the late Israeli president Shimon Peres: “If you have two solutions, don’t waste your time in trying to convince the other party… Try to create a third solution which is unknown.”
Brenda recently received a call from no less than the FBI, inviting her to serve as a multi-cultural advisor. You can be sure she accepted.
I’m proud of you, dear friend. Because of you, the world may someday be a safer place.