News from the Field

Synagogue shootings remind us why nonprofits should push for tolerance

First lady Melania Trump proclaimed recently that she is “the most bullied person in the world.”

Statistically speaking, that seems unlikely. But if she is feeling bullied, she’s not alone.

A new report from the YouthTruth Student Survey reveals that 33 percent of secondary-school students experienced bullying in the 2017-18 school year, a significant rise from the 28 percent of students who reported the same in 2015-16. YouthTruth, a project of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, carries out survey research to provide student feedback to improve educational outcomes.

Bullying was more prevalent in schools where a majority of students were white, with 36 percent saying they had been bullied compared with 32 percent in schools where the majority were students of color. Of particular concern, white-majority schools had an uneven rise in bullying, with 33 percent of white students reporting being bullied in the 2016-17 school year, rising to 36 percent in 2017-18. Students of color in those same schools saw an increase from 30 percent to 37 percent in that time frame.

In a similar vein, anti-Semitic incidents spiked sharply in 2017, up 57 percent from the previous year. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, including a dramatic increase in elementary and secondary schools, where incidents nearly doubled from 235 to 457, making it the largest category of locations reporting incidents.

These statistics may offer some context as all of us in the nonprofit world try to make sense of the senseless acts of political violence last week.

One fanatic, inflamed by political hatred, allegedly sent at least a dozen explosive devices to Democratic political leaders and other notable critics of President Trump. Another political terrorist committed the deadliest attack upon Jews in American history, killing 11 and wounding six in a Pittsburgh synagogue. In both cases, the suspects had a history of racist outbursts on social media, where they echoed right-wing conspiracies.

Insults and Nicknames

Violence in American political rhetoric is growing. And some of the harshest rhetoric comes from the top, where President Trump routinely spouts insulting and often racist nicknames, as when he refers to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas. Likewise, he regularly calls journalists who cover him the “enemy of the people,” even in the wake of horrific attacks upon the press, including the murder of five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md.

In a political rally in Montana this month, President Trump hailed Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte for body slamming a reporter in the closing days of a special election he won for a seat in Congress last year. This came just as there was growing outrage over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents.

There may be no direct causal link between what political leaders say and the violent act of isolated individuals. But it’s fair to recognize that there is a spike in violence that correlates with the pugilistic statements of President Trump. And it reflects the combative political rhetoric of other candidates, emboldened by his example. In the Pennsylvania governor’s race this year, Republican challenger Scott Wagner almost comically challenged incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf, barking his threat that “between now and November 6, you better put a catcher’s mask on your face, because I’m gonna stomp all over your face with golf spikes.”

Reclaiming Our Humanity

The American political ethos has transformed into a smashmouth reality TV show, running all day and all night. And it unfortunately permeates our culture. To counter this trend, we need strong voices from civil society — foundations, nonprofits, and public-interest media outlets — to reassert humanity and tolerance in our public debates.

Reflecting on the horrific attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill district of Pittsburgh, many have recognized that this heinous act was particularly jarring because it occurred literally in Mister Rogers’s neighborhood, as the house of worship is just a few blocks up the street from where the late Fred Rogers lived in real life.

Indeed, many commentators have drawn inspiration from Fred Rogers in processing the horror of this vile assault. As is often the case in the aftermath of man-made and natural disasters, people frequently cite his childhood recollection: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And of course there were many helpers — first responders running to the scene, several of them wounded in their successful effort to overtake the assailant.

In response to these tragic events, Fred Rogers Productions published special guidance and resources to help parents care for their children in the wake of tragic events, providing advice on how to help kids understand scary and confusing images, encouraging parents to remain calm and assure their children that they will take care of them, and urging them to turn off the television.

And for those who might want to understand Fred Rogers more deeply at a time when we are in dire need of his wisdom, there’s an authoritative new biography by Maxwell King, president of the Pittsburgh Foundation. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers is a meticulous and insightful account of the beloved television icon from his earliest years to his final days.

A key point from the book: Fred Rogers grew up a somewhat sickly and solitary child of privilege, informed by the gentility and generosity of his parents but also bullied by his peers. His later professional exploits were shaped by his creative inner life, alone at home with his puppets and piano but also sensitive to the feelings of children who might also suffer rough treatment.

Always sensitive to the needs of children Rogers appealed to adults: “Please, think of the children first. If you ever have anything to do with their entertainment, their food, their toys, their custody, their day care, their health, their education — please listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them.”

In fact, that is the central organizing premise of the YouthTruth Student Survey: “When you get timely feedback from those you’re trying to serve, and really listen to that feedback to make changes, you get better.”

Decades from now, our children and grandchildren may ask us what we did to stop the escalation of violence in our society. Actually, if we listen carefully, they may be asking us already.

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on Oct. 31. Vince Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a Chronicle columnist. He is also a board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.