South Hadley to hold 4th cultural awareness program Saturday

  • South Hadley Town Administrator Michael Sullivan. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

SOUTH HADLEY — The town’s march toward the creation of a “social contract” continues Saturday with a public discussion on diversity, recognizing bias, combating hate and building community.

The public discussion at South Hadley Town Hall is the fourth event in a series of cultural awareness programs put on by the town.

“These discussions help a community develop the ability to find areas of agreement, and in appropriate situations, seek compromise,” South Hadley Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said.

In response to the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead, South Hadley Select Board members thought of ways they could take a proactive approach to preventing further hate-fueled tragedies in their community.

Member Sarah Etelman had the idea to host a community discussion with the ultimate goal of writing a “Statement of Acceptance and Understanding.”

“What could we do that would make a real and lasting change in how people saw each other?” Etelman said. “These incidents that are just happening over and over — people using guns to settle differences and just this destruction — how do we prevent that from happening in our community?”

Facilitated by Iraida Delgado, a trained facilitator and “social engineer” for cultural competency, the event will focus on how bias and misunderstanding can stunt the social growth of communities.

Twenty-eight people attended the first workshop hosted by Delgado in September of last year, and many did not want to leave when the daylong event was over. While gay residents shared their reluctance to show affection to their partners in public, town officials and community members listened and discussed.

Sullivan says the discussion went so well that it inspired them to continue hosting the events indefinitely as long as they remain positive and productive. The town has spent about $2,000 on the events so far, according to Sullivan, who says the return on investment is well worth it.

“There is no blueprint for us,” said Sullivan. “There have not been a lot of communities that set off on this kind of journey.”

The envisioned Statement of Acceptance and Understanding would be a kind of social contract throughout town, disavowing racism, sexism, and hate and serving as a guideline for acceptable behavior. Each discussion serves as a building block for the statement.

This year, the town hosted two more discussions focused on understanding cultural differences and building a community dialogue. A January workshop focused on cultural sensitivity training for first responders, and another last month taught town employees about recognizing bias and accepting differences.

“We certainly have done a lot more training on diversity… with the town hall staff to make sure people are more sensitive to understanding people that are different than you,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan draws from his experience working with Holyoke Peace Initiative during his time as mayor and attending diversity trainings across the state.

“You have to make sure you preserve the right for others to disagree with you in a respectful way,” Sullivan said.

South Hadley has seen its share of hate in recent years too. From ethnic slurs scrawled on a wall at Beachgrounds Park, to a swastika emblazoned on the Ledges Golf Course, the town knows it is not immune to the social strife present across the nation.

“I think we are as prepared as we can be, but that does not mean that we are as prepared as we should be,” Etelman said.

The free public workshop will take place from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Town Hall Auditorium, 116 Main St. Refreshments will be served.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com