Sharing, pairing and caring at the Alaska Native Heritage Center

We the people of Anchorage, Alaska pledge to respect one another, celebrating the differences that make us unique: our customs, spiritual beliefs, cultures, colors, dreams and ancestral traditions. Standing together, hand in hand, young and old, we affirm that through mutual respect we can build a stronger more harmonious community, a more unified nation and a better, safer world-The Pledge of Mutual Respect.

Bridge Builders of Anchorage fights in the war against racism. A victory was won on July 14 when more than 300 people joined hands at the 6th Annual Bridge Builder summer potluck titled a "Celebration of Unity." Fifty-three different cultures sharing a common goal to make Anchorage "the first city without prejudice" and were welcomed by Alaska’s Native community to share the food, dance and music of their culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

"Our mission here at the Heritage Center is to help to celebrate, perpetuate and share all of our cultures and, as all of you know, that culture is really to share ourselves," said Margaret Nelson, president and CEO of the Alaska Native Heritage Center. "We believe that by sharing ourselves we will be better accepted within our society and that we will be able to create better understanding amongst ourselves here in Alaska and worldwide."

A central focus of Bridge Builders is to build relationships in the community with peoples of different cultures, races and ethnic backgrounds. When people first filed into the Heritage Center they were directed to tables where they were asked to list their name and ethnicity on adhesive nametags. People were encouraged to participate in the Bridge Builders pairing process that aimed to provide families the opportunity to become acquainted and interact and learn about different cultures.

"Pairing is the most magical part of Bridge Builders. To me pairing means promoting friendship and racial harmony. By broad participation many groups are drawn together to learn about each of their cultures and values," said Manju Bhargava, a pioneer in the pairing phase of Bridge Builders.

Everyone was given the choice to wear an orange sticker signifying the desire to participate in the pairing process. Throughout the evening families were invited to intermingle and arrange dinners, outings and other activities for the upcoming year. Bridge Builders asserts that the pairing of families will help create a mutual understanding and respect between the different cultures in the community.

"Racism is what Bridge Builders is meant to address," Lee Stephan, CEO of the Native Village of Eklutna, said. Stephan expressed that white people have more opportunity than other cultures and that all people desire the same things.

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Among the many Alaskan cultural presentations on the entertainment roster, the Kingikmiut of Wales, Alaska performed an invitational dance inviting all of the audience to participate. Other acts included the Alaska Heritage Acappella Choir followed by sombrero wearing Aguila Azteca dancers. The Na Hula ‘Olapa then performed Hawaiian dancing and mid-way through the ceremony everyone stood to join hands and recite "The Pledge of Mutual Respect" and the Lord’s prayer.

Former Mayor Rick Mystrom said Bridge Builders initially began in 1996 toward the start of his term as mayor. He was reading the newspaper when he noticed a picture of Reverend Ted Moore, an African American preacher, standing next to a Caucasian preacher in the paper. Mystrom wanted to brainstorm on how to increase cultural unity in Anchorage so he invited Reverend Moore and the other preacher to his home.

"Bridging the gap between blacks and whites," Mystrom said, was what he meant to address that night at his home. What the men discovered, according to Mystrom, was that, "it’s not an issue of blacks and whites, it’s all the cultures and it’s a broader issue."

Soon after that meeting five years ago Mystrom met with leaders from diverse cultures to develop a way that people of different racial ancestry could create positive relationships and improve multicultural interaction within the Anchorage community. Mystrom then invited 45 couples from 15 different ethnic cultures to an international potluck in the backyard of his home. The purpose of the potluck was intended to educate, promote, create, recognize and celebrate cultural and racial diversity in Anchorage. Bridge Builders of Anchorage was born.