Taha Vahanvaty and Cynthia Crowner
DescriptionTaha Vahanvaty (17) and his mentor Cynthia Crowner (68) discuss the work that Taha has done with the organization he founded called The Acceptance Project, which creates a space for students of different social or political beliefs to have conversations.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Taha Vahanvaty
- Cynthia Crowner
Recording LocationVirtual Recording
Partnership TypeFee for Service
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00:00 High of my name is Cindy Crowder. I'm 68 year old woman a retired Presbyterian Minister. Today's date is October 9th 2020 and I'm on this call from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania in northeast, Pennsylvania. And my interview partner is Taha vahanvaty, and I am the advisor to taha'a project called the acceptance project and I've been with him for two years then a little bit more.
00:31 Hi, my name is David Henrie. I am 17 years old. I am a senior in a small Northeastern School in PA called Stroudsburg High School. I am a subpar part-time comedian and I am the founder and president of tap which stands for the acceptance project and I'm here with my friend Cindy and my advisor I send you as well and I look forward to this conversation.
01:01 You know Tahoe, let's just jump right in the theme for today is how are we feeling about the state of the world and of our nation? So, how are you feeling about the state of the world in our nation right now?
01:17 So I think naturally with a lot of people are saying is just like you know what the crap is hitting the fan, you know, everything's in flames, you know, literally and figuratively but maybe this is the inner hippie in me, but I'm actually really optimistic about everything that's going on within our nation and within the world right now and take with the state of our country especially but you know, I had a I had a good friend and he always told me never judge somebody by the amount of problems they have but by the amount of solutions they can find and I think I try to take that approach to everything in life worth looking at everything in life and what I mean by that is that I think you will always always find problems in the world and the country in our community and their family and their friendships and I think they're just going to naturally grow bigger or smaller depending on you know, who you are or where you are in life, but I think at the end of the day you have responsibilities to
02:17 Solve them or at least try to so even if problems might be comparatively more than they were five years ago 10 years ago or as do you believe both my say back in my day. I think now have an opportunity to dress them very very exciting. So yeah, I'm pretty well. I was just thinking back to like 2016 and that was our last presidential election and it was really contentious at the time. It felt very contentious, but nothing like this year. And of course, it's been all these climate change disasters and everything else has been going on in the black lives matter. So so many things going on for me. It's been extremely challenging year. So I'm really happy that you're feeling that that we can do this. We can rise to the challenge. I remember back in 2016 at the day after the election your high school kind of eruptive.
03:17 And that led to your I'm taking some responsibility for pulling people together, or do you want it to stay a little bit about what happened that during that week? You were an eighth grade then I think yes, that was 2016 election happen when I was in 8th grade and I think I don't want to conflate the optimism with Sinners Like blind ignorance. Like, you know what that like, they're those are really popular image of that goes around and it's with this cartoon dog, and he's done it burning house. And he says it's fine. Everything's fine uncomplacent of my personality or my perception was that image because I think you know, what what you're mentioning is that after the election I was frankly really upset and really angry. I could not have been more left-leaning then the average 8th grader was I was incredibly upset.
04:17 President Trump got elected. I felt you know, despite the fact that I had very limited life experience. I felt cheated out of the election and I wanted to do something about it. And while I am so that actually led to the creation of top which is the acceptance project look like we've that into this conversation as we go but really the reason I started top was I was angry about President Trump getting laughed and I was like, well, how can I get an echo chamber with as many students like me as possible so I can feel less bad about the life. I realize that suit that was my interpretation of activism. It was like, okay like this is me doing something and I quickly realized that okay. So what the hell tap function was, you know back home first like my students got together, and we essentially just talk about how much we hated Trump.
05:09 Am I near went on I began to realize that really didn't do anything for anybody and it actually kind of felt.
