More than 100 community members and City leaders came to UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) Friday to attend Cultural Conversationsa cross cultural-dialogue event that took off in novel form, with attendees welcomed by the smell of cuisines from India, Hawaii, Mexico, Italy, China, and Texas, coupled with the sounds of ukelele strings, drums from the Far East, and more.

When cultural misunderstanding and intolerance led to violence last year towards San Antonio’s Jewish community, both civic and faith leaders stood strong and decided to create an interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue event to foster harmony and understanding.

(Read more: Hate Crimes Target San Antonio’s Jewish Community)

One year later, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) called upon the ITC, their Texas Star Heritage Award recipients, and other community leaders to put together the Cultural Conversations event and rekindle the community spirit that defines a harmonious San Antonio.

According to community member A.K. Singh, bringing together like minded people to identify with one another is just a starting point, but it must expand beyond that.

Raul Sarabia of Spice of Life passes out samples of food. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Raul Sarabia of Spice of Life passes out samples of food. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“It’s not just about Sikhs finding one another, but connecting with other cultures,” Singh said. “We believe education is the answer to creating understanding.”

Singh attended the Friday event on behalf of Dr. G.P. Singh, a 2017 Texas Star Heritage Award Recipient and well-known community leader who has been significantly involved in learning about other cultures and creating interfaith dialogues.

Rev. Ann Helmke of the San Antonio PeaceCENTER was the moderator for the Friday event and set the foundation for understanding. The stage was a circle that focused on the artist, on the speaker, on the heart in the middle of it all, and the people gathered around unified in symbol and in shape.

After gestures of gratitude and compassion from public officials such as State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-124), Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), and Councilman Cris Medina (D7), whose office helped support the breakout session, Helmke introduced the break-out conversation format by reminding community members that you don’t need formality or press releases to have a gathering like this.

“You can do this in your own home, community center, or in your congregation,” Helmke said. “Watch what happens today so that you can do this in your community yourselves.”

Helmke invoked the ‘Golden Rule,’ a principle she claims all world religions and cultures share, in order to facilitate the proper environment for the conversations, which revolved around topics such as “What role does mass media play in our culture?” “What do faith and religion have to do with culture?” and even the foundational question “What is culture?”

With exhibits of the roots of Texas’ rich cultural history in the background, civic and community leaders set the tone by pledging their support and opening up conversations at the beginning of the evening. Flip charts and markers were in full action as expert and novice exchanged open-hearted dialogue, looking for that big takeaway.

Dozens of people gather for the community dialogue about culture in San Antonio. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Dozens of people gather for the community dialogue about culture in San Antonio. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Of the 10 topics up for discussion, the conversation on how music can be used to heal communities and enliven our economy drew the humblest crowd, but nevertheless produced intimate conversations that touched upon the recent buzz in the music industry.

“My mother used to run a record shop downtown, all Spanish records, it was a gathering place for people,” said Teresa Menéndez Myers, joined by her mother and son in the circle. “Music has always been around me.”

Myers then made an inquiry about the possibility of creating a Music Commission for the City of San Antonio.

“(The) Councilman is working hard to push through a Music Commission Office that would act similarly to the Film Commission, as a liaison between community members and civic leaders,” said Rey Lopez, musical advocate and member of Medina’s office. “Please communicate with your council representatives and let them know you desire such an office for the betterment of our city.”

The group all agreed that music is a part of our daily lives and that brings us into all states of emotions, has a great deal of power, and we must make it more accessible.

Musicians from the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest perform at the entrance of The UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Musicians from the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest perform at the entrance of The UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“When opportunities arise it’s because we demanded it,” said Garth Dennis, a former jazz trombonist, on the topic of opening up concert venues to underprivileged populations. “We have to know the questions of concern for our City leaders and answer those if we want to make progress.”

After a solid half-hour of productive and progressive conversation within each break-out group, leaders came back into the center of the room to share with the community members the most valuable lesson learned.

“At the foundation of culture lies love,” said a student from the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW), “having a genuine compassion for your fellow man and remaining unbiased towards the societal cultural diversity that exists within San Antonio.”

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Top image: Rev. Ann Helmke of the San Antonio PeaceCENTER explains the ground rules for the conversation. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.