The most powerful voices at a Diversity Forum in Branford this past weekend belonged to those who have experienced bias or discrimination.
Hamlet Hernandez, superintendent of the Branford School District, (pictured above at right), recalled a time more than 40 years ago when his family was the target of ethnic intimidation. It was 1968, and his was the first Hispanic family to move into the Hamden neighborhood. His parents took pride in their home and worked hard to remodel it. As a young boy, he watched while new steps were constructed to the front door. “The next day I remember my mom screaming that someone poured oil on the steps.” His father was moved to tears over the slur against his family, the only time he saw his father cry except at his grandfather’s funeral.
Hernandez said although the incident is still difficult to talk about, he knows that education is the answer to overcoming bias and prejudice.
Flash forward to September 2001. It was a few days after the unthinkable tragedy of 9-11, and Megan St. Pierre was teaching first grade at a Branford elementary school. One of her students, a young girl from Iraq, was crying and couldn’t be consoled. The girl said her family had to move away. When St. Pierre tried to find out what happened, she discovered that someone had broken into the family’s apartment and trashed all its belongings and killed the cat. “That family was devastated,” she said, adding that they fled town in fear, too traumatized to even tell the police.
A majority of the 100 people gathered at a Diversity Forum in Branford raised their hand when asked if they or a loved one had experienced bias or prejudice. The gathering including political leaders, members of the clergy, educators, parents, students, business people, senior citizens and people from all walks of life. They spent three hours on a Saturday afternoon at the Blackstone Memorial Library talking about what divides people and what can unite them.
“We have to make everybody inclusive,” said retired police chief Robert Gill, the first black police chief in Branford. “You have to teach it in the family at the dinner table.”
Gill served 43 years with the Branford police department, including nine as chief.
Karen Aldridge, pictured above with Gill and Hernandez, recalled how her family and her home were targeted when she was a youngster. “We didn’t tell the police because we felt it was just something we had to endure,” she told the group. Aldridge, owner of the Butterfly Effect Boutique in Branford, said she came to realize that it’s important to stand up for your rights and the rights of others. “When you see something happen you have to talk about it,” she said. “You have to step up.”
“We hope this is a beginning,” Marji Lipshez Shapiro told the group at the library. Shapiro, the director of education for the Connecticut chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, gave a presentation and engaged the group in several activities.
First she outlined the goals of the forum: to nurture a climate that fosters trust, understanding and solidarity across a spectrum of people; to examine the impact of stereotypes; to learn the value of being able to respectfully disagree across a range of beliefs, and to identify individual and community actions that will continue.
Frank Carrano, who recently retired as chair of the Board of Education, explained how the forum came about. He said town leaders began meeting after the tragic shooting that claimed the lives of 26 students and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December 2012. Carrano said the first meeting brought residents together to talk about gun control and keeping the town safe. But Carrano said it became apparent that gun control was only one issue.
“Some of us felt there was more we should be doing,” he said, explaining that a local committee formed and has been meeting over the past months to discuss diversity and unity. Saturday’s event was sponsored by the Branford Community Foundation. Eunice Lasala, president of the foundation, was a member of the planning committee and greeted participants as they arrived.
“Take some time to look at the community we live in and how our community is blessed to have so many kinds of people,” Carrano said. “Diversity is what enriches our community.”
Also addressing the group was First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove. “I’m amazed by the turnout,” he said. “It is encouraging.”
Shapiro told the Eagle prior to the forum that she was impressed by the number of people who arrived and their diversity. She has been making presentations for about 23 years, and typically makes 200 each year, mostly at schools or businesses. She said it is unusual to make a presentation for a community.
“Imagine what we could do together,” Shapiro told the group. “This is a beginning….This is meant to be a catalyst.”
Also in attendance was Branford resident Ted Kennedy Jr., who talked with the Eagle after the forum. “I think it’s always important for us to deepen our respect for all different cultures and people who we may not know. I learned a lot today.”
Kennedy, an attorney, said he attended the forum because of his advocacy work for people with disabilities. “People with disabilities are some of the most stigmatized in our society,” said the son of the late U.S. Senator.
GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER
Ivette Ruiz, (pictured) co-presenter at the forum, talked about her struggle to overcome discrimination, poverty and adversity. Ruiz, who is a professor at Yale University and a consultant at the Yale New Haven Health System, said she was born in Connecticut but that she grew up in Puerto Rico. She married at age 16 and became homeless for a year when she and her husband lost their jobs.
