On Saturday my husband Gov. Bill Walker, our daughters and I attended an Anchorage interfaith gathering. Bill spoke and said we were there not to emphasize our differences but to celebrate the common goals we share as Alaskans.
That very night, just a couple of miles away, cars belonging to Sudanese refugees were vandalized and covered with hateful, racially-tinged messages.
Fortunately, the Anchorage community we know, the one whose very fabric is woven with a rich and vibrant blend of cultures and traditions, is responding with outrage toward the offense and an outpouring of kindness for the victims.
I spent my early childhood in the Deep South as racial tensions peaked. At 12, I moved to "the melting pot" of Hawaii, where cultural and ethnic differences are largely celebrated. The acceptance and friendship among those from different backgrounds struck a resonant chord in the heart of this seventh grader who abhorred the hatred and violence brewing in the South.
Our own four children grew up in Anchorage where they attended one of the most ethnically diverse high schools in the nation. Over 55 different languages are spoken at West High, their alma mater. They say they never realized how much they appreciated the diversity reflected in their friendships, classmates and teammates until they left Anchorage to attend college in the Lower 48. One son complained that his college lacked diversity to the point that it just felt odd. Our daughter said, "To love Anchorage means to love the diversity that makes this such a rich and beautiful place to live."
Through the efforts of many important organizations, we are making great strides to embrace our community's cultural diversity, and to ensure people of any race or ethnicity are treated with the respect they deserve. It is my hope that with further outreach and relationship building, incidents like the one that happened at the end of March will become increasingly rare in our beautiful city.
One local organization working tirelessly to embrace and promote our rich diversity is Bridge Builders of Anchorage, which was established in 1996 by Mayor Rick Mystrom in an effort to mitigate racial tension in our community. One of Bridge Builders' first efforts in Anchorage was a pulpit and choir exchange between First Presbyterian Church (where Mayor Mystrom and we were members) and Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. Bill and I never learned how it went over at Shiloh, but we do remember how we normally reserved Presbyterians rocked and rolled and blew the rafters off that day. So different from our usual worship, but oh, so wonderful!
Nearly 20 years later, the goal of Bridge Builders continues to be that Anchorage will become a city without prejudice, a "community of friends." One of my initiatives as First Lady is to expand the Bridge Builders concept statewide, and in Juneau, we are off to a galloping start. I have met with Juneau's cultural and government leaders and plans are well underway for our first community-wide cultural celebration. Leaders plan to take it from celebration to education as they join in the effort to eliminate racism in Juneau and throughout Alaska.
I have to believe the culprits of the recent incident don't know Anchorage. I don't think they attended school or church or community celebrations here. They haven't stood alongside the Park Strip during the Fourth of July parade and watched as the Bridge Builders of Anchorage entry goes by. If they did, they would see the dozens upon dozens of men and women, boys and girls of every race, creed and color wearing their cultural dress, having the most fun, waving American flags and carrying red, white and blue balloons. They would see that here in Anchorage, we joyously celebrate what makes us unique, and also all that brings us together as proud Alaskans and grateful Americans.
Donna Walker is married to Gov. Bill Walker and is a mother, grandmother, attorney and businesswoman. The Walkers reside in Juneau.
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