05:19 That was really unfair filling and did not expect I didn't expect to feel that way at all and I began broadening my horizons. I was like what the students that are still, you know, yelling Trump train or wearing a Maga caps are going to continue yelling Trump train and wearing the Maga caps regardless of how many times my group meets. So why do we actually try sitting down with them and that's really where I think top began forming what it is today, which is you know, students from diametrically opposed size beliefs and values have the opportunity time environment to engage in a conversation and I I have grown an incredible amount because of his been incredibly humbling experience because I myself had to go through a lot of challenging obstacles understanding what acceptance because I think I I
06:10 Come off as very inquisitive and curious but I'm pretty confident that in the beginning. I was using that Curiosity too kind of validate my own thoughts and beliefs right to even answer to be like, oh, yeah, I was right or yeah that you do when an organization with you know, 120 plus students and we're spreading across the county and which ones didn't how to take these conversations in their own hands and had to leave these conversations and dark homemade ice cream the mediators of tomorrow to continue the conversations of today and I came up with that statement just with the idea that we're not trying to trying to change anyone's mind. When I am pushing ideology of Christian opinion, which what I was frankly trying to do when I first started we're crazy trying to help students develop the courage to continue these conversations outside of our club so
07:10 Then they're on their bad side, but their friends are at home with her family, right the conversation has to continue and required me coming to terms with the fact that I control the conversation in the direction that I wanted to go. I think it was a huge thing. Right? I was like, okay, let me take this conversation and we've it in such a way that it makes me feel good kind of relinquish me of that responsibility because I was like Hey, like I have no control about where you take this conversation, you could take this conversation. I just started the conversation and you could have developed it and developed an opinion that I just like on a fundamental level.
07:50 But that's a completely valid way to take it and learning how to be okay with that has been a really challenging journey and I'm still on it, but I'm really excited to see where it leads me. It's really interesting that you talk about that cuz I'm thinking about when I first became an advisor to the acceptance project and I would sit there a minister. So have strong bass voice of you a lot of things and remember the conversation. We're having about gun control that I'm a big proponent of stricter gun control to stabilize and get rid of the AK-47s and whatnot. There was a student that spoke about his mother and how she's so worried about the possibility of a home invasion and that it keeps a gun in her nightstand next to her bed because she needs to protect her children and I was like
08:50 Which reaction was you know stone that you would do that, but cuz I couldn't imagine doing that. But then I heard in this voice voice. My mother is genuinely concerned about our well-being and RCC.
09:03 And no matter what why she feels that sense of threat. I could identify with her in her concern to protect your children. And I thought whoa, I wasn't expecting to be able to connect in that way. And another thing that really surprises me about our conversations with the students is you know, I want it. I want to raise my hand. I've got the answer and I've got the answer is on and I am not supposed to do that. Just listen and be quiet and it's amazing to me to watch you work because you really give everybody an opportunity to speak in at the end of any conversation no matter how controversial with his about gay rights or abortion or immigration. I never know where you stand very excellent at this mediation work and I think it freeze the students to be honest about where they stand in the really listen to each other and I I want to be like you
10:03 Splattered I'm actually blushing right now for the listeners. That can't see me and I think that that mediation position that I'm in right now with me dating all these difficult conversations at top the acceptance Project Host has been bulls and opportunity as it's been both. I guess a blessing and a curse for my own self growth perspective in the sense. That is help me grow a lot as an individual with understanding how you know from a leadership perspective. You don't know ask questions leave during conversations take control of a large group, but I also think it's made it a little more difficult for me to be vulnerable and what I mean by that is when when I when you take a mediation roll, you know for I've been doing this for about five years. It's very easy, cuz you're you're on the outside right? You're not putting your own ideas values or beliefs and in this discussion, so it's very easy to keep to yourself and what I mean by that is
11:04 You're right is that when we do have the conversations most students don't know where I stand and I think it makes it difficult for me just to my personal level 2 to share those ideas and beliefs and I think I'm just learning how to be vulnerable is incredibly valuable skill, but it only comes when you're in situations, like ours are discussions by our discussions are designed to make students feel comfortable being honorable right within our it within our conversations, but because I'm not partaking in those conversations. I had a difficult time being vulnerable and sharing my story or my ideas and beliefs. Like I am I'm very religious and my face is a big part of my identity and I always had a very very difficult time.
