Narrowing a deepening divide

  • Deborah Snow of The Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland. File photo

  • Paula Green File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/9/2018 9:59:55 PM

With a critical midterm election over, nearly 18 Pioneer Valley residents met this week for the third in a series of cross-cultural conversations aimed at narrowing a deepening divide in this country.

The Bridge for Unity project, with an equal number of white and black participants, had met twice before this week’s session at New Africa House on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, and will continue to meet regularly in preparation for a planned larger conversation in January with a fledgling interracial group in South Carolina.

“In many areas, there are all these people wanting to reach across these divides, because we all know we can’t live with the polarization,” said Paula Green of Leverett, who is facilitating the project much as she’s done for an award-winning effort involving residents of her town and Eastern Kentucky. (Plans call for some of those Kentuckians to join the conversation in South Carolina as well, and for a reciprocal visit from South Carolina in in June.)

“As far as I’m concerned, many hands are wonderful. Many efforts, many forms, different approaches — its all healthy.”

Green, whose background includes helping resolve global political, religious and ethnic tensions as founding director of Amherst-based Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, and fostering dialogue among students from around the world as director of the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program at the School for International Training, was invited by Deborah Snow of Montague to help lead a multiracial conversation.

“We’re divided into smithereens, we’re just so deeply divided,” Green says. “Those divisions don’t serve us, they serve the establishment to keep us apart and fighting for the spoils. What we’re fostering is uniting, finding our common needs for a decent society and a robust economy for everybody.”

Among the topics shared by the group – a mix of gender, race, ethnic backgrounds, the Valley’s rural and urban communities and to some extent different ages – are what they want to know about each other’s lives and what they want the others to know about them.

“People are eager talk about those things,” says Green, who never expected to be working to bridge domestic differences after her retirement in 2016. “It’s an educational tool, to help people develop skills, they want for their own families. Most people don’t know how to talk across political differences, racial differences, religious differences. They want these skills to increase their ability to build community.”

Snow said the idea for a group grew from visits to Beaufort County, S.C., to visit her niece and a Gullah cultural celebration last October at The Blue Heron, the Sunderland restaurant where she is chef and co-owner with her wife, Barbara White, as well as discussions with friends in South Carolina and others here.

“People are starving for connection,” says Snow, who attended Green’s dialogue trainings last winter. “The sense I get is we’re tired of this homogeneity where we’re stuck to our tribe, so to speak. It’s not satisfying, it’s not enriching us, it’s not making us a better country. So we have to reach out. ... One of reasons we lost (the last) election in the first place, it’s a divided left. We’ve got to get on the same page here so we can be effective.”

Rather than theoretical or intellectual discussion about race or racism, said Steven Botkin of Pelham, “It’s human to human. The group is wonderfully diverse in terms of the different experiences with racism. There’s some of us who grew up with white privilege and that put us in a particular set of experiences, and many of them were challenging and confusing, and we got to share those. And similarly, there’s a range of people of color in the group. There’s people who grew up in the South, there’s people who grew up in the Caribbean, there’s indigenous people. There’s a lot of range of experiences with racism that each has its own flavor. It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn from each other in an environment that’s very deliberately created to hold respect, where people can tell some very painful truths.”

Given society’s vulnerability to what Botkin sees as a deliberate escalation of divisiveness, he said there’s a need to create “countervailing efforts for respectful conversation” to bring us together.

Group members are working toward traveling to South Carolina, where a former Quinnipiac University education professor has begun meeting with a similar interracial discussion group. Yet Botkin says, “The most important thing is that we’re having these conversations with our neighbors and across communities of this region that often haven’t sat down and talked to each other. We’re bridging some very significant divides right here in Western Mass.”

Toni Hendrix of Springfield agrees.

“Hampden and Hampshire counties, we don’t talk to each other, and Franklin County, it’s different continents… This project in particular, in terms of coming to together to just have a genuine, thoughtful and respectful dialog about difficult issues, is an important conversation,” says Hendrix, a human resources director who has experience with diversity training. “I anticipate emotions will fly, and people will appear angry and frustrated” as they discuss race, class, politics, gender equality, the ‘MeToo’ movement, “and all the other ‘-isms” that exist that prohibit people from being able to be who they are and be genuine.”

Pat Crutchfield of Southwick, like others at Wednesday’s meeting, said she has no preconceived ideas about where the conversations will lead.

But she adds, “Dialogue’s a powerful tool. What motivates me is using this tool to get to better understand folks who are not me. We don’t talk to each other as a world. We talk at each other, and we don’t listen. This gives us an opportunity to sit down and kind of make eye contact and do some mutually supportive explorations.”

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