On Jan. 19, CommunityPlus hosted its latest “Conversation on Our Community,” tackling the difficult subject of hatred. Prompted by a recent incident at the high school, the goal of the conversation was to answer the question: What should we, as a community, do when confronted with hate, bigotry and intolerance in our midst?
It was a difficult and at times awkward discussion because the issues are not those we, as a community, are used to addressing openly in a public forum. As our previous conversations revealed, among the core things we share as a community is a sense that we are very tolerant, that we welcome diversity, that we encourage and embrace inclusiveness.
Being confronted with even one expression of blatant hatred is deeply unsettling and, in the context of our community, the necessity of addressing the broader question of intolerance seemed somehow disconcerting.
In many ways it felt as though we were exploring unfamiliar terrain, being drawn into some dark unknown, wishing we didn’t have to go there at all and armed only with a sense of foreboding.
We did, however, agree that the very first thing to do was to discuss the scope of the problem — to determine whether one incident, however shocking, was isolated or, more disturbing, one of several or many similar acts. What emerged in response were many stories of personal or family experience.
Parents in attendance said that, from their perspective, incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying in our schools were not rare; they may not be common or frequent, but they happen and news of the specific incident that prompted the conversation was not surprising.
Others mentioned that they had encountered intolerance, discrimination or undisguised prejudice — either directed at them or others — in public in our town.
Many also acknowledged that this was not a new phenomenon; they may not be commonplace in our community, but they happen and have been happening for some time.
Often the conversation shifted from a focus on the broader issues of intolerance and bigotry to the specific incident that initially prompted concern, press coverage of the case and what the school district was doing about it. Several participants stressed that the matter was under investigation and urged the community to give the authorities time to complete that task.
Some expressed the view that the incident should not have been publicized when it was, saying they felt the school administration had not been treated fairly or given a chance to explain the actions it was taking.
Others noted again that we should not be focused on the specific incident itself. Rather, the real attention should be what the school district was doing to address the broader issues of intolerance, bigotry and prejudice. Were there programs in place, or being contemplated, for dealing with those issues? How does the district foster greater tolerance, respect and civility among all students? What does it do to provide support to victims of intolerance and for examining how best to understand the reasons why any student engages in harassment, intimidation or bullying? How can the broader community help?
These were questions — not criticisms. They were appeals for more open dialogue between district officials and the community about the issues and the policies for addressing those issues — not a demand for details of an ongoing investigation about any specific incident.
Once the discussion refocused on how those issues affected our community at large, however, various suggestions were put forward, including:
• Explore ways to promote tolerance, diversity and inclusion because that was key to countering hatred, bigotry, intolerance — to keeping such attitudes and behavior from becoming “acceptable,” from being “normalized.”
• Work with the City to hold a “town hall” or workshop on these issues — as it did when it brought Peter Kageyama in to talk about how to love where you live and encourage civic pride and engagement.
• Hold a series of workshops to develop strategies the community, or the school district, could pursue in countering hate and promoting tolerance.
• Bring in guest speakers who have dealt successfully with these issues in their communities or their schools — especially those who can share their personal stories.
• Develop a true partnership between the community and the schools to deal with these issues in a more systematic, holistic fashion.
As the evening’s conversation drew to a close, it was very clear those in attendance agreed that the broader issues of intolerance — the instances of which could range from bias and prejudice through harassment, intimidation, bullying, to hatred and violence — very much needed to be addressed.
In fact, of the 30 people who attended, 20 signed up to be part of an ongoing, community-wide effort to fight against hate, bigotry, harassment and intimidation by promoting tolerance and civility.
While this “Conversation on Our Community” began with a sense of unease and discomfort, it ended with a sense of purpose and a renewed commitment to making Sequim an even better, more livable, more lovable place. As tolerant and welcoming of diversity as we are as a community, as inclusive as we like to see ourselves, the evening’s discussion showed us that we can be even better.
Most importantly, it demonstrated that, as a community, we can have a civil conversation about a difficult, emotionally charged subject, we can and will work together toward resolving the problem.
On such challenging questions of how to deal with hatred, bigotry, intolerance, this conversation was just a start. But it was a good start.
Learn more about CommunityPlus at the group’s website (sequimcommunityplus.com).