‘Community Conversations’ Continue on Thursday

            When Tri-Town Against Racism started in April 2020, there were only three members. When asked about the most significant change they had seen since then, Executive Director Jason Chisholm answered simply, “growth.”

            TTAR has been busy in the two-and-a-half years since its founding and certainly growing. The grassroots organization’s projects, past, present and future are as diverse as their goals, including “Good Night Tri-Town,” a program that encourages volunteers to record themselves reading a diverse picture book of their choice for children of preschool to early elementary age.

            Along the same lines are the Little Free Diverse Libraries, including the one at Ned’s Point that was vandalized in 2021 and restored this year and their student book drives.

            “We’ve worked with the Marion Arts Center, we’ve worked with the Mattapoisett Museum,” TTAR vice president Alison Noyce said. “We’ve been able to found these relationships with organizations in order to help us help the community.”

            One such partnership led to the Diverse Family Portrait Project, where volunteer professional photographers Maggie Howland and Janelle Lapointe took portraits showcasing racially diverse families of the Tri-Town area. The pictures were then displayed at the Mattapoisett Museum, which turned out to be a big hit.

            Rhonda Baptiste, TTAR’s director of Community Engagement, emphasized how important it is for visuals like that to be shared. “My kid should see books in the classroom with families that look like our family. He should see kids on the bulletin board that look like him and his friends. That should happen for every kid and every human,” she said.

            Much like the reaction to the Diverse Family Portrait Project, the community’s response to TTAR has been overwhelmingly positive but not entirely free of backlash. The most glaring example was when the TTAR’s Little Free Diverse Library at Ned’s Point was vandalized to the point of destruction in late 2021, only three short months after it was built.

            Immediately, Tri-Town residents reached out, donating books to replace the ones that had been ruined. Craig Collyer, the craftsman behind the original Little Free Library, offered to rebuild it even better than before. They ended up with more books than could fit on the shelves and after a reopening ceremony, spirits were decidedly raised.

            “Most of it doesn’t come from a place of hate,” Baptiste said. “It just comes from a lack of exposure, and … and ignorance.”

            It was the positive response following the vandalism that led TTAR to decide it was time for an open forum.

            “We wanted to make sure we weren’t coming to the community with ‘here’s what needs to be done, here’s how it’s going to be done and this is what you all need to do.’ We wanted to create … sort of a space where we can be available to the community to have dialogue,” Chisholm said. “The Tri-Town community has continuously come together during the past two years to engage in meaningful events to address concerns about racism, inequality with a goal of creating a more inclusive and supportive region.”

            A post on the TTAR Facebook page reads, addressing the decision to hold such a dialogue: “During the (Little Free Diverse Library) reopening ceremony, TTAR leadership was able to engage in such meaningful conversation with community members that we felt compelled to rename our community outreach and engagement events, formerly referred to as ‘Town Halls,’ to Community Conversations.”

            So it was out of the wake of a tragedy that led to the joy of support that these Community Conversations were founded, something Baptiste wanted to emphasize. “The positive and the support far outweigh the negative, for sure,” she said.

            The Community Conversations are open to any Tri-Town residents that wish to attend. Noyce noted that most TTAR events were attended by a diverse group, not just in background but across the board.

            “It’s a huge mix of people. At our first book club, the youngest person there was 18 years old, and the oldest person there was turning 89 the next day,” Noyce recalled, viewing the generational mix as a strength. “It’s definitely heartening to all of us to see the range of community members that care about the work we’re doing and want to be involved.”

            At the core of the organization is a mission statement of acceptance, support and communication, something the members were eager to highlight.

            “We’re trying to create a space in the Tri-Town and beyond, where every individual – and we mean every individual – can show up and be their best self,” said Chisholm. “We can disagree, we can walk away from a conversation not seeing eye to eye, but the hope is that we at least have a newfound respect for where the other person might be coming from.

            “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree with what they say or (what) they think, and we’re not saying, ‘You’d better agree with us and see the world the way we see it.’”

            Instead, TTAR has adopted a listen-first, talk-second strategy designed to meet the needs of the community, which came into play when discussing the book, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” by former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho.

            “There are people who would identify as white who say they don’t have people of color in their social circle, but they have questions. So, great! Let’s have those people come ask questions and have people of color that can answer those questions,” Chisholm said.

            “We can talk about this stuff,” Noyce agreed. “It doesn’t need to be whispered or secret or shameful. We can have these conversations. And like Jason said, they can be uncomfortable, but we’re happy to have them.”

            The first Community Conversation held via Zoom was hailed as a “huge success” by Baptiste. “We had lots of really good questions, and people stepping up after saying they wanted to be involved.”

The second in the series is taking place Thursday, July 28, from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm at Rochester Memorial School. The group is hopeful that this will be a regular occurrence.

            Chisholm noted that those approaching the group with skepticism or misgivings are exactly who TTAR wants to hear from. “There are not enough people who are courageous enough to come to us directly and ask,” he said.

            “We’re ready to have conversations with people.” Noyce added.

            Those seeking to get involved can attend the Community Conversation on Thursday, July 28, or look to the Tri-Town Against Racism Facebook page for more information. The group also has a website, accessible through the Facebook page, and those looking to reach out directly can email the group at tritownagainstracism@gmail.com.

            When asked what message they would send to Tri-Town residents to better understand TTAR’s ideals, Noyce spoke up.

            “We care about our entire community. … We don’t want people – this is going to sound silly, but we don’t want people to be afraid of us. We’re a community group,” said Noyce, repeating the message. “We care about our entire community.”

By Jack MC Staier

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