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After nearly 60 Southern Maryland residents gathered last month to discuss identity, stereotypes and diversity recently, one thing remained certain: The discussions aren’t over.

The participants were gathered for the Maryland Humanities Council and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights public dialogue project, “Defying Definitions: Rights, Freedoms & Responsibilities: Exploring Our Own Struggles With What ‘Created Equal’ Really Means,” at the Prince Frederick library.

This month, that discussion will move to La Plata.

On Nov. 13, it will come to the Leonardtown library, when the topic will be “Practicing Democracy: What Does ‘Liberty and Justice for All’ Mean to Me?” Participants will be asked to reflect on how they perceive others, how they are perceived by others and what they understand about themselves.

The Maryland Humanities Council and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights earlier launched the 2013 Southern Maryland Public Dialogue Project, “Defying Definitions.” It’s an interactive, community program to engage Marylanders in an ongoing discussion of identity, stereotypes and diversity using the humanities. The program traveled to community venues throughout Southern Maryland collecting resident voices and closing with three public events.

“We are very pleased with the number of people that came out and the diversity of voices and community participation and level of engagement,” Phoebe Stein, executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council, said after the first discussion in Prince Frederick. She said the larger goal of Defying Definitions is “trying to break down stereotypes and reduce conflict and model civil and meaningful discussion.”

Participants at the first discussion were placed into four small groups, where they discussed a photograph and a 1997 poem by Martin Espada titled “Imagine the Angels of Bread.”

In the photo are two young Freedom Riders, a boy and a girl, sitting on a bus with several armed soldiers standing in the bus aisle. The groups discussed what the image made them feel and any details they saw.

In one group, the discussion focused on the subjects’ expressions in the photo. Guffrie Smith, president of the Calvert Collaborative for Children and Youth, said the expression on the two students’ faces showed commitment. While Cleveland Horton said that he agreed, he said there is also a hint of fear in their expressions that is part of the human condition. Jean Wortman said the look on everyone’s face in the photo says, “How did it get this far?”

In another group, Pat Ullberg said the soldiers’ expressions seemed to be conflicting. They appeared to show prejudice toward the two Freedom Riders but also knew what their job was, she explained. Fellow group member Sue Hu surmised that all the subjects in the photo looked uncomfortable.

A majority of the discussion time was spent on the four-stanza poem. Many of the groups noted the poem had an aspect of hope despite the vivid imagery of oppression.

Smith said the repetition of the line “then this is the year” throughout the work gave the poem an aspect of hope.

In another group, Rhonda Crawley pointed out that the oppression in the poem covers all races, ethnicities and situations, from slavery to the Holocaust, to immigrant workers to the poor.

Fellow member Cory Johnson said he felt the poem was a “blending of how a minority is treated in the land ... and why they’re on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.”

Lauretta Grier said the poem demonstrates “We’re all human. Even those in power can fall.”

After some discussion of experiences of oppression, Crawley asked Johnson and Huntingtown High School sophomore Natalie Todd how the discussion made them, as younger people, feel.

Todd said she just moved from a much more diverse community in California where she noticed self-segregation on a daily basis at school, at the bus stop and during lunch.

“I don’t think it’s ever gone away, even though it’s a different degree,” Todd said.

Johnson agreed, saying once society is able to eliminate one form of segregation, there’s another one that festers “right under our noses ... without us knowing.”

In yet another discussion group, a phrase that kept being repeated was, “I am only one person, what can I do?”

Group member Roberta Safer said no one person can do it alone; it takes cooperation and help, like the cooperation and help it took to launch Defying Definitions.

Safer said her takeaway from the discussion was to keep working. She said the night’s discussion reminded her of a Jewish saying: “It’s not up to you to create, but to continue.”

Several other members said their takeaway words were “perseverance,” keeping hope alive and that people are capable of change.

Kate Quinn said the night’s discussion reaffirmed for her that the conversation must continue.

ascott@somdnews.com



If you go

The Maryland Humanities Council and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights have launched a public dialogue project, “Defying Definitions.” The first event was held in September at the Calvert County library in Prince Frederick.

Other events will be held at College of Southern Maryland at 8730 Mitchell Road in La Plata from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 28; and at the Leonardtown library from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 13.

The Nov. 13 event in Leonardtown is called “Practicing Democracy: What Does ‘Liberty and Justice for All’ Mean to Me?” Call 301-475-2846 to reserve a spot or go to http://host.evanced.info/stmalib/evanced/eventsignup.asp?ID=12980 to register online.

Go to www.defyingdefinitions.org for more information. Participants also can join the discussion online at that website.

“Both the dialogues and the website are designed to spark interactive discussion between community members around focused topics, including age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and disability,” according to a Maryland Humanities Council statement.