11:57 This plane. Or expressing that growing up and do not say that is I think I always felt I am I'm part of a very small villages Community called that with you boy. Us and we don't we don't have a big Community here my family and I are probably the only only David Abel has here in this area. So you kind of grown up in this super super small religious community. And so you don't have really any way that looks like you even within the Muslim Community or slightly different, right? So it says I do like I am really really strange right? It's very different kind of be like, oh, yeah, that's familiar. Like I I know what that guy believes are. I know what that guy does, but I know what that guy wears because nobody else does it
12:39 And because of that I don't think I really feel comfortable in my own skin and from a religious perspective and
12:49 I think the time and that's art flipped. Like when I eat when I started branching out into my own mother ability was when
13:00 Was when I began the process of figuring out how to how do I train students to mediate these conversations? So I don't be a mediator so I can actually buy taking them that whole process died that started with the development of the summer camps happen to Summer top saying for the acceptance project. I realize that if I'm training the students right? I don't really have to mediate these conversations anymore. If I need the address, I don't really need to put all that pressure on me to facility like I talk about these issues and
13:35 You know.
13:38 I think once I once I started thinking that mindset I was I I realize that
13:46 At the end of the day what you have right is your beliefs your ideas and your values are nobody can take that away from you. Right? Nobody in the group can take that away from us to take it away from me. So understanding that these ideas and values will always be attached to me right by no means to find me but the fact that they're attached me and that nobody has the right to take him away from me and then made me feel a lot more confident in the sense that I have every right to change them. I have every right to keep them and understanding that every other student has that right makes you feel a lot more free and want more comfortable to talk about Easton is difference is no matter how strange or you knew unique they may be
14:30 And I think that's helped a lot with approaching my vulnerability, especially with a group of strangers and even more so with students that I know and expressing what a lot of Might maybe unconventional values and beliefs and ideas are
14:45 That's not what I asked you a question about your family because when I was in eighth grade, I aspired to be a cheerleader Sunday. I went to Orchestra. But I didn't see myself as creating a new organization in my school odd-even never occurred hardly anybody. So I'm a little I want to know what about your family or maybe your faith but definitely your family is has there been a role models in your family that made you an 8th grade feel like I can start something brand-new up my school that is now turned into this and organization of 120 kids with no branches branching out another schools. I mean, where is that come from it is that all you do is is there family influence Faith influence in your compulsion to do this?
15:45 I think more so heavily in my face. So there is because we're such a small religious community.
15:53 It's a pretty ingrained within us. This concept of is called. Karim. Zein Arabic word that literally means Unity Sol Duc leave is like a big part of how my religious community has led themselves throughout centuries and what the queen has usually manifest itself and is like Interfaith dialogue and it's good and I think that fundamental believe is a really complex 12 John cover because you know, it's might be conflicting when you initially talk about it, right because you talk about a religious community, right and a core part of our belief is that we believe we are right. I like we believe what we are is right. Right, right and then inserted into a conversation about Interfaith dialogue or like what purpose would you have a dialogue if you just think everybody is wrong, right?
16:51 And initially I was like super Perfect by this. I was like well, like should I believe that I'm wrong but my face and the project has kind of led me to believe that whole concept of like
17:09 We are not we are not in this conversation to change anybody's mind and we are not in the conversation to flip our opinions or flip reviews in factoring here to just learn more about our opinions learn more about our views and learn more about ideas and beliefs and I don't think we we shouldn't equate.
17:30 Changing to learning more because I think there's a lot that I can learn about my faith in my identity do other face and identities and that doesn't just validate that you know who I believe is wrong, but I think there's a lot that you can buy from others may think that's a really really beautiful narrative that you can talk about because that's just how interconnected into woven all of us are from our own stories from our own lives and our own beliefs. That's what makes me think of, you know, what the last year or two years ago. There was a massacre in New Zealand in Christchurch at a mosque and many many people were killed by Christian extremists or I hope they didn't call themselves Christians, but they probably did and it was just shocking but there were a whole series and all around the globe at that time in the United States as well that yours just awful. You know that tree of life synagogue Massacre. I mean, it was just awful.
