Celebrating 85 Years of Building an Inclusive Community

“America’s answer to the intolerant [human] is diversity – the very diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired.” — Robert Kennedy

Founded to advance understanding and respect among all Miamians, modern-day MCCJ has many mile markers to celebrate as we mark our 85th anniversary tonight.

Originally known as the Miami member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), and then as the Miami Conference of Christians and Jews (MCCJ), our mission has always been to embrace diversity and build an inclusive Miami community.

What began in 1923 as a coalition of Christians and Jews has today turned into a Miami human rights organization dedicated to the fair, just and empathic treatment of all people, races, cultures, genders and socio-economic backgrounds. Building an inclusive community for more than eight decades, MCCJ‘s work is as relevant as ever. Our social media and news reports are filled with incidents of bigotry and racism that result in death, violence, and youth suicide. This persistent intolerance for the increasingly diverse society in which we live threatens everyone’s futures. By educating and training teenagers  through several MCCJ programs including “Camp MetroTown” and “Student Voices”, MCCJ combats bullying and unexamined prejudices.  Our adult programs have highlighted the benefits of diversity through advocacy, education, dialogue and conflict resolution.

MCCJ’s Roots

In 1923, concern was growing about the power of bigotry, racism, and inter-group prejudice exemplified by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. By 1928, a committee on goodwill between Christians and Jews was created and NCCJ began to address these issues by developing programs to encourage positive interfaith relations. Our interfaith clergy dialogue began then, and it now ranks as the longest running in the nation.

The first major undertaking of NCCJ was a national two-day seminar in 1929. Catholics, Protestants, and Jews addressed anti-Catholic rhetoric.

In 1933, NCCJ pioneered the “Tolerance Trio” of a minister, a rabbi, and a priest, setting a new and dramatic pattern for religious acceptance in America.

From 1945 to 1955, we were concerned about the wave of mob violence in Alabama, and developed strategies to prevent it from happening in Miami. This resulted in anti-KKK legislation.

Between the late 1940s and late 1960s, and led by black Americans, the Civil Rights Movement provided the context that resulted in the protection of every American’s constitutional rights, regardless of color, race or national origin. With a sense of urgency, Miami established community roundtables and dialogues, while creating interfaith groups that brought Catholics, Protestants and Jews closer across racial divides.

From 1960 to 1990 and beyond, MCCJ worked closely with Miami’s police force to train street police to be unbiased regarding race or cultural background when making arrests, and to reduce police violence. MCCJ facilitated diversity training and community conversations with law enforcement professionals, including bringing youth together with police officers who served as camp counselors.

Interfaith Clergy Dialogue

MCCJ runs the longest Interfaith Clergy Dialogue in the country, bringing leaders of diverse faith backgrounds together for more than 85 years to address concerns in our community.  Although MCCJ is not a faith-based organization, the Clergy Dialogue has answered the call of healing, serving, and enlightening our community through its sponsorship of several interfaith services in memory of mass victims of terrorism (such as 9/11), mass shootings, and social discord due to inequality and civil unrest. The MCCJ Interfaith Clergy Dialogue also hosts screenings and public forums focused on strengthening spiritual and religious unity and promoting civil and respectful dialogue that creates communal cohesion rather than division.

Silver Medallions and Humanitarian Awards Dinner

In 1946, MCCJ began honoring Miamians with its Humanitarian Silver Medallion Award, selecting leaders whose inspiring involvement in our community were concurrent with MCCJ’s mission of building an inclusive Miami. This year, we are pleased to honor Imran Ali, Jaret L. Davis, Robert Josefsberg and Cheryl Little. The Robert H. Traurig Lifetime Achievement Award honors Marvin Leibowitz (posthumously), and jointly Dr. Dorothy Jenkins Fields and Arva Moore Parks. The Interfaith Clergy Medallion honors Rabbi Frederick Klein.

Tonight’s Silver Medallion Celebration is co-chaired by Cristina Pereyra-Alvarez and Cesar Alvarez, with honorary chairs Marsha and Brian Bilzin, along with Gail Ash and Albert E. Dotson, Jr.  We salute them and express our gratitude for their outstanding contributions to tonight’s event.

And while the list of previous Silver Medallion recipients has read like the history of Miami, it has been the history of the United States that has propelled MCCJ into action locally.

Conflict Resolution

During times of crisis, MCCJ provides Miami-Dade with a much-needed safety net as a convener, providing opportunities for candid and sensitive dialogue among diverse groups of community members, helping them find common ground to build bridges and resolve conflicts.

Miami-Dade was one of the first major cities in the U.S. to establish civilian oversight of police, and MCCJ was part of the working group leading this initiative. For three decades, starting in 1980, the County’s civilian oversight panel provided a forum for the community to air its grievances about police misconduct. Following an economic downturn in the late 2000’s, funding for this vital program was eliminated. MCCJ continues to be involved in efforts to restore civilian oversight in Miami-Dade.

