Educator tackles stereotypes in outreach program

Joe Carlson

When they first see him, most people assume that Newrwr Abdul-Wahid is a middle-aged African-American interested in the social sciences and athletics.
In reality, he is a 23-year-old who originally enrolled in chemical engineering and is more interested in social stereotypes than the Gophers’ appearance in the Final Four.
“I didn’t participate in high school sports,” Abdul-Wahid said. “I was president of the math club for two years.”
Abdul-Wahid helps coordinate the University’s Community Outreach Program, which educates high schools and community groups associated with the University about diversity issues. The program is funded by the Diversity Institute through the Office of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs.
“My primary focus has been on working with high schools and community organizations in the state,” Abdul-Wahid said, “not in a lecture-style (presentation), but more in an experiential style.”
Tina dela Cruz, a program associate with the institute, said “The mission of the Diversity Institute is to improve the climate for diversity on campus.
“One of the components of that is to work with high school students,” she said, “because a lot of these students end up at the University.”
Abdul-Wahid works with the students for a number of reasons, one of which is to make them aware of the stereotypes they pick up from families, friends and the media.
“It’s breaking down the stereotypes,” Abdul-Wahid said. “We all have prejudices and stereotypes about one another, but how can we get past that?”
He compares his activities with young people to studying in school. If students never study, they will not realize what help they need. Likewise, if no one ever points out students’ stereotypes, then they won’t know they have a problem.
Abdul-Wahid does not try to force his views about prejudice on students, but rather tries to get young people to think about their biases and how deeply rooted they are.
“Once you recognize that you have a problem, then you can get help,” Abdul-Wahid said.
He said that he often takes the program to areas that are more homogeneous than the University, such as Barrett, a small town in northern Minnesota.
“How often do those students get to talk to someone from the south side of Chicago?” Abdul-Wahid said. “I wear a pager, and I’ve had them ask me straight-out, ‘Are you a dope dealer?'” he said.
The program is relevant to the University, he said, because oftentimes, students that he educates eventually attend the University.
“This fall, I went out to the Superblock, and one of the freshmen recognized me,” Abdul-Wahid said. It turned out that the student was from Barrett. “They do end up at the University, and even if they don’t, the University has the opportunity to help the community,” Abdul-Wahid said.
One introductory exercise that he always performs is to get up in front of a group and ask the members to guess his age, interests, hobbies and career.
“We’ve done this on every level, from elementary schools to college professors, and the results are always the same,” Abdul-Wahid said.
When people find out that Abdul-Wahid does not find any of the traditional responses, they say that he is a special case, an exception to the rule. “But what is the rule?” he said.
“It’s not about finding out whose rules are right, it’s about recognizing the differences in culture,” Abdul-Wahid said.