The Relevance of International House: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

B ack in the 1920's and 30's, International House Berkeley was seen by some as a much needed pioneering institution; others saw it as a frightening and dangerous threat to the status quo.

W hen the House opened in 1930, it was the first interracial, multinational, and coeducational residential center west of the Mississippi. Many were shocked to see people from different racial and cultural backgrounds actually living together. In fact, so uncomfortable were some with the idea of I-House that as late as the 1960's, it was derisively referred to by the unenlightened as the "zoo."

T oday, I am reminded by alumni from the early years that the vision of the founders, Harry Edmonds and John D. Rockefeller Jr., was not only right but that it worked. As one alumna put it:

We came to grips with each other as real entities, not images on travel posters; one in which we had to deal with the realities of our own ethnocentrisms, and not abstractly either...one in which we were bent, hurt, pleasured, delighted, enlightened, changed ...in short, one in which we grew.

T he House fostered tolerance, shattered stereotypes and opened rich new possibilities not only for its residents but also for the many communities they touched. Some of the most significant integration breakthroughs in Berkeley came through the influence of I-House and its residents. And the creation of many other International Houses in the United States and abroad drew inspiration from the seeming miracle of diversity at work and thriving at I-House Berkeley.

T oday, when the expression "global village" has become a clich‚, the mission and work of International House becomes even more significant. As national frontiers blur, and as walls and curtains between nations crumble, as people within and between nations are thrust together by technology, too often the fear of difference and the ugly specter of ignorance and prejudice raise their heads. Neo-nazis, racists, and ultra-nationalists trouble the headlines of the day. We read and hear of minorities and immigrants being scapegoated, religious sites being desecrated, and we see the horrifying evidence of genocide being practiced once again in the last decade of the 20th century!

I n the face of these tragedies, where does one look for hope? Where does one learn the skills of communication across cultures? And where, most importantly, does one learn to feel comfortable, even enthusiastic, about differences in culture, nationality, race, and outlook? You, more than anyone else, know the answer to these questions.

T he years ahead at I-House will continue to reflect the globalization of communicating. We are now on the World Wide Web (http:\\www- ihouse.berkeley.edu\ih); we are hoping soon to provide all resident rooms with direct access to the Internet and we have installed a satellite that now brings newscasts to the Great Hall from over 25 countries.

B ut while high technology at I-House will provide many of the professional tools for success in a transnational world, only the experience of living diversity day to day, can deliver the ultimate mission of the House; fostering understanding and friendship across cultures.

B ecause our building was initially provided so that people with many differences could live together in mutual respect, our highest priority must be on continuing the critical process of renovating and preserving this splendid facility for generations to come. Maintaining our building is perhaps the most important way to honor its past and to insure its future as a living symbol of the humane and life enriching possibilities of living with diversity.

P lease accept my personal thanks for supporting this special place and for carrying its meaning wherever you go.

Joseph Lurie
Executive Director

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