“Life hasn’t been easy,” she said as she talked about her family. “I decided not to become a victim. I used that to empower us.”
Ruiz explained that it takes time to get to know who people really are. “When we see people, we only see 10 percent of what they are,” she said, likening it to the tip of an iceberg. She said in order to get past first impressions, you have to make an effort to get to know people. “In order to make positive changes, you have to get to know the other 90 percent. … you need to listen and talk.”
Forum participant James O’Connor, principal at Tisko Elementary School in Branford, said “The 90 percent is really hard to get to… Most people are defensive.” He told the group that said Tisko school is perceived as having a wealthy population, but he said there is also poverty at the school that “nobody likes to talk about.”
“One of the challenges we have is how to identify people in need,” Carrano said.
The purpose of the day’s first interactive exercise was communication. The 100-plus participants were asked to walk around the room, and at a given signal they were to stop and talk with the person next to them for a few minutes. Ruiz and Shapiro gave the conversation topics, ranging from the socioeconomic climate of hometowns; feelings of being an outsider; and the meaning of respect.
Pictured here is state Rep. Lonnie Reed, (D-Branford) talking with new Branford resident Mina Boumagoud.
People were asked what they learned following the activity.
“What a beautiful definition of respect this young man gave,” said Paul Dzialo, director of the East Shore Regional Adult and Continuing Education program. Dzialo had been speaking with 7-year-old Nour, (pictured) whose family recently emigrated to Branford.
The Eagle later asked the youngster what respect means to him. “It means good manners,” the boy said.
PYRAMID OF HATE
Shapiro used a “pyramid of hate” to illustrate how bias can escalate. The pyramid was divided into five levels: bias was the lowest level, then prejudice, discrimination, violence and escalating to the most severe level, genocide. Shapiro asked participants to read statements that were written by high school students in Connecticut about incidents of hate. “Some are everyday incidents. Some are surprising,” she said. “We get these examples from every school we go to.”
She said bias, although the bottom of the pyramid is often the seed for escalating levels of hate. Racial jokes and insensitive remarks were examples of bias.
“You do not have to like everyone… but we do need to respect everyone,” Shapiro said.
Participants were divided into groups to discuss bias, prejudice and discrimination that they have witnessed and then report their discussion to the whole group. They were also asked to give any possible solutions. That is when Hernandez, Gill and Aldridge addressed the group.
Several other people also spoke up.
Manjit Singh, who emigrated from India, has lived and worked in Branford for 15 years. He said he has been the subjected to racial slurs and discrimination. “We shouldn’t be ignorant about other people just because they look different. You have to have an open mind. We can learn from each other. We are all Americans.”
Singh later told the Eagle he decided to attend the forum at the last minute. “It was a good opportunity to interact with everybody,” he said.
CALL TO ACTION
“We have just scratched the surface today,” Carrano said before the session ended. He announced the formation of six discussion groups that will enable people to continue talking about issues that were raised Saturday. Participants signed up for the groups, which include: education, the faith community, celebrating diversity, government’s role, the library’s role, and the impact of modern technology.
Carrano told the Eagle that the discussion groups will meet individually over the next three months, and then return as a large group for another community discussion.
“It was really encouraging,” Carrano said of Saturday’s event. “People were fully engaged in the activities. Hopefully we can begin to facilitate some short-term and long-term goals.”
Carrano said anyone else who is interested in signing up for the groups may contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Eagle asked other participants for their reactions.
“I think this is a very important starting point…There are a lot of issues in this community,” said Nate Barton, a high school student and member of the planning committee. He said he is particularly concerned about the number of racist jokes among students at the high school.
“It raises awareness of all our commonalities as well as the issues we face in our communities,” said Superintendent Hernandez, who is also a member of the planning committee.
“I think there was a lot of good conversation,” said Chris Sullivan, Democratic minority leader of the Representative Town Meeting. “The town is changing a little bit. It’s really important for the community to be aware of the changes.”
Town leaders have acknowledged that Branford has become a more diverse community in recent years, with more young families whose primary language in not English. The effect of this trend on the schools was discussed recently when school board members asked why there was such a drastic drop in third grade test scores at Mary Murphy Elementary School on the 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test.
Superintendent Hernandez said that compared to the town’s other two elementary schools, Murphy school has a higher number of students whose primary language in not English, more students with special needs, more low-income families, and a higher rate of families who move frequently. He said steps have been taken to meet the needs of all the students.