McGee credited with 'building bridges'

By Greg Gelpi

While Muslims and Jews fight and kill each other on one side of the world, the two groups are building cultural bridges on this side.

The Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta recognized Elaine McGee, who is Jewish, with its Building Bridges Award.

Teaching students consists of more than academics, it requires knowledge of culture, said McGee, a Kendrick Middle School teacher.

McGee, 54, teaches classes called Local Cultures and Cultural Issues to other English as a second language teachers, so they are better prepared to work with multicultural students.

Some students from Southeast Asia, for instance, shouldn't be touched on their heads, and many Hispanic students won't look adults in the eye out of respect, she said. Teachers earn professional learning credits by taking the classes.

It "helps me to help my students," McGee said, adding there's a "direct correlation" between learning to be culturally sensitive and connecting with students.

"You can't be an effective teacher if you can't relate to your students," she said.

McGee was recognized for demonstrating and spreading cultural diversity and sensitivity.

As the Clayton County school system of 51,000 students, 65 languages and several nationalities grows even more diverse, McGee recognizes the importance and the need to teach the teachers about working with this diversity.

"Obviously, the goal is to widen their horizons to a wide variety of experiences," McGee said of the classes. "Truly, their entire outlook changes. Many people come into the class never having gone outside their own church or their own community."

The diversity of Clayton County adds to the community's richness, McGee said. Without it, life would be less exciting.

From Hindu temples to Islamic mosques, McGee briefly submerges teachers in another world, another culture, not to sway beliefs, but to educate and make them aware.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a "blossoming relationship" between the Islamic community center and her synagogue Congregation B'nai Israel, she said.

"I would like this relationship we formed to be like a stone tossed into a pond," McGee said.

She challenges the teachers and forces them out of their "comfort zones," said Soumaya Khalifa, the executive director and founder of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta.

There should be more teachers and more people like McGee, Khalifa added.

McGee, who grew up in a diverse community outside of New York City, said she has always had a passion for other cultures. Her passion was re-ignited by a summer of studying in Norway several years ago.

"I'm not sure I can come up with a proper adjective -- exhilarating," McGee said. "It was truly a life-changing experience."

The Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta is a nonprofit nonpolitical organization that makes presentations to schools, businesses and churches about Islam to provide a deeper understanding of the religion and its culture, Khalifa said.

McGee, who is widowed, has an 18-year-old adopted daughter Rena from El Salvador.