Current events provided a poignant backdrop to a recent visit to the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance by 33 teachers, administrators, board members, parents and classroom aides from the Portola Valley School District that took place just two days after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
"It seems intolerance is growing at a higher rate than tolerance right now," said Wayne Rickert, a third-grade teacher at Ormondale who went on the two-day trip. "It's very timely to think about," he said, "it's a never ending process."
The museum's exhibits about topics such as the Holocaust and the civil rights movement were "a lot about perspective-taking," said Mr. Rickert.
The museum, a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has the goal of promoting tolerance and understanding. Mr. Wiesenthal was a concentration camp survivor famous for hunting down Nazis.
"Our programs challenge participants to question their own assumptions, raise self-awareness and present fresh perspectives to redefine personal responsibility and taking action," the museum's website says.
Ormondale Principal Kevin Keegan also made the trip, which was paid from by a grant through the museum. The experience, he said, was "just super powerful and exciting."
The fact that such a wide array of people from the district were able to attend, he said, was a chance "to bring this broad community to a common theme."
"Very rarely do we all get together around anything," he said.
Principal Keegan said the district wanted " a cross section of our community ... so we had everybody's voice."
Corte Madera Principal Cyndi Maijala said even a two-school district can be fragmented. "There's a need to come together from time to time and calibrate and test your assumptions ... and trust," she said.
Corte Madera music and theater teacher Juliet Green said it worked. The trip "made you feel like you were all working toward a common goal," she said. Now, she said, "I feel like I'm looking at everything through a different lens."
Interim district superintendent Eric Hartwig said the visit "was a huge reminder of all the different shapes intolerance takes and how subtle they are."
"We already believe in tolerance," he said. However, the museum gave the participants a chance to "turn that into a message that will stick and resonate and change people's lives."
Parent Paris Hill, whose eighth-grade daughter is a Tinsley transfer student, said the trip "forced us to look at our biases." Facilitated discussions allowed "people to be vulnerable with each other," and to discuss "how we can move forward and what we can do," she said. "We all have to partner together and work together" to teach the district's children, she said.
"Having a place to have open and real dialogue is important," she said.
"What I learned is not to judge," she said, and to "step back."
"You have to do more research ... to really find out the facts and the details." For instance, she said, at the museum she learned that Hitler was originally elected by Germans, something she had not known.
Principal Keegan said the experience "made me pay way more attention to what's going on in America and the world." In the past, he said, "people stood by."
Not standing by is important, Mr. Rickert said. "I remember as a child being told, stay out of trouble," he said, "for example, to just step away if he saw someone being bullied." He learned at the museum, however, that to see something and do nothing is to condone it.
Corte Madera Principal Cyndi Maijala said the spiral staircase leading from one level of the museum to another with photos and stories of Holocaust victims taught her to "never turn your head." "How many times do we turn our heads?" she asked.
Superintendent Hartwig agreed. "Somebody makes a slur and we ignore it rather than step up and correct it."
Principal Maijala said she also learned a lot in the museum's media room, where messages from a wide array of media were presented. "We tend to listen to people who are like-minded and have similar views," instead of those "who have a broader view," she said. Doing that "doesn't challenge our thinking," she said.
Superintendent Hartwig said seeing all the messages going out made him aware that "many of them are of intolerance."
Mr. Rickert said the experience "also made you look at your perspective of privilege." An example, he said, was when a museum docent told them about a hate crime in which Hispanic men were lured into a warehouse and beaten. White residents said they could not understand how such a thing could happen in their area, while Hispanics said they could not understand how others did not know such things were going on.
Principal Keegan said after returning from the visit he found himself being sure to stop to listen to a student who wanted his attention, remembering that he had learned at the museum that children "need accountable relationships."
Children need to have teachers, coaches, scout leaders and other adults who make time for them, but sometimes those adults are so busy "you don't give them your whole attention," he said. "When the opportunity is there, just slow down and be present for any kid," he said.
The group had a chance to listen to a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, who made a strong impression on Ms. Hill. The man told about how, having survived a concentration camp, he had ended up in the United States at age 22 without skills or any English. "He didn't have any hatred, or bitterness," she said. "He was saying you have to live your life to the fullest and live your life every day," she said.
Principal Maijala was also impressed. "He made that conscious effort to surround himself with positive people," she said, "so he could avoid bitterness and conquer fear."
Principal Keegan said listening to the stories of others is important. "If you take the time to listen to someone's story, they're connected to you," he said.
The participants in the trip will be meeting to try to figure out "how do we carry the message and the energy" from the visit forward, Superintendent Hartwig said.
Las Lomitas Elementary School District has also sent groups to visit the Museum of Tolerance several times.
MuseumofTolerance.com, the museum's website, has more information about its programs and exhibits.