Forum Spotlights ‘Our Community, Our Future’

Keynote Dana Jones Challenges Community to Share Space, Find Commonality

Creating a sense of community which is bounded in respect, inclusion and cultural competency were among themes that participants focused their discussions as they examined “Our Community, Our Future” at the 2014 Unity in Our Community Diversity Forum.

“We are called to broaden our horizon,” said Dana Jones as he referenced in his keynote address the poem, “Who Are My People,” by Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni. “The poet is seeking a quest for kinship, a common sense of being. This sense of connection is vital as we are called to share space, thoughts (and) ideas.”

The forum, held annually since 2007, is an opportunity for students, community members and officials from Charles County to create shared space for discussions about identity, stereotypes and diversity in a supportive environment. This year’s forum, held at North Point High School in Waldorf, was organized by the Diversity Institute at the College of Southern Maryland.

“This forum is a way for the community to come together and talk about important societal issues,” said CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried. “It needs to be an ongoing dialogue and it needs to be every day. The key is building on these programs, and how we take this program and the energy that comes out of it and keep it going. We really need to be reaching kids, and from the kids’ perspectives, they see no gender or race issues.”

Jones, a native of Southern Maryland who has dedicated his adult life to bringing quality services to neighborhoods and citizens, said the ”quest runs deep, in the core of all of our being” to form a sense of community. “To find commonality is critical,” he said.

“Are we a diverse community or an inclusive community? Inclusion is an intentional effort to make sure I understand what you say, that I respect what you say, that I value what you say, that I value your culture and I value you for who you are, and that I acknowledge that we share a commonality called humanity,” said Jones. The chief executive officer for the United Planning Organization (UPO) told the audience, “We can’t allow neighbors to be strangers.”

While the poet expressed finding common ground unexpectedly under a tattered and patched umbrella with a stranger who offered a smile, Jones challenged those attending, “In that gesture [of kindness and smiling] a sense of community was found under an umbrella. Today, find your common language. Respect a common ground of personhood and humanity. Today, find an umbrella; find a small space that you can feel safe, express it and in community with someone else. We build unity in our community when we find that space.”

The occasion to find such space came quickly as forum participants broke into smaller sessions to discuss identity, stereotypes, diversity and bullying. Breakout sessions, led by community members and designed to help those participating to better understand Charles County today and its future, included “Defying Definitions,” a public conversation and community engagement program led by the Maryland Humanities Council to explore identity, stereotypes and diversity, and a discussion on “Bullying/Cyberbullying, Are you a Bystander?” presented by Kayla Stewart, a victim of bullying who has organized “Bullied But Unbroken LLC.”

“We are moving in a very intentional and proactive manner to bring together a rapidly changing community,” said Makeba Clay, executive director of CSM’s Institutional Equity and Diversity Office. “The forum is a unique opportunity to engage our local citizenry in public dialogue around our individual and collective identities in an increasingly diverse community. It creates opportunities for exchange across those differences.”

 “I now realize that there are several different perspectives to respect,” said Milton Somers Middle School eighth-grader Eden Williams, who attended the forum with his school’s vice principal, Tangie Scales. Willliams, who was among the five panelists during the closing session, said she was impressed with how well the forum was conducted. She said those within her breakout session were “very opinionated and had different views on the topics that we were discussing. In the future, I will consider what the people around me think about certain issues, in our community.”

A fellow Milton Somers’ student, sixth-grader Rebecca Tillman, said what impressed her most on the day were the small groups “and opinions from other people. I heard a different viewpoint I did not know.”

Milton Somers eighth-grader Vashti Tillman, who attended the bullying session, said. “I heard a lot of different opinions on how to handle bullying, for yourself or for other people around you. I had the impression of hope and people being there for the victims of bullies. If you are getting bullied you have to reach out, so people can help you. It was inspiring.”

In addition to the breakouts, simple yet powerful vignettes, “Bystander Blues and Downhill” of “The Bully Plays” were presented by the Thomas Stone High School drama department and a panel discussion on “Youth Leadership/Empowerment” featured local youth leaders discussing their strategies on impacting their community, making a change and being the change.

“The forum was designed to provide attendees the opportunity to have a safe space for discussions on issues that matter from all ages; issues such as identify, community engagement, diversity, bullying and the effects of all these issues on our local community. Participants were given materials to take with them that provide resources and tools on the topics discussed,” said Ava Morton, coordinator of the Diversity Institute.

In addition to Williams, who is involved in National Junior Honor Society, Student Council, Emerging Young Leaders and Friends of Rachel, other youth panel leaders included high school students Georgia Benson and Oly Usoh. Benson is a Westlake High School junior and president of the Class of 2015. Usoh, native of Owerri, Nigeria, is a sophomore at Henry E. Lackey High School, where she plays volleyball and violin. She was among three sophomores of 14 high-schoolers interviewed for the Maryland Association of Student Councils State Student Member to the Board of Education.

Other panelists were CSM students Deveraux Smith, president of CSM’s La Plata Student Association, and Tokina Ragghianti, secretary for the Beta Delta Delta chapter of Phi Theta Kappa and facilitator for CSM’s National Society of Leadership and Success chapter.

Offering closing remarks to the day, Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony Brown said, “There is much more that unites us than divides us. Where we do differ, it’s that difference that makes us stronger.”

The forum was funded in part by the Maryland Humanities Council with support from Chick-fil-A and Shoppers Food Warehouse. For photos from the forum, visit http://csmphoto.zenfolio.com/p1058549293. For video from the forum, visit http://youtu.be/u88oCTM9wzk. For information on the Diversity Institute, its programs and partners, visit www.csmd.edu/DiversityInstitute/ or contact Morton at amorton@csmd.edu.

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