In an era of divisiveness and confusion on what American society should be, when there seems to be no real dialogue between groups, a West Windsor family decided to embark on a journey to change their communities.
This May, the Sultan family in West Windsor helped establish La Convivencia, a non-profit organization with the goal of fostering multicultural and interfaith dialogue. La Convivencia is led by Tasneem Sultan, and her oldest son, Zain, leads the youth board. The goal of the organization is to “honor and celebrate the differences and shared values of a pluralistic community based on the principles of acceptance, trust and mutual respect. By uniting a diverse citizenry through community service and civic engagement, we seek to create a more inclusive and peaceful society.”
The Sultan family consists of Tasneem, Manzoor, Zain and Bilal Sultan. Tasneem is a community volunteer, working with PTAs and local Muslim organizations alongside La Convivencia. Manzoor is a chemical engineer. Their two children, Zain, 17, and Bilal, 14, both attend High School North, where Zain is a senior and Bilal is a freshman.
The Sultan family has resided in West Windsor for approximately five years, but has lived around the world. After Tasneem and her husband Manzoor Sultan—a chemical engineer—married, they moved to France where Manzoor worked on his Ph.D. Then, the couple moved to Canada, where Zain and Bilal Sultan were born. From Canada, the family moved to Alabama, and finally to West Windsor.
Tasneem Sultan said she believes that the family’s travels developed her view on multiculturalism.
“Living in different countries and cities gave me some sense that it’s very important to create cultural dialogue to better understand others,” she said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes, so it’s important to have cross-cultural and cross-religious dialogue.”
Through these travels, Zain and Bilal also learned about communicating across cultural barriers. “Since a very young age, my boys went to volunteering with me, and they learned that it’s important to have conversations to break stereotypes and build a more inclusive society,” she said.
While their travels helped set the stage, the idea for the organization came through the younger son Bilal. While researching for his National History Day project about medieval Spain, Bilal discovered La Convivencia (the Coexistence), called so because it was “a period (711-1492 AD) when people came together and tolerated each other. There was a large amount of prosperity and there was a wealth of ideas. So, because of what I had recently learned, I became interested in trying to form this new organization so that I could bring the love and tolerance from La Convivencia to our community.”
After Bilal introduced the idea to his family, the roots for the organization were established in May. As Tasneem explains, La Convivencia has the goal of “breaking stereotypes and bringing the community together through conversations. Our main focus is developing intercultural and interfaith dialogue and mutual respect in our faiths.”
Along with Tasneem, the organization was co-founded by Brandi Hebert and Lynne Azarchi. The founders, board members and general members purposefully represent a diverse set of faiths and cultures. “What we are trying to do, is to bring everyone in. Our goal is to create an inclusive society; an idea that goes back to the founding of America,” Tasneem said.
‘…we need to remember that diversity and equality are values fundamental to the American fabric.’
Since May, La Convivencia has hosted three events, including a panel discussion regarding shared humanistic values coupled with a community service project for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, as well as a community conversation titled “United Against Bigotry: Rise Up to Counter Hatred and Shattering Stereotypes.”
In August, La Convivencia organized a community-wide potluck “featuring diverse cuisines from many walks of life.” This event was hosted by the Youth Board. As Zain explains, the Youth Board is often tasked by the adult board to host a main event, and decided to host this food and music event due to its interactive nature.
The Youth Board is currently working on a personal care product drive for Arm in Arm (formerly known as the Crisis Ministry), a nonprofit that helps around 5,000 families yearly in food, housing, and workforce development. In the future, the Board may also host essay and art contests in order to generate more youth interest for La Convivencia.
Zain, an aspiring doctor, decided to join his brother and mother’s work because of what he saw in the world around him. “Especially in the political world, there’s a lot of stereotypes being spread around, even about my culture, and sometimes I get really angry. I feel like I have to do something to combat this, otherwise I’m just a bystander. I have to break these stereotypes in order to combat this hatred in our community,” he said.
Similar to her son, Tasneem said he believes the work she does through La Convivencia addresses a national concern. “You see a lot going on in our communities and on the national level, lots of negativity, race problems, discrimination, prejudice, etc. We are trying to build a platform for the community faith where we can come together, have dialogue, and find solutions.”
Though La Convivencia has only been around for a few months, the organization has already had an impact on event attendees and community members.
“I think people like community dialogue and service. Last event, we had some keynote speakers and then we facilitated conversations where we tried to find some solutions about how we can move forward without divisions,” Tasneem said.
Tasneem expanded on the effect of the panel event, one that had African-American, Iranian-American, and Chinese-American representatives. “The Chinese-American speaker explained the struggle of growing up, and how people see minorities. She explained how minorities are not well respected in media. She gave the perspective that if minorities had a better representation in media, people would understand us better.”
Going forward, both Tasneem and Zain hope to expand the organization in various ways. “We’re trying to collaborate with other local organizations, and this time we are looking for sponsorships for our March event. We’re trying to, with the help of other organizations, do a big event where we can have some leadership workshops for community leaders and youth, and have some speakers,” Tasneem said.
Along with a possible March event, Tasneem also mentioned creating a series of events where attendees can share their personal stories.
Zain added that he hopes to open club chapters of La Convivencia in local high schools, as he wants “everyone to get the message of our organization, to understanding what we’re about and what we’re trying to do.”
Tasneem concluded with her perspective on the relevance of La Convivencia. “I think it’s important that we come together nowadays to create bridges of peace and love, because we need to remember that diversity and equality are values fundamental to the American fabric. We need to come together and focus on American values, and I think it’s time to build bridges and break barriers.”
For more information on events and fundraisers, visit laconvivencia.org.