18:30 So Tahoe news organized a vigil at our Courthouse Square are County Courthouse Square, which is a beautiful spot and you invite everybody to come including members of your slamic Center and we met we were meeting at sundown and I just have to paint this picture because it was so beautiful Muslim Community and their traditional garb and the women with hijabs and Taha started leading us through this prayerful and then as the sun is actually setting of the Muslim Community put down their prayer rug on the grass of the courthouse square and they face Mecca and they got down for their prayers and then the rest. I invited all of us who are not Muslims to surround them and Link arms started as a protective shield around them. It was incredibly moving the choreography of it the way that you love the whole thing the way people felt the solidarity coming.
19:30 Those of us who were not whistling. It was an extremely healing experience and I just I want to thank you for your creativity and clean that together with that as well. It's nice to know that your branch of Islam actually does believe in that there are the Interfaith conversations are really important. I did not know that that's pretty huge role in my development as an individual and also do development of the exceptional products and what's happened today in 09 years. And even when I was at kirkridge Retreat Center as the Director, I wanted to move us into more Interfaith Direction and that definitely did it is just it was just a really personally very powerful experience for me. And for I think everybody who participated in that I hope that going off course.
20:30 Keep important to notice that they're there has to be a healthy blend of
20:36 Talking about our differences but also highlighting our similarities right because I think oftentimes we if we had trouble finding that balance because I think naturally a lot of organizations or whether they be schools universities or companies want to focus on the whole Kumbaya aspect of diversity, right select all different but we're all happy together right kind of image and I don't think it's productive at all, So can't you talk about you know, everything that makes you and me different only leaves animosity. So you have to temper that with Paylake. Let's talk about our differences with Sky stack these differences and understand them and learning about those differences might very well mean that you disagree with the other person even more so than he did before again. That's a completely valid way of going about the conversation but making sure to highlight the similarities in those moments like that video where we had Jewish leaders. So at this is after the Christchurch you didn't write but we still had we had a rabbi.
21:36 Speak with a pastor come and speak with members of people that weren't religious at all that we are agnostic come and speak and attend this vigil so understand that we can highlight the similarities and still go back to learn more about a difference is I think is an incredibly valuable piece of knowledge to have about this community that we live in.
21:56 Tire on my perception of you. So incredibly entrepreneurial. I know your older sister is too she started on GED program at the public library for working women who need a child care while so they could go to their GED classes and I thought maybe she rubbed off on you or maybe born that way, but I think it is really powerful but one of the things that I'm really impressed and kind of like a standby and a little worried for you about is that you're you got this vision for growing this whole movement of acceptance projects and training young people and how to be sensitive an effective facilitators across lines of difference. And I know that you are hoping that every high school and we been working on this and that every High School in our County to begin with would create send students to this training camp next summer, but we got funding for this.
22:56 But it got canceled because of covet a but next summer. We're looking forward to doing that. But then ultimately we have a vision of taking it much much bigger. And where do you get your go where we're owl what ya said. She's definitely rubbed off on me with that entrepreneurial spirit and I think
23:27 If you don't mind my a lot of people always say like Taha, you have big shoes to fill. I'm the youngest of four, right? So as you can imagine, you know, all of my friends and family friends like you have big shoes to fill what do you think about that and I tell everybody I yeah, I've been super thankful that I've had a family that's been encouraging and inspirational but it's also been able to talk about like me living in my sibling's Shadow is really openly and learning how to navigate around that so I'm really thankful for the family that I have and how they've been so supportive of this whole Endeavor and then back to where you were saying about that. You know, why do I like why do I like spend so much time and energy on August?
24:24 Creating conversation is it's probably one of the most frustrating things I have ever done in my life. Frankly a lot of the dialogue sessions any mediator that we we that we host a top will make any mediator feel like they're banging their head into a wall and that's a lot of dialogue feels like and that's what I've come to realize because you know, I did have a Kumbaya mentality after each ilok session. I was like yo israeli-palestinian conflict 90 minutes 8th graders, no problem with every single issue. I was like we can solve this why can't we solve this week?
25:10 And as I began to realize that, okay, first of all, that's a completely unrealistic goal and frankly nobody in middle school and nobody in high school has the expertise to solve any sort of deal political or social issue that's facing the world a nation by now or at least most of them don't write so I started reframing and hey look why we have these conversations with the purpose of what was the purpose of all of this and then the answer came to is that what we're doing is a practice round them how to engage with different and diametrically opposed values beliefs and ideas and understand that this was practice practice.
