July 14, 2024
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Words Can Harm. Words Can Heal. Moriah, SSDS, Yavneh Students Meet Miss America at Kaplen JCC

Tenafly— Long before she was Miss America, Nina Davuluri was a little girl who looked different, practiced a different religion and yet was just as American as anyone else. Somewhere along the way she discovered that it was okay to be different and celebrate that uniqueness. For many, it is what sets this beauty queen apart from most—by winning pageants, she encountered discrimination, and became determined to alter the stereotype of “the girl next door.”

Deeply motivated by family, rooted firmly in a rich colorful culture and staying true to herself is the vehicle that transported this Syracuse-born “girl next door” to the national stage. Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, is much more than a beauty queen; she is a dynamic speaker dedicated to celebrating diversity and committed to spreading cultural competency.

Ms. Davuluri spent a day at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades inspiring Bergen County middle-schoolers from public, private and parochial schools who comprise Bergen County’s Teen Leadership Council. The council is led by area teens and created to discuss issues of bullying, diversity and tolerance. Under the direction of the Kaplen JCC Teen Services Assistant Director, Alexis Robins, the council holds panels regularly and an annual conference, which allows them to open discussion to more students and provide more opportunities for peer dialogue between yeshiva middle-school teens and diverse middle-school teens.

Ms. Davuluri, the keynote speaker, told her personal story and explained why she was motivated to win Miss America’s title and crown. Her first point: Words can harm. Words can heal. “Understand how powerful your words are [offline] and online. You have the ability to influence people and understand you have the chance to influence them in either a positive or a negative way. Everything you speak, type or text—you own it. It is out there forever so make sure you think twice about what you say and what you are putting out there.”

She drove this message home repeatedly as she gave intimate examples of stereotyping, bias and bullying that she herself has experienced. The teens were riveted in their seats as they listened to the beauty queen reveal the not-so-fairytale side of being born different in America.

“How do you want to be remembered? You never know how you touch someone,” said Davuluri, as she described the deeply hurtful comment a boy made about her in the sixth grade. She also explained how she got over it—but has never forgotten the boy’s name. “I will forever and ever know his name.”

Growing up in an Indian household while growing up in America presented Davuluri with challenges that strengthened and motivated her to go for the crown. “It is difficult when you have two cultures you identify with. First and foremost I am American, but I am also Indian and it is very evident that I am. But no one should have to shy away from who they are.

“I was the first Indian Ms. New York. I felt it was timely for New York as New York is the world’s melting pot. But when I won, people called me a terrorist. This was so difficult. I thought I was born in Syracuse. I am American. I worked really hard for this and my platform is diversity—how is this happening? It just didn’t make sense. And college-educated people were saying these things.” Davuluri’s response was to create positive discussion from it—more people began speaking up and saying that it wasn’t okay.

“People are always going to find something to complain about. Sadly that’s the world we live in. But you have a choice of what to do with that. So I have always tried to find the silver lining and create the positive discussion.

“If I had not been able to find the positive, I don’t think I would have been received as well as I was by the Miss America organization.” Davuluri chose to not respond to the rude comments flying around the social sphere and instead worked harder on her platform. She partnered with the YWCA and created #CirclesOfUnity, where she encourages people to tweet and share their thoughts, videos or pictures of what it means to be culturally aware.

So what did the teens learn?

Sarah Herzog of Yavneh Acadmey told JLBC, “This Miss America wants to change the world and change how people imagine the classic American girl next door. Not all of them are tall, beautiful, blonde and skinny. She also wanted to prove that being nice and embracing your own individual culture was okay.”

“It’s so cool that someone that is so famous, and on the global stage could be someone that I could relate to—and she believes in and is helping the same cause I that I am helping,” said Nicholas Cohen of Tenafly Middle School.

Marty Sachs, of Tenafly Middle School and a Teen Leadership Council member said, “I’ve learned that words really do strike deep. I even admit to saying things like, ‘You’re so gay.” My friends and I joke, we call each other ‘retards’ all the time, but after this I really learned it’s not okay to do that to people and just how bad it really is.”

Adam Levine of Yavneh Academy learned, “People should express who they are in their religions and their culture and not to hide it just because they’re American. You shouldn’t hide your ethnicity or your religion.”

Leora Papier also a 7th grader at Yavneh Academy, “ The usual person you would expect to be Ms. America might just be about fashion, but Nina proved today that she has a heritage and an experience that she wanted to share to help the world be better. It was so nice how she presented herself, how proud she is of who she is.”

“This was so much more than I expected. Even a very famous person can be discriminated against at a high level,” said Dan Danzger of Solomon Schechter Day School.

When asked what they thought of the Miss America beauty queen? The teens unanimously yelled, “Amazing!” “Awesome” “Unbelievable” “So inspiring!”

Nina Davuluri inspired positive feelings in these teen ambassadors and empowered them to take the message back to their schools.

For more information on this or other teen programs at the Kaplen JCC, contact [email protected]

By Elyse Hansford

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