Island group seeks Unity in Diversity

Michelle Jasny M.D., Kim Lawrence, Sheila Ralston Bracy, Monica Miller, Louisa Dice, Paul Bracy, Al Schackman and Robert Lane
A group determined to make a difference, the Island Diversity Council gathered at the Howes House in West Tisbury Sunday for their monthly meeting. (From left, front row) Michelle Jasny M.D., Kim Lawrence, Sheila Ralston Bracy. (Back row, from left) Monica Miller holding Louisa Dice, Paul Bracy, Al Schackman, Robert Lane. Photo by Mary Baker

By Pat Waring - July 19, 2007

Did you ever wonder what you would look like if you were born in another country? If your parents were a different nationality or had skin of a different color? The Island Diversity Council aims to give everyone the chance to actually see how their appearance would change if they came from a different ethnic group when they bring the Human Race Machine to the Island late this summer. Because with a goal of increasing awareness and acceptance of ethnic and cultural diversity on the Vineyard, group members believe that seeing ourselves differently could be a good place to start.

Troubled by what they perceived as a lack of acceptance of ethnic and racial diversity here, a handful of Islanders gathered last winter to explore what they could do about it. From that Sunday morning meeting evolved the Island Diversity Council, a determined body that aims to promote ethnic and racial unity and appreciation within Vineyard schools and the wider community. Although focusing especially on youth, the council intends to reach to every segment of the community in its efforts to change attitudes.

The problem, they say, is that, although the Vineyard is largely liberal and open-minded, discriminatory incidents and attitudes exist, often unconsciously.

"I think one of the biggest problems we face is the belief that there are no '-isms' here," wrote Michelle Jasny, VMD of West Tisbury, in an e-mail interview. "Compared to many communities we are very aware and open to diversity, but issues persist, and a lack of willingness to admit that precludes our ability to change it." She and her husband have two children. They Jasny's are a Jewish, multiracial family.

Asked to state her overall hope and goal for the council's work, Ms. Jasny wrote: "A school and Island culture that focuses on embracing all the different facets of our society and on being proactively sensitive about the needs, rights, and feelings of all minorities."

The founders came together for a variety of reasons and concerns. Some had children in Island schools and believed that issues involving prejudice and discrimination often went unaddressed or unacknowledged. Kim Lawrence, director of the council, recalled being disappointed when her suggestion that Vineyard schools provide special programs for minority children were unheeded. Council members say that discrimination can be very subtle and not intentionally malicious, and may simply stem from a lack of understanding.

"I wouldn't call it discrimination as much as a lack of awareness about how to be enriched by diversity and how to help people from other backgrounds assimilate into our community," said Cindy West of Vineyard Haven, one of the council's founders, recalling her experiences as a teacher.

Ms. West has taught young people at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School and adults at English as a Second Language programs and has seen situations where lack of diversity awareness caused difficulty. She recalled working with one young Brazilian student who began the school year with openness and enthusiasm and later became reserved, due to the way he was treated when people did not know how to talk to or approach him. She said this was not an unusual case. "Here we are not sure what to do with people who don't speak our language so we tend to ignore them," she said.

Having worked with and taught minority groups in California, Ms. West said it is very different on the Island where it is less common to encounter people of other ethnicities. In California, she said, many people speak both Spanish and English and Spanish is actively used as a second language, unlike the general practice on the Vineyard.

Ms. West has two sons, the oldest 20 and the younger a 12-year-old boy whom she adopted from Paraguay. She said she was appreciative of the reception her son received on the Island and believes that this community has already come far in working towards acceptance. But she believes there is more to be done.

"I would like to see more diversity training for faculty on an ongoing basis and have that filter down to the students," said Ms. West. "I think people in the schools have already done some excellent training, but I would just like to see it become a regular part of the curriculum, as it is in many off-Island communities and metropolitan areas. I think we're already starting out in a pretty good place and I would like to see the consciousness increase."

"Diversity is not just about race and gender," wrote Sheila Ralston Bracy in a statement to The Times. "It's about class, size, education, vocation, religion, sexual orientation, disability, culture, color and many other 'differences.'"

Ms. Bracy explained that she is Jewish, married to Paul Bracy, an African-American man and longtime dedicated diversity activist, and she has stepchildren and grandchildren of color. "Some people have commented that we truly have a United Nations family," she wrote. All this makes her exceedingly sensitive to racism. Ms. Bracy is a diversity consultant and with her husband operates Collaborative Strategies, providing training in such areas as diversity management and sexual harassment prevention.

Ms. Lawrence, who like her husband David is African American and who has a 12-year old-son, said that she believes unconscious discrimination may take place among young people when they are not taught acceptance early, and especially when prejudice exists among the population at large. "It's the world we live in," she said. "We can't ask more of children than we are willing to give them. Not everyone is open-minded and accepting."

Ms. Lawrence said that racially-motivated incidents do occur in Vineyard schools, sometimes involving physical violence." "We've come so far, but how far have we really come?" she said. "I think we have not come so far racially as we think. Because these [negative racial] feelings have become unacceptable to voice they've now gone underground. But because the feeling still exists when the explosion happens it's far more violent."

Ms. Lawrence, like other council members, is convinced that working with schoolchildren on a consistent basis to teach multi-ethnic appreciation and awareness would make a major difference.

"What better way to promote world peace than taking a good look at ourselves and how we might promote unity/peace within ourselves and all of our relationships?" wrote Monica "Skye" Miller of Oak Bluffs, the mother of two high-school age children. She and her partner, Al Schackman, are active council members. "The more we see the 'me' in 'thee' the better we will be."

The group meets monthly, welcoming guests and new members who wish to learn more about the work. Core members currently number seven and others often attend. Ms. Lawrence says she often engages in e-mail dialogue with individuals on her long list of interested parties.

Changing attitudes and expanding awareness is a tall order, but group members are prepared to work towards their goal in many ways. They did a presentation at the M.V. NAACP's Juneteenth celebration last month and spread the word on Plum TV as well. Members are networking with other community groups with like-minded interests, including the NAACP, the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, and the Brazilian community. This summer's big push is directed at bringing the Human Race Machine to the Island. The ingenious computerized machine is a fully portable unit that allows participants to actually see what their faces would look like with different ethnic characteristics.

Stepping into the booth, one can choose among nationalities and skin colors and even see oneself as older, younger, or with facial anomalies. Two individuals can view what their unborn child might look like. The unit will be set up at the Ag Fair in West Tisbury August 16 through 19 and at the FARM Institute in Edgartown for their FARM Aid music festival on August 25. Rob Goldfarb of the institute said the machine would be an important part of the day, reminding people that "farmers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors."

The council will rent the machine for 12 days and in between the two events will make it available at another location to be determined - but most likely the regional high school. Adults will be asked for a free-will donation although no one will be turned away if they do not pay; children and students will be welcome to use the machine at no cost. Participants will have the opportunity to fill out comment cards after their visit and a workshop is planned for September 10 where those who wish to can share their feelings about the experience. Time and place for this event will be announced soon.

"This is a