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'Stopping bullying means liberation'

By Mike Honda, Special to CNN
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Wed June 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rep. Mike Honda says he was bullied as a young Japanese-American in the 1940s
  • He said experience left him shy, struggling as student. Today, bullying is epidemic, he says
  • He announces Congress Anti-Bullying Caucus to seek tools to fight bullying
  • Honda: Everyone deserves to feel they have power, are safe, can pursue life goals

Editor's note: Congressman Mike Honda represents Silicon Valley, California, in Congress. He is an educator of more than 30 years, the author of the landmark Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education now housed in the Department of Education and the Chair of the Congressional Anti-Bully Caucus.

(CNN) -- My experience with bullying began with a presidential order.

At the height of World War II, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, incarcerating more than 120,000 Japanese Americans. My family and I were imprisoned behind barbed wire at the Amache internment camp in southeast Colorado. I was less than a year old.

Sadly, the internment of Japanese Americans spread fear and intolerance far beyond the wire and towers of the camps. After the war, during my early years of public school, I was often confronted and insulted because of my appearance and ethnic origin. As a result, I struggled as a student. I was shy to speak up. I lacked self-esteem.

Rep. Mike Honda
Rep. Mike Honda

In the 70 years since internment, our nation has made great leaps in providing reparations for the internment and ostracizing of Japanese Americans. But the mistreatment of people thought of as "outsiders" or "different" is a problem that has not gone away.

Today the health, safety, competitiveness and moral fiber of America is threatened by an epidemic that affects more than 13 million children each year.

These kids are teased, taunted and physically assaulted by their peers — reflecting racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism. This bullying epidemic also spreads far beyond classroom walls to strike countless communities from coast to coast in different social environments. Bullying is particularly acute in the elderly community. It is reported that one in 10 elders in America has experienced mistreatment in the past year. It has also been reported that for every case of elder abuse, neglect, exploitation or self-neglect reported to authorities, five more go unreported.

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The fear and hurt that so many Americans experience demands fierce and urgent action.

Today, as founder and chair, I am humbled and honored to launch the bipartisan Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus, a historic convening on Capitol Hill of dozens of members of Congress and partner organizations, as well as visionary film director Lee Hirsch and the Assistant Secretary of Education Russlynn Ali.

The caucus will seek to engage and empower each constituency involved in the anti-bullying movement, including but not limited to youth, seniors, religious communities and LGBT-identifying individuals. The purpose is to focus the energy and effort of the movement to forge a path forward to stop bullying -- both offline and online.

This convening aims to identify the improvements needed in existing anti-bullying measures at the federal, state and local levels, and to provide a forum for the voice and visibility for all constituencies in the anti-bullying effort. This could mean increased funding and anti-bullying training for bus drivers, school nurses, teachers and administrators; vastly improved workplace diversity trainings; and revolutionizing data collection on elder abuse.

It's hard to change our laws, the way we think and ultimately our behavioral and cultural norms, yet that is the challenge ahead of us. We need new and innovative solutions to combat bullying, ones that protect our children, our peers, our seniors by empowering leaders in communities everywhere to create safe environments for everyone.

Years ago, I was marginalized by my bullying experience. I struggled to see past my fear and hurt to embrace who I truly was, to embrace my place in America. Luckily, my father painstakingly began to teach me a powerful and liberating truth: Japanese-Americans had been treated unjustly — had been bullied — because of "war hysteria, racial prejudice and a failure of political leadership."

Through my father, I came to understand that the truth of America is that we all truly belong in America, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, political philosophy or age.

Over time, my father's lessons empowered me to do better in school, to join the Peace Corps, to become a schoolteacher and to serve my community. This journey brought me to Congress in 2001, dedicated to fight for the voices of the underserved and underrepresented.

Stopping bullying means liberation. It means activating the power and strength within. Everyone deserves to live that moment of empowerment, to feel safe, ready and able to pursue their greatest hopes in life. I hope each and every member of Congress will join the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus on a tireless mission to help guarantee that each and every member of the great American family has an opportunity to embrace such a moment.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Honda.

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