Following the 1980 McDuffie riots, MCCJ worked with the Community Relations Board to formulate policy recommendations through a process of community hearings which resulted in the report, Overcoming Racial and Ethnic Isolation in Miami. After the Elian Gonzalez controversy, MCCJ and The Miami Herald co-facilitated nine community dialogues with different leadership sectors.

Empowering Youth

MCCJ provides leadership, diversity, inclusion, social justice, community engagement, and leadership training for students through our three main programs for youth.

Since 1991, MCCJ has empowered high school students to explore cultural diversity within their communities and develop self-esteem, while fostering values that support the understanding of individual differences. The “Student Voices” program focuses on leadership, prejudice-reduction and stopping the bullying that impacts so many students’ lives. According to a counselor at Norland Senior High, “This has been instrumental in helping break down a lot of barriers, stereotypes, bigotry and hatred.”

MCCJ established “Camp MetroTown” in 2011. This popular six-day summer residential camp for high school students provides youth with the tools to identify their unexamined prejudices and recognize their own privileges, rights and responsibilities. Student Delegates learn appropriate and effective methods of discussing difficult topics, such as difference of culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, orientation, socio-economic status, and other social identifiers.

In 2019, MCCJ was honored with an extraordinary grant from AmeriCorps and Volunteer Florida to launch its first-ever “Student Mediation” program. Peer mediation is a conflict resolution model that teaches students how to help resolve conflicts in real time. High school students are trained in the process of mediation and develop the skills required to be strong mediators. Students experiencing conflict, commonly referred to as disputants, may request mediation, or be referred by administrators, teachers, parents, peers, and even members of the community including police officers that recognize the value of civil communication to peacefully and effectively resolve matters.

Building an Inclusive Community

At each “Emerging Leaders Dinner,” an MCCJ Silver Medallion past-recipient leads a lively private small dinner with young professionals and upcoming leaders. The intimate setting allows for candor and reflection; it is an up close and personal opportunity for emerging leaders to learn from Miami’s outstanding civic role models.

In 2016, MCCJ, The Miami Herald, the Miami Foundation, United Way of Miami-Dade, the Children’s Trust, and Radical Partners began a new program, “Ten Days of Connection”. This initiative was conceived to help resolve increased divisiveness facing religious and racial communities across the country. The annual community-led challenge inspires locals to step out of their comfort zones and invite small groups of people from a broad range of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to share lunch, meet at a park or find a way to unite in our shared humanity.

MCCJ’s “Can We Talk, Can We Really Talk?” program is designed to bring together community members to address the challenges of inclusivity and equality in Miami. The aim is to bridge the gap between races, cultures, communities and religions while finding solutions and making recommendations on a given issue. Last year, MCCJ partnered with United Way of Miami-Dade in a roundtable discussion regarding the conditions at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied minors. Officials from the Department of Justice and Homeland Security were present to learn about the concerns of local stakeholders. As a result of these sessions, the U.S. Attorney’s office convened a follow-up roundtable discussion for inter-faith leaders, inviting them to work in concert with government officials in addressing community challenges.

MCCJ’s community programs also include professional development training at universities, corporations and non-profit organizations. The trainings focus on cultural competency, conflict resolution, facilitated dialogue, engagement, and other components. These professional development opportunities are also designed to provide educators with best practice methodologies that can be incorporated into their schools.

Hank Meyer National Headliner Award

Every year MCCJ hosts the Hank Meyer Headliner Awards Breakfast, honoring the contributions of journalists and media personalities of national standing whose work is congruent with MCCJ’s mission. This year MCCJ honored Maria Elena Salinas of CBS News for her coverage on behalf of the plight of Latino immigrants in the United States. The first award was established in the 1970s and given to Walter Cronkite. Since then it has gone to a number of prominent journalists including Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Joy Reid, Miami’s Leonard Pitts. Jr., Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, and Joshua Johnson, to name a few.

History as Our Educator

Throughout the course of its 85 years, MCCJ has continued to convene leaders, stakeholders and regular citizens to hold frank discussions, find solutions and make recommendations about local issues and challenges affecting our community.

We know that Miami is the laboratory for the future of the United States. Here, where our signature is diversity, we are truly a model for the demographics of what the nation will look like in a few short decades.

But we cannot be a hopeful model if we cannot find the path that takes the raw material of a multi-cultural population and, through education and civic engagement, fabricates a society which is truly inclusive.

The spirit of MCCJ was captured by a Miami Herald op-ed piece written by two of our Silver Medallion recipients, David Lawrence and Cesar Alvarez (who, along with his wife Cristina Pereyra-Alvarez, is chair of tonight’s celebration): “The magical dynamism that is America,  so vivid here in Miami, is the product of a society continually rejuvenated by arrivals diverse in background but homogenous in courage, vision and the entrepreneurial spirit…”