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The Mind Is Like A Parachute - It Doesn't Work Unless It's Open

"Here at I-House, the friendships and the discovery of our common humanity are what transform fear and prejudice into comfort and a respect for difference."

A few years ago, I noticed a bumper sticker whose parachute reference made me think about what often happens at I-House. And that sentiment was later echoed in these excerpts from an article written by Beth Murphy, producer of the documentary about I-House, which has been showing on public television stations across the country:

I've witnessed slavery in Sudan. I've comforted Kosovar refugees who have been stripped of their belongings and their dignity. I've documented human rights abuses against poor minorities in our own Deep South. Sometimes it is hard not to be cynical. What I needed was some hope. And that's exactly what I found while producing a documentary about International House, Berkeley.

During every major world conflict, International House has the potential to become a battleground. Arabs and Israelis worry about how violence at home will affect their families and futures. Chinese and Tibetan students debate the meaning of Communism. Americans defend and decry the role of the U.S. as both a necessary and arrogant superpower.

While there are occasional flare-ups, conflicts become learning experiences. Traditional enemies come face-to-face in the library and laundry room, forcing prejudices into the open.

It is impossible to have lived through September 11th without remembering the prescient words of former New York Times executive editor Max Frankel: "A shallow understanding of the world will damage the nation's sense of self, its commerce, and its standard of living, and it may blind it to even greater threats." When I think of those words, and I read today's headlines, I can't help thinking of the 60,000 International House alumni living around the world who have been exposed to these multiple realities and therefore have a greater understanding of our world. I can't help wishing that Israeli and Palestinian officials, Pakistanis and Indians, as well as Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant leaders, had all folded clothes next to one another in the laundry room or had enjoyed meals together in the dining room. I can't help wondering, "what if?"

Of course, we are not saying that everyone's parachute is opened by International House, but it is one of the few places on the planet where a common, extended living experience enables the natural formation of friendships across racial and cultural lines. Those friendships and the discovery of our common humanity are what transform fear and prejudice into comfort and a respect for difference.

And when the parachute does open in this lovely way, it often leads to profound changes. I think now of an Iranian woman at I-House who became a victim of racial profiling after September 11th and how the pain of that experience made her hate all Americans-that is, until she later moved into I-House and became close friends with her American roommate. "Now," she says, "I know that the appropriate response is not hating back, but being aware that I am dealing with an individual's ignorance, not the ignorance of an entire nationality."

I recently learned of a different, but no less profound impact when and American woman and a German man told me of their meeting at I-House, and like so many before them, fell in love and are on their way to marriage. Now they live in Munich, and recall, "the way cultures not only came together in an accepting way at I-House, but that something unique fell out of it." In Munich they see a city of culture and diversity, but with still so many people closed to it, they have applied and just received a fellowship to start putting together an I-House in Munich, fashioned after ours in Berkeley. A current resident, Irene Fernandez, also sees the need for an International House in her country and has worked for more than a year to lay the groundwork for an International House in Mexico City.

Certainly, thousands of parachutes have opened here; and the many stories of safe, mind-expanding landings that followed are a testament to our past and an inspiration for the many opening parachutes to come.

With sincere thanks to all of you who have nourished our House with your presence and affection over the years.

Executive Director


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