26:00 I think maybe a lot more.
26:04 It made me a lot more happy to sort of pursue this endeavor of print dialog because otherwise if you have his mindset of like I'm in dialogue to find Solutions right to Great resolutions to solve conflict. You will be completely unfulfilled the top right because you can't you just be frankly can't but we're going to the minds of the students practice, but Unity to have that practice I think dries me because
26:33 I can't control and this comes back to the whole idea is like me giving up control. I can't control students outside of the top meeting and I frankly can't control them inside the top meeting that opportunity presented them is completely there's to take and I have a super beautiful part about dialogue is that everybody has control over their own narrative and over their own story and how each other stories affect them. There is there is there is there is no pressure there is no there is no sort of
27:07 Undercover operation that's going on to try to lick convert you to be a Republican or a Democrat or independent right? Nothing like that going on is just giving you the opportunity to hear stories and show your story. She can have a transformative experience. Maybe not during that meeting but you can take that conversation continued it and I'll hopefully lead you to that path. So another piece of your work that I really appreciate it is, you know, when the whole black lives matter thing was blowing up on you took the initiative to take a little bit different approach Walmart. Now, they were vigils and marches and marches and vigils and and YouTube's and you know, Facebook's and everything was exploding and you had the brilliant idea of let's get the leaders of the African American advocacy organizations, like the n-double-acp and Monroe County United. Let's get them together with the police officers and the cow.
28:07 Sheriff and do a zoom call and invite people to be on it. So people could ask their questions of each other rather than just go to Central police are the enemy don't forget it or black people are scary. So we don't want to do that. I'm getting them on assume call. I don't know we had well over a hundred people on that led to all these in person socially distance outdoor conversations between members of the community and the police and do you want to say something about your roll there or be sure. That is why I think you know right after right after George Boyd was killed.
28:51 I completed see I'm getting naturally you're as a mediator. You want to avoid conflict? That's just your natural personality. Right? And I think maybe my role as a mediator is some sort of subconscious mentality of like hey, I don't want it. You know, it's it's more it's maybe it's more work to develop an opinion versus being a mediator right? So maybe there's some some aspect of that working out of my head, but immediately after George Gould was killed.
29:19 I'll be honest. I was I couldn't completely empathize with the outrage that happen immediately after Floyd was killed and I was actually a little upset with myself that I couldn't like. I can empathize with the protests or the level of protests over happening in automatically. My head was like, okay, let's talk about this right back in 8th grade came up and I was like, okay, it's a problem. You got to sit down we got to talk about it. We got to figure it out. Right and that response is devoid of a lot of empathy as you can imagine. So, like I said, I couldn't understand why all of the why this level of protesting by this level of anger is happening.
29:59 But as it began talking with more students and
30:04 I consciously took the approach of okay, like I'm not going to bring up. I'm not going to ask them. Okay, how do we solve this? I'm going to ask. Why are you upset? What are your four step solutions? What is your 12-step program? Like what do you think? We're Obamas proposal to solve police accountability, right? None of that. I was just asked him. Why are you upset and
30:28 Beating with that conversation
30:31 I think led me to understand that regardless of you know, you you have to take the statistics and the facts and you have to temper it with emotion and stories and empathy because without it you're living in a robotic World devoid of the complex and nuanced nature of like people's lives.
30:55 Understanding that like, okay like hay like I might not be able to completely relate to all of his anger. But I have to understand that there are people out there that could care less about any sort of, you know, any sort of politicians proposal to solving solving police brutality. They're angry and they're upset and my job isn't to dress that my job is to listen to that so I can develop an opinion and not only so I can develop an opinion so that I can broaden my opinion columns are vitamin Solutions. It is not here to listen. So both of you can go sit with his mindset. I was like, why don't we just talk about questions like peoples have so many questions right now and who can answer them. So I got together or superintendent and our local sheriff and the chief of police and a couple other community African-American leaders, and I collect
31:55 About 75 a little over 75 questions from members of the acceptance project cross Mono County. And I sent any question you have it can be about each of these individual leaders wives and personal opinion as students are often times, maybe a little more blunt with our questions and he was a really great opportunity for students are people across the community to see a conversation driven by students and for students and I don't think we developed any sort of policy proposal after this webinar, but I think what we did accomplish is at least taking apart and starting the conversation in learning more about how to ask questions.
