A Community Conversation

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Thursday May 11, 2017

Between the Rebel name change, voting to pass a district budget, and school threats and lockdowns, the climate in South Burlington has been laden with controversy. To help guide the city on a path toward healing, the South Burlington Community Justice Center facilitated “A Community Conversation” on Tuesday, May 2 at the Community Bible Church as an opportunity for community members to express themselves in a respectful, judgement-free environment.

The event also brought together the community’s faith leaders. Representatives from All Saints Episcopal Church, Ascension Lutheran Church, Community Bible Church, Faith United Methodist Church, The Islamic Society of Vermont, St. John Vianney Church, St. Timothy Anglican Mission, South Burlington Life Church, and Rabbi James Glazier opened the event by sharing their hope for open and respectful dialogue as the community finds its way through these challenging issues.

“Tonight isn’t about waving a magic wand and then all of the things we’ve been wrestling with in the community will be fixed or resolved when we walk out the door,” Community Justice Center Coordinator Lisa Bedinger said as she addressed a crowd of over 100 participants.

“Tonight is about taking some steps together. Having real conversations can be hard. Sometimes just sitting down together changes things.”
That idea was put to the test as Community Justice Center volunteers each facilitated a small circle of participants as they processed through a series of questions. Each group was provided with a “talking piece” that went around the circle indicating an individual’s turn to speak.

The rules were simple: no interrupting the person with the talking piece, no labeling, and no persuading others to agree with a viewpoint.

The discussions revealed that many were experiencing different emotions around the collective and individual impacts of current events, but a shared common goal was evident: the need for deeper understanding of each other.

“The incident—[threats and lockdowns]— I’m shocked by how much this affected me,” resident and parent Tricia Gustafson shared.

Gustafson said she generally stays out of South Burlington politics, as she is involved with state and federal issues. She has since made a shift to tune in more and feel the effects. “That shift for me in the last three weeks has been interesting. It’s created more emotion and intensity for me.”

“The middle and high school students should get a chance to participate with adults or on their own about all community issues. It’s never too early to get involved at any level. South Burlington needs new and more positive energy,” she added.

Resident Maureen Rees, who attended SBHS in the 60’s, originally wanted to keep the Rebel name but has accepted that it would change.

“Whatever we’re going to be, I’ll be just as proud of the school and the traditions,” she said. “But I have empathy for those who are attached to the name. For some, it is their identity.”

City Manager Kevin Dorn spoke about the need for unity. He said, “For me, at the end of the day, I’m responsible for the safety of 18,000 people who live here and the 10,000 people who come and visit or work here every day.” He mentioned the community forum on opiate addiction that was postponed due the lockdown, and is rescheduled for Thursday, May 11.

“We have an enormous opiate problem. We have a human trafficking problem, we have a prostitution problem, and we have a broken mental health system in the state and region. In order to tackle those problems as well, we need to come together; when the community is divided the way it is right now, it’s harder to do those things.”

Tim Barritt, a city councilor attending as an individual citizen, built more upon Dorn’s statement. “I hope that this [discussion] instills some perspective of this problem versus other problems.”

Despite being in favor of a name change, that does not mean the memories go away. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve screamed the Rebel name passionately during athletic events, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it because it’s for the kids,” Barritt said. “We’re all from the same community. We all have the same goals.”

“I have a great belief in the power of listening,” said Rev. David Hamilton of All Saints Episcopal Church in South Burlington. “When someone’s respectfully listened to, there’s a kind of bond that’s formed that goes beyond the issues that might be on the table. I believe that by listening to one another, we can build community and bring peace.”

Going Forward

As facilitators went around the room and summarized general takeaways from their groups, the room remained silent. But everyone was listening.

There were recurring themes that arose from each pocket of participants. Some points were about self-reflection. For example, making a conscientious effort to practice kindness and forgiveness, and to listen to viewpoints that differ from your own, were identified. One group said that the adults need to set a good example for the students.

Other ideas were more pragmatic in nature. The most popular sentiment was to re-create more of these conversations to include all voices, both adults and students. On the macro level, a suggestion was made to reach out to other communities that have dealt with divisive problems to see how they have handled similar circumstances.

Bedinger summed up the evening saying, “The biggest takeaway from the event is that people want to have more opportunities to have conversations like this and for students to have opportunities as well.”

In the meantime, community members left the event feeling encouraged to continue to reach out and to engage in civil and respectful conversations.

About the Community Justice Center: The South Burlington Community Justice Center is a program of the City of South Burlington and the South Burlington Police Department. Its mission is to create and enhance the sense of community in South Burlington by fostering relationships, honest dialogue, respect and healing. CJC strives to prevent and address crime and conflict in South Burlington through a restorative justice system which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community. For more information, visit www.sburl.com/cjc, contact CJC Coordinator Lisa Bedinger at 802-846-4215, or visit its location above the police department at 19 Gregory Dr.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent