Lakes Region Community College President Larissa Baia

LACONIA — For the nation, and the 33 Lakes Region participants and panelists who tuned into to a celebration of Martin Luther King Day by Zoom, the civil rights leader’s legacy and message of peaceful protest, and unity and equality lives today – as a work in progress.

For Candace Davis, a local mother of a half-African son, the quest involves virtue-based learning at school and home – a focus on values that make for a more compassionate, understanding and cohesive culture.

Sometimes living in an area that is overwhelmingly white makes it difficult for children of color to feel like they are the same as everyone else, Davis said. Her son lives in an uncomfortable spotlight of standing out where there are few or no children who look like him – an uneasy position for people of any age.

Davis, who spoke Sunday at the community-wide online discussion hosted by the Laconia Human Relations Committee, said it remains paramount to educate ourselves and our children about historical events that shape who we are today.

“What’s missing most in our society is virtue-based teaching – teaching our kids to be kind and compassionate, and to have understanding” that translates to how we relate to and think of one another. “As a society we’re taught to be selfish, competitive and materialistic,” Davis said, “and that’s the only thing that will get us ahead in this world.”

Change, she said, requires a conscious – and conscientious – re-orientation at home and school. “Virtue-based teaching as a family, about empathy, love, kindness and compassion to each other, is an important step for us to take in society.”

At a time when most of America, including the Lakes Region, is struggling to make sense of disturbing events that have made people feel insecure as a community and a nation, the Human Relations Committee is taking steps to be a sounding board and healing presence – as well as an influencer of awareness and local opinion. 

Although groups dedicated to tolerance and combating injustice are not uncommon in larger and more diverse areas – and often arise from grassroots efforts following unsettling events – Laconia’s committee,  supported by Mayor Andrew Hosmer, may be unique in that it’s a municipal organization – essentially, part of city government. It’s a city-endorsed step toward normalizing openness and fostering understanding and empathy toward people who may be different for many reasons, including race, religion, political opinions and life experience.

The committee and its efforts may be one model for how coming together for something good can be expedited at the local level.  It’s a values-oriented committee dedicated to the transformation and rebirth of ideals that shaped America – and the simple art of compassion, and understanding where someone else is coming from.

“The one thing I note many times is loneliness,” said Margaret Donnelly, a committee member whose parents are Japanese and Chinese. “I don’t see people of color on a daily basis, or anyone who looks like me. To me racism, just doesn’t make sense. Having a safe place to live and have children get an education” should be a universal goal.

Especially now, the committee’s goal is to unite residents around values that seem swept aside by the recent riptide of disturbing events – events that only point to the polarization in politics and society today.

Dr. King’s hopes and dreams – summarized in his poetic and heart-felt speech in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial – are summarized by his sentence that, for many Americans, stands as a reminder of where we should, and still could be, as a united country: “I have a dream that my four little children will live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“The Civil War has never stopped because we never have become reconciled with our situation,” said David Stamps, chair of the Laconia Human Relations Committee, which has 10 to 12 members appointed by the mayor. “Racial, social and economic inequalities persist. Hate, bigotry and intolerance also persist. We must work to erase the gap between haves and have-nots, and work to stop hate in its tracks wherever we see it,” Stamps said. “E pluribus unum – out of many, one.” It means our “shared destiny and purpose as one. We need to celebrate differences of race, ethnicity, ideology and orientation.”

“Violence will never win the fight, because violence only begets more violence, ending in shattered families in every situation,” said Stamps. “I reject Antifa.” It’s important to “stand firmly for what you believe, but not to the point that you hurt someone.”

“I believe in nonviolent protests,” said the Rev. Judith Wright, pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Laconia, and a panelist for the event. “Hatred and bitterness never cure the disease of fear.  Only love can do that.”

Especially in light of current events, King’s “aspirational speech” seems as relevant today as it was in the tempestuous 1960s, said Hosmer. “We are 58 years beyond that speech and I think it seems like we haven’t gone far enough” to make enduring change.

Dr. Larissa Baia, president of Lakes Region Community College and a panelist, said she has witnessed movement forward in reducing poverty and increasing access to higher education. More people can “live where you want to live, and identify as who you want to identify as,” which are significant strides in personal freedom.

Although significant changes have occurred in the racial landscape over the last 60 years, the 2018 census pointed to significant gaps, which have narrowed slightly in the last two years, according to some government indicators. The results of the current census are not out yet. But the 2018 report showed that 18.8 percent of Blacks, 15.7 percent of Hispanics and  7.3 percent of whites were living in poverty – a sad statement on the inequities between races and ethnic groups in America that endure.

“Even though we have moved substantially, we have to look at the gaps that still exist,” including the  racial injustice which prompted the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Baia said.

Wright remembers segregation growing up in LaJolla, California.  She said there have been “tremendous gains in opportunities for people, no matter who they are. What’s holding us back is the notion that whites are superior to other races” – an idea that came from 15th century Europe, she said. “We need to let go of that privilege and allow other races to be equal.” Inequity and unfairness shows up today in healthcare delivery, in “environmental racism” which occurs when communities deposit toxic waste near communities of color, and in the inordinately high rates of prosecution and imprisonment of Blacks, including for drug crimes, said Wright, who raised two white children and two children of color.

A significant barrier to positive change is unconscious bias. “The lens through which we view” the problems of others “is bundled up with our own backgrounds, experiences and ethnicities,” said David Osman, a Human Relations Committee member and panelist. “One metric that’s hard to measure is what’s in the human heart. Ultimately, justice is a one-on-one kind of thing.”

Osman cited findings from the legal nonprofit, The Innocence Project, which showed that African-American men have been convicted of crimes “they could not and did not commit,” because evidence wasn’t presented at the time, including DNA evidence. “Black men were coming out of prison 25 years later, sentenced for rape when they were clearly innocent,” Osman said.

“We have the privilege of being in the shadow of Dr. King. Young John Lewis, we live in his shadow, too,” said Osman. “We need to develop as a country and adhere to that moral compass that we’re all capable of watching, adhering to and following.”

“So much of great changes in civilization have come after violence” included in the experience of Native Americans, and the two world wars, Hosmer said. “The historical American narrative is that might makes right…good over evil.” But the “power of nonviolence characterized the life of Dr. Martin Luther King,” who was a transformative voice for the liberties and rights of all Americans, including Blacks and others who have been see as ‘less-than.’

“We’re all influenced by our own opportunities and our own narratives, which don’t always work towards growing together,” said Hosmer.

The immediate goal is to make sure that everyone, including people of color and from different groups, has an active seat at the table of education, opportunity and democracy – and “to ensure that that table is open and accessible,” said Baia.

“The goal is not to pretend that I don’t carry prejudice, but to be aware and to see how those prejudices influence others,” Baia said. “It’s about recognizing how I contribute to a system that discriminates against others.”

She said Lakes Region Community College’s current role includes preparing individuals to work in a muliti-cultural world, and “to value individuals who are like them or not like them. We’re preparing firefighters and nurses and people who are serving the community in direct ways. We want them to go out in the community, valuing people who are different, and serve with respect, valuing each individual, whoever they are,” Baia said.

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