By Jarret Liotta
They may not have found all the answers to curing — or even curbing — microaggressions based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion, but tonight a group of residents and town officials strived to talk openly about the questions.
Students and moderators John Dodig, former Staples High School principal, and Elaine Daignault, director of the Department of Human Services, listen to comments . (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
A forum called “Microaggressions: Continuing the Conversation” was hosted at — and sponsored by — the Westport Arts Center in conjunction with the Westport Arts Advisory Committee.
The term “microsaggressions” is described by Wikipedia as being used “for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group.”
The discussion, moderated by Elaine Daignault, director of the Department of Human Services, and former Staples High School (SHS) principal John Dodig, used essays from the recent TEAM Westport Teen Diversity Essay Contest to spark discussion of how we all — regardless of our personal identifiers — commit these thoughtless acts, and what can be done about it.
“I don’t think the vast majority of people here in our community … in our country, even know it’s a problem,” said one woman, who joined around 35 others at the event. “So if you don’t know there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.”
But the content shared in the eloquent essays written by the four teen finalists in the contest — short selections of which were read aloud to open the event — demonstrated that generally thoughtless and sometimes malicious comments in the form of jokes, jibes or just weird questions have a significant impact, especially on younger people, who may not have the tools to cope with them. (See WestportNow April 3, 2019 for text of essays.)
Essay finalists, including from left, Chet Ellis, 17, Daniel Boccardo, 18, Angela Ji, 17, and Olivia Sarno, 16, at tonight’s event. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
“I think that we were aghast that that happens here,” said a representative of one of the five smaller groups assembled during the first half of the forum to facilitate discussion.
She and others were taken aback by a range of experiences by the four SHS students. They included a guidance counselor giving a boy of Venezuelan heritage a pamphlet on how to register for college aid when your parents are illegal aliens, despite the fact that his are both U.S. citizens.
Dodig shared about his personal experience with finally coming out as gay at age 60. “I would go to a party and someone would say, ‘You don’t look gay.’”
“And what do I say? Thank you?!” he asked rhetorically.
“One of the things we talked about was whose responsibility it is to do something when these things happen,” said one group representative during a sharing and brainstorming session in the second half of the forum.
They and others agreed that, at least at school, it was not the responsibility of the young person experiencing a microaggression to be equipped to handle it on their own. Instead, there was a need for a larger involvement from the school system that should focus on equipping teachers with tools and support for open dialogues.
Former Staples High School principal John Dodig listens to a group discussion on microaggressions. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
Several of the students shared stories about particular SHS classes in which the teacher had begun the semester inviting students to talk openly about such issues as race and gender identity, also stressing there should be a safe way to do it.
They said, however, this was the exception at SHS, where people noted most teachers are not only fearful about bringing up what can be a very touchy subject, they are also not sure how to handle it appropriately.
“A lot of teachers are afraid to have these conversations because they’re afraid they won’t have the right response,” Daignault said.
“A lot of times the teachers say something that’s right, but then the parents come down on them and there’s no support from the administration,” said TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey.
Speaking to the “white-dominant culture” that’s inherently linked to many microaggressions, Alison Patton, pastor at Saugatuck Congregational Church, said, “We can’t do this work without while folks in particular being very uncomfortable.”
She said there has to not only be a “safe space” to hold these discussion, but also a “brave space,” wherein people will take the risks of sharing openly and honestly,” even if they must “sit with their own screw-ups long enough to learn from them.”
Along with empowering teachers to open dialogues on the issue, one woman said the town itself could take measures to expand diversity across the facets of its brand, such as with the pictures it might have on the town website and artwork displayed around the town.
“It’s almost like you need a marketing campaign for the community,” she said.