People around the world were shocked and disheartened to learn about the 50 people killed and many injured when a white supremacist opened fired during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
How does a disagreement with someone's religious beliefs lead to such hate? And to murder?
Palos Verdes Estates resident Dr. Fawzia Reza, who has spent her career advocating for inclusion, thinks one answer to the deep question lies in the mind of a child.
“As the world becomes more polarized, it becomes necessary to explore common ground, wherein all people, cultures and beliefs can peacefully coexist,” said Reza, an early childhood educator and adjunct faculty and diversity and inclusion advisor at American College of Education, an online college based in Indianapolis.
Exposing children early to different cultures will help them better appreciate those with differences, said Reza.
Her new children's book, "Mary and Her New Friends," attempts to bridge those cultural divides.
After years of academic writing, Reza was inspired to write a children’s book by the doll tests from the 1940s.
In the tests, three to seven-year-old black children were shown two dolls—one white and one black. The children always attributed positive qualities to the white doll and negative ones to the black doll.
“That made me think that as a society we’re still not including, we’re still a segregating people-based society, separating people because of their color and ethnicity," said Reza.
Reza had written about a Mary from South Asia for one of her undergraduate projects, so she uses the character has a way to present her Pakastani culture to others, through the smallest of hearts.
"Mary and Her New Friends" is written for preschoolers and kindergartners to teach them about diversity and empathy for special needs children.
In the book, Mary’s not like the other children in her school. She’s from Pakistan and because she uses a wheelchair, she can’t run and play and she’s lonely.
A wise fairy suggests Mary use her talents to make friends so she teaches her classmates how people in her country decorate their hands with colorful henna tattoos on Eid—a celebratory Muslim holiday representing the end of Ramadan fasting.
“I tried to introduce children to different things in my book without boring them,” Dr. Reza said. “I included a glossary and some coloring pages of henna tattoos so they can have fun and be creative while improving their fine motor skills.”
The author immigrated to the United States in 1989 at 22 years old; she earned her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Dominguez Hills, her master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and her doctorate in educational leadership from CSULB.
Reza wrote her dissertation on the expectations immigrant Pakistanis have about parental involvement in schools.
“It was the first research done on Pakistani American parents looking at the challenges they faced,” Reza said, “and if their involvement with their children’s schools increased or decreased after the terrorist attacks on September 11th."
While working on her dissertation, she concluded a different research study on teacher perspectives on Assessment Strategies and Professional Development for Transitional Kindergarten.
Reza first book is "The Effects of the September 11 Terrorist Attack on Pakistani-American Parental Involvement in the U.S. Schools."
In 2018, Dr. Reza presented the results of her most recent study, looking at the challenges and successes of getting girls into Pakistani schools, at the Oxford roundtable symposium, held at the Harris Manchester College in Oxford University.
In addition to her role as faculty advisor for inclusion at American College of Education, Reza teaches graduate courses.
She is working on strategies to promote greater inclusion of all students regardless of their ethnicity, faith, national origin or sexual orientation within ACE and increase the diversity of the student body.
“I keep myself very busy,” Reza said. “Now I’m looking at how immigrant parents view discipline—what kind of strategies do they use? I take full advantage of my time and keep myself occupied with research and publications.”
She was recently invited as a guest speaker for a graduate class in early childhood education at the California State University, in Long Beach.
“We focus so much on academics that sometimes we overlook other important needs that the children have. My hope is that through both of my books teachers, as well as students, will develop cultural consciousness.”
Reza’s books are available at the Palos Verdes Libraries and on Amazon.com.
For more information on the author, visit her website at fawziareza.org.