32:47 Verses coming up with Solutions right away. That was most moving or maybe it was one of the Town Halls that was outside as hearing a police officer who's been working very hard on keep maintaining relationships with you throughout the county particular use of color so that they can build relationships of trust and he said and understand that we're traumatized older white male cop and I've been doing it for 20 years and I'm I held a child who was shot or killed by the father and if it was dying and I have witnessed so much domestic violence and had to intervene and you know, I love my family would never do this to my wife and you know at 10 to go into these situations time and time and time again, it can be very traumatic and you know, the drug opioid addiction all of this stuff. There's someone carry with us and for us to be able to hear that honest.
33:47 In a trauma and
33:51 Regret almost like why did I decide to become so hard at the same time realizing, you know that we cannot allow that to manifest in ways that destroy other people's lives. I mean, that's that that's going too far and we're so lucky that we had that dialing about three times with different audiences both in person and online to help people understand the complexity of what it's going to take to for us to really learn to get along and in peace and harmony with each other and I want to ask you another question. This is the last question I thinking of time for applying to colleges man and you know, you're known throughout our area as a champion of civil conversations across lines a difference and that's really great. But as you go off to college, you know,
34:51 Do you have a sense of what you might be doing? Beyond your college education to do continue in the store directory to become a professional mediator to peace in the Middle East. What is your do? You think you have your vision a vision for yourself going through it is a little when you every everybody knows that you know where your where your mind is right now will completely change in the next 5-10 years where I think my head is right now is I believe that the most important part of our society to encourage civil discourse within is are used in with especially within high school students and more specifically with an R public education. I think space for civil discourse across the world from an international conflict, but when I'm looking at our country
35:51 And what I'm talkin about developing civically minded empathetic and critical thinking leaders. I think giving those students the opportunity to engage in civil discourse is a key component in developing those leaders in developing those theaters. I can empathize and critically think and be vulnerable and be self-reflective. I don't think it's the only way but I do think it's a major major part in creating those Leaders of Tomorrow and I would you know, whether that looks like taking a troll in nonprofit management or conflict resolution. I'm not exactly sure yet. But I do know I want to play a role in helping those students become the mediators with borrow to continue the conversation for today even be on high school right now, and if I become a part-time comedian, but now that's so that's where my head is right now.
36:50 A question I have for you is that you lived through a lot you've lived through a lot of protest you look through a lot of you're one of the most amazing activist I've seen so
37:01 I'm coming back to the first question is.
37:04 What keeps you going you going? Well, you know, I was raised in the church and the church is in my background was all about. Okay, you're a child of privilege, but you're living in a sea of poverty in Northern New York. It's Appalachia basically just extended up further north in and summer camps for kids of underprivileged families never met a black person until I went to college but I went to Cornell because they were black students there who were revolting and it was the middle of the war and there were these very courageous people's like Father Daniel Berrigan who were really doing amazingly powerful and Witnesses against the war at stop the war and sew in the feminism was Rising the lgbtq. What was it called? And it was a gay movement was just starting. It was so much going on and so I was thrust into that and call it and stuck with
38:04 It's been a year in South America learning about human rights violations and how United States foreign aid, especially military. It is not very helpful to to democracy countries like Chile and a sippy straw all of Latin America. So a lot of refugee work. I just spent you know, a lot a lot a lot. So continue to feel this calling to be a social change agent to advocate for policies are Humane particularly for the most vulnerable people in our society. And so I'm so pleased to be able to be a part of this project because you have a vision for what is needed for this next generation of leaders. And I you know, you give me a lot of hopes of thank you and I think one thing to just say is that a lot of people are trying about like how that uses for empowering and you know, how we Yuna motivate the older generation, but I could not do anything that I'm doing right now without you.
39:04 Help Cindy your your wisdom your advice and your guidance have played a huge role as YMCA and the development of tap as a whole. So thank you for that. We're wrapping up now. So thank you so much for this conversation was really really a pleasure and I'll probably see you next week, but thank you for that.