When philanthropist George Russell examined poll results in 2006, he was disturbed to find that many Americans harbored prejudice against and fear of Muslim-Americans, even five years post-9/11. And those feelings persist, with nearly a third of Americans saying their opinions of Muslims are not favorable at all, according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

Russell was concerned that these attitudes had the potential to further entrench people’s thinking and possibly lead to escalating conflict. To counteract these biases, he founded One Nation, a nonprofit organization that funds efforts to counteract anti-Muslim stereotypes.

For its first two-and-a-half years, the group worked with the media to encourage more balanced, positive coverage of Muslims by training religion reporters, developing educational films and sponsoring two national digital film contests. Those efforts had little effect on people’s attitudes, subsequent polls showed. But one factor did make a dent: “One-on-one contact — getting to know Muslims as neighbors, friends or co-workers,” says One Nation CEO Henry Izumizaki.

Those findings led One Nation to develop a “Plan B,” which will be the subject of an upcoming APA Annual Convention symposium sponsored by Div. 48 (Peace), on Friday, Aug. 5. Beginning in Chicago and New York, with plans to launch projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Paul, Minn., and other cities, One Nation is providing $3.5 million in matching grants to help these sites develop grassroots projects to bring together Muslim-Americans and others. The projects include creating community gardens and coffee-hour conversations, and helping Muslim and other immigrants become more active and empowered citizens in their neighborhoods and communities.

Div. 48 chose to highlight this work because it dovetails perfectly with the division’s convention theme, “Peace Psychology in Our Own Communities: Working Toward Structural, Sustainable Changes.”

“One Nation’s work is an exemplar of community interventions that are being used to build bridges for a more workable society,” says symposium facilitator Zoi Andalcio, who co-chairs the division’s community and peace task force. He hopes the presentation will encourage psychologists to create their own peace-building models.

It’s also an opportunity for psychologists to change their image from lone office practitioners to citizen-experts who can help foster community well-being through psychological knowledge, Andalcio says.

“One Nation’s work fits very nicely into what Div. 48 thinks are the ingredients needed to even talk about peace — that is, to collaborate with others and to take an interdisciplinary approach to problems,” Andalcio says.

United we stand

The session will feature Izumizaki and two other speakers representing the One Nation initiatives in Chicago and New York. They are:

Eboo Patel, faith adviser to President Obama and CEO of Chicago’s Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that works to foster respect and service activity among religiously diverse young people around the world.

Fatima Shama, commissioner of immigrant affairs in New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office, who is spearheading a number of One Nation projects involving the city’s immigrant community.

In both Chicago and New York, One Nation is using community foundations as the initial means of identifying strong civic, governmental and interfaith organizations that they’ve worked with in the past, Izumizaki says. “If there is a chance for longevity — and this kind of effort requires longevity — community foundations can really enhance that sustainable element,” he says.

In Chicago, for instance, the Chicago Community Trust already had a strong existing relationship with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has long advocated for interfaith and intercultural solidarity, as well as with two major faith-based organizations, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core. Having those relationships in place made it much easier to get projects off the ground, says Terry Mazany, chief executive officer of the trust.

So far, projects include “The Eye of the Beholder,” where students from one Islamic and one private school meet to discuss interfaith issues, explore opportunities for mutual action and learn about one another through fine arts projects; a plan that engages college students and several civic partners in two affluent Chicago suburbs to raise awareness about hunger and to help ease hunger locally; and a project hosted by a Muslim women’s group and a Presbyterian church that encourages interfaith dialogue, cultural exchange and joint activities.

An even stronger New York

Efforts in New York began ramping up in the fall. The city has the benefit of a mayor who has been a powerful advocate post-9/11 for a unified New York that respects and supports diversity, says Shama. Given that leadership, the city, One Nation and the New York Community Trust are planning activities that recognize the importance of strengthening immigrants’ civic engagement to build, maintain and nurture a strong and safe city. To that end, they are holding training sessions for newer immigrants that educate them on their rights, opportunities and responsibilities as citizens, and launching a joint venture with the College Board to help immigrant families prepare their children for college.

Other plans include creating an immigrant civic leadership program and a partnership with the national media project StoryCorps to capture immigrants’ stories, including multigenerational stories. In addition, the community trust is funding two interfaith centers to facilitate coffee hours throughout the city during which people can discuss 9/11 and how they can work together to bridge divides and celebrate their diversity.

One thing has become clear since these cities have begun their efforts, says Izumizaki: The work is much broader than teaching people about Islam.

“We’ve realized it’s more about helping all people to experience each other as human beings and to work together for the good of the community,” he says. “At the end of the day, that will deal with any misperceptions in a much more powerful way.”

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.