Not everyone feels welcome and safe in our community.

On Jan. 31, close to 90 people braved snow and ice to gather in the Morrell Meeting Room at Curtis Memorial Library for a conversation about prejudice.

The event was organized by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick and Bowdoin College under the leadership and guidance of Steve Wessler, human rights advocate and educator.

Gathered that evening were representatives from at least seven faith traditions, students and faculty from Bowdoin College, staff from a local high school, and community people of all ages and occupations.

In small group discussions, cofacilitated by Bowdoin College students and community members, we shared painful personal experiences — incidents of dismissal and disrespect, bullying and intimidation. Some incidents were too subtle to confirm; others were too obvious to ignore.

All were frightening.

Consider the impact of daily teasing about the way you look or speak; of being the focus of hostile stares; of hearing racial or sexual orientation slurs hurled from a passing car; of receiving threatening and racially tinged phone calls.

We learned of the reality of the classic town-gown divide that contributes to some students feeling unknown or unwelcomed by Brunswick residents even though students volunteer in the local schools, help at local service organizations and frequent Maine Street businesses.

Some neighbors of the college, uncertain about the youthful energy and academic excellence on the Bowdoin campus, enter the campus as cautious tourists in a strange land — if they enter at all.

Participants were heartened to hear of ongoing programs in grade schools, high schools and the college that invite student dialogue about differences and teach awareness about the impact of hurtful language and behaviors.

Some participants expressed the need for more courage and commitment to reach out and speak up where their voices and actions might offer support to a person at risk of exclusion or harassment.

Throughout the conversation was the hope that we could live as one community, valuing the richness of our differences and acting on shared values of respect and compassion — a community where no one experiences isolation or fear of intimidation.

Suggestions at the end of the evening included continued opportunities for interaction among all segments of the community, the chance to hear each other’s stories, training to practice speaking up in support of those at risk and the creation of celebratory public gatherings that demonstrate our commitment to be a welcoming community.

Our community has more to do to live the values that were affirmed in this discussion, and we invite everyone to join in this effort. Initiatives can begin anywhere; your voice could make a difference. Be alert for opportunities to participate as this important conversation continues.

CATHEY CYRUS of Woolwich submitted this commentary on behalf of the members of the Working for Justice Steering Group of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick.

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