PORTLAND — Stephen Wessler traces his interest in civil rights back to childhood, when he and his mother, a social worker, sat in their living room in Cambridge, Mass., and watched Walter Cronkite report on protest marches in the South.

Later, when Wessler was in high school, the family moved to St. Louis, where his father, a doctor, had taken a job at the university hospital.

On the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Wessler remembers driving in his mostly white suburban neighborhood, listening to a soul music radio station. The DJ asked listeners to turn on their car lights as a sign of mourning.

“I remember being aware that I was the only one in my neighborhood with my lights on,” said Wessler, 58.

Wessler, who is the founder and executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate, would go on to make career of defending human rights and fighting prejudice and discrimination.

Started in 1999, the center on Forest Avenue is celebrating a decade of accomplishments Thursday with a free public exhibit and reception at The Portland Company complex on Fore Street.

In starting the center, Wessler left behind a high-profile job as Maine’s assistant attorney general in charge of enforcing civil rights and hate crimes statutes. At the time, he never imagined that the center would one day be doing work across the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East.

With an 11-member staff, the center has led workshops and training sessions in 80 schools and numerous municipalities across Maine, four school districts in New Hampshire and communities in 25 other states.

Wessler delivered one of his first workshops at Portland High School, where one-quarter of the students are recent immigrants from Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere who are learning to speak English.

Now, the center provides annual training sessions that promote the high school’s culture against bias and discrimination.

Teachers recommend freshman class leaders of all types and backgrounds. Students participate in discussions and exercises that show how words can hurt and lead to violence, and how they can intervene to nip it in the bud. About half the high school’s 900 students receive the training.

“Portland High puts issues of race, religion and sexual orientation on the front burner, and we leave it there,” said Principal Mike Johnson. “Steve’s organization makes it comfortable to have those conversations.

“The work he does is some of the most difficult to do in society, and yet he does it with such grace and respect that he makes everyone feel comfortable, no matter their beliefs.”

The center also has worked in nine foreign countries, including England, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Poland, Romania, Kazakhstan, Israel and Egypt.

In Poland, Wessler developed and led a hate-crime-response training session organized by the Anti-Defamation League for people working to protect civil rights in 30 different countries. Many of them came from communities where hate crimes aren’t viewed as a serious problem — their salaries were lower than their cell phone budgets.

“It was a challenge to develop a program that could work in so many different countries,” said Stacy Burdett, associate director of government affairs at the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C. “It worked because Stephen is a practitioner for whom the individual victim is really central to the work.

“He also understands that it’s important to approach a person’s experience with humility. And he lives his values with the same authenticity that you find in his work.”

The center is largely funded by grants and agencies, companies or communities that hire the center to conduct training sessions, such as the Westbrook Fire Department, which has been rocked by sexual harassment claims.

The nonprofit does much of its crisis intervention and advocacy work for free.

The center worked with community leaders in Lewiston after a man rolled a pig’s head into a mosque in 2006.

It’s helping Casco residents resolve recent controversy over a racist e-mail forwarded by a town official.

And it’s working with officials at Portland’s private Waynflete School to prepare for the possibility that a Kansas extremist group may follow through on its threat to protest an April 10 production of “The Laramie Project,” which tells the story of a Wyoming community’s reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student.

Looking back over the past decade, Wessler said he has come to understand that the damage done by hateful words can outlast the physical injuries that often accompany hate crimes. “Those words generate fear that runs deep,” he said.

As Wessler’s work has expanded across the globe, he has been impressed by the courage and dignity he has witnessed among victims of hate and people who are fighting it.

“I’ve also come to realize that the problems at the root of hate crimes in countries around the world are more similar than they are different,” Wessler said. “The language that they use is the same, in part because of the Internet.”

Increasingly, Wessler sees his work is a matter of faith.

“Being Jewish is intertwined in the work I do,” he said. “Jews have been targeted for 2,000 years. For myself, an obligation of being a Jew is to work against anti-Semitism and any other form of bias.”

Looking ahead, Wessler believes there will be continuing conflict about immigration, especially because most of the groups coming to the United States are people of color.

He said the issue has been complicated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Today, immigration equals race,” he said. “Now, we’re not only afraid of losing our jobs (to immigrants), we’re also afraid that they’re going to kill us.”

He said racial tensions have increased further with the election of a black president.

Wessler, who lives in Litchfield, said he has no illusions that the Center for Preventing Hate can end bias and hate crimes. He believes everyone has prejudices, no matter their background or skin color.

But he believes that if people have an opportunity to talk to one another and learn about one another, then they’ll be less likely to tolerate or perpetuate hateful speech or behavior. His goal is simple, as he explained to employees of a Tennessee school district who were about to undergo court-ordered racial sensitivity training.

“I told them that I expected them to leave with their beliefs intact, but with a firm commitment to protect the physical and emotional safety of every child in that community,” Wessler said.

“But once you open yourself up to protect a gay kid, you’re much more likely to have a conversation with that kid and start to learn that the stereotypes you had about that kid, and a lot of other people, are incorrect.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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