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What does eating shark in Iceland have to do with teaching tolerance in Billings?

It all comes down to exposure to new cultures.

Cindy Kunz, director of the Institute for Peace Studies, traveled to Iceland on vacation last month and said she gained the respect of the locals for eating sheep’s head and shark. It’s not likely she’ll be eating shark again any time soon, but she believes it’s important to embrace new cultures and to explore our world.

“If you want to get comfortable with something, you begin with the children. And I’m quoting Gandhi on that. We need to hang out with people who have slight accents, people who eat different foods,” Kunz said.

Kunz and her staff, which includes four international students attending Rocky Mountain College, work at teaching tolerance throughout the year, visiting more than 70 area schools and organizing conferences and a summer youth camp. Over the past few months, they’ve been gearing up for their most visible event of the year, the Festival of Cultures.

The free festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday on the Rocky Green. It features music, ethnic cuisine, cultural crafts, an art show, entertainment, demonstrations and children’s activities.

The institute formed in 1993 in response to a growing belief that Montana children needed to experience more cultural diversity in order to succeed. Hate crimes were on the rise in Billings and Kunz, who joined the institute in 1999, said the community and founding board wanted to find a way to increase cultural awareness in Billings to encourage tolerance. Lawrence Small, longtime history professor and former president of Rocky, was one of the founders of the Institute for Peace Studies.

“Our American Indian issues were front and center, some of our challenges at Wayman Chapel were front and center,” Kunz said. “The biggest thing was we wanted to prepare Montana’s

children for a global community. If they are going to make it in the world, they are going to work with people of many different cultures.”

So when Kunz and her students visit classrooms, students learn to speak in Swahili from Noah Kiprono, who is from Kenya. Other staff members showcase their cultures from Brazil, Haiti, and the Republic of Ireland. All staff members are trained in conflict resolution, so when students ask about how to deal with bullying or hate words, Kunz and her staff are ready to help.

The summer camp, Peace Village, takes place in August. It is open to children ages 7 to 10, about half of whom are referred to the program through local nonprofit groups that help children. The other half of the participants are community members whose parents enroll them.

“We confiscate all the electronics from them when they come in. They grab a stick and a pine cone and they’re off,” Kunz said.

Kunz said she has former staff now living in 18 countries, many of whom she is in contact with. That’s just how life-changing the institute is.

“The institute is the most dynamic, grassroots-centered program that I have ever worked for. It is just amazing. We are making a difference,” Kunz said.

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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.