Town, YWCA celebrate tolerance at annual event

Members of the First Baptist Church Choir led attendees in song as Greenwich took a stand against racism last week at Town Hall.  — Ken Borsuk photo

Members of the First Baptist Church Choir led attendees in song as Greenwich took a stand against racism last week at Town Hall.
— Ken Borsuk photo

Greenwich took a stand last week, joining with communities all over the country as part of the YWCA’s annual Stand Against Racism.

At a special ceremony at Town Hall, which featured several songs performed by members of the First Baptist Church Choir, people noted how much has been done to promote diversity and understanding to stop racism and discrimination, but also how much still has to be done. Dozens of residents and Town Hall employees attended the April 26 ceremony, which was being held for the fourth year in a row.

“Eliminating racism is a core mission of the YWCA,” said Adrianne Singer, the president and CEO of the YWCA of Greenwich, at the ceremony. “We have been unwavering in our historic battle for racial justice. Since its inception in the 1850s, the YWCA has worked tirelessly to join together with women, girls and people of all ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds in a common goal of peace, justice, freedom, and dignity.”

She added that great progress has been made, but “we must continue to make strides and build better and more understanding and a more cordial society where we call each other by our given names, not vicious labels. We had better learn to confront the worst in us and build up the best in us. We had better learn to move forward with compassion and sympathy.”

Greenwich was far from the only community participating in the national YWCA initiative across 37 states, but it is growing very quickly in the town. This year, Ms. Singer said, there were 58 participating local businesses and organizations in town, including the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Abilis, Temple Sholom, Whole Foods Markets, the town’s Chamber of Commerce, Greenwich Library, JP Morgan Chase Bank, and the Greenwich Post. This is a record number and included churches all over town as well as all of the town’s public and private schools, allowing for events to take place throughout Greenwich.

First Selectman Peter Tesei was one of the lead speakers and said the day’s events “illustrate the acceptance and the diversity and the virtues of our community, and for that I think we should be very happy and take great pride.

“This truly is an important day for our community to stand up and express itself in matters that are important to society,” Mr. Tesei said. “That is, to embrace acceptance of differences, to celebrate our differences and, most important, to look for the similarities in people irrespective of race, color, creed, orientation, and so forth. I think that’s what I look to as I mature in age. You come to really appreciate how we as a humanity are all much alike and have similar problems and similar challenges. And what’s so encouraging for me as a parent is that we can see this through our schools. Children today have a much different perspective on society as they grow and mature because they don’t see their peers for their differences. They see them for what’s similar.”

In addition to Mr. Tesei, the event was also attended by Selectman David Theis, Chief of Police James Heavey, fire Chief Peter Siecienski, and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. Mr. Theis talked about how his experiences as a Greenwich native working at the YMCA of New Haven as a young man showed him what it was like to be a minority but also how his experience growing up in town shaped his perspective.

“I was able to go to Greenwich schools all my life,” Mr. Theis said. “And I think we have a lot to be proud of in this town. We embrace and celebrate diversity. All of my best friends and classmates and teammates frankly throughout school were people of color, and we never thought different about them. In today’s world there seem to be forces that want to divide us instead of unite us, and I pledge personally not to fall prey to that.”

Dr. McKersie also recalled his own youth growing up on the South Side of Chicago, where he was literally placed on his father’s shoulders as a boy to watch a speech from Martin Luther King Jr. He discussed the growing number of minority students in Greenwich as the western part of town becomes a “path of opportunity” for Latino families moving to town.

“Latinos are hundreds of types of people,” Dr. McKersie said. “Asians are hundreds of types of people. African-Americans are hundreds of types of people. White folks are hundreds of types of people. So it’s critical that we understand that.”

The superintendent was joined at the event by two Greenwich High School students who were being honored for their work in combating racism and promoting diversity. Natan Lutt and Annie Zheng are both seniors at the school and spoke about their experiences in town and how seeing people from all backgrounds in school allowed them to become well-rounded.

“The Greenwich Public Schools are a place where people don’t judge you based on race, color or income,” Natan said. “I’ve been in Greenwich for about seven years since I moved from Brazil, and since then I’ve learned to live among the poor and the wealthy and I’ve also learned not to judge based on race or wealth. … Our economic status and our race may define where we live or what we own, but it doesn’t define who we are.”

Annie added, “I think racism is still a very sensitive topic because we like to avoid the fact that we all make judgments. As we’re walking down the street and pass by a stranger, we automatically take some kind of inventory about their appearance. We’re all affected by society’s definition of race. When I talk to someone new or even any of my friends, the subject of academics often comes up and many of them would assume that [because my family is Chinese] I’m an expert in math or science. As much as I enjoy the logic behind that, I’m more interested in history, English and other areas, and when I explain this to people I sometimes see traces of surprise and even disappointment, meaning I feel bad for not meeting their expectations. … So when we do meet someone new and make automatic judgments, we need to have an alarm to remind us that physical characteristics are only skin deep.”

Greenwich residents U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th District) were unable to attend in person but sent statements of support for the ceremony and the YWCA’s work.

“Raising awareness of racism is vital to maintaining a healthy community,” Mr. Blumenthal wrote, noting Connecticut’s long history of investigating racism and discrimination and his own work both in the Senate and as the state’s attorney general.

“The United States is a world leader in the civil rights movement, and over time we have made great strides toward ensuring equal opportunity and social advancement for all,” Mr. Himes wrote. “Although we should be proud of our steady progress as a country, we must acknowledge the ugly truth that racial prejudice and intolerance still exists in our society.”

Because of that, Mr. Himes urged people to take the lessons being shared by the YWCA and its partners and use them year-round, not just on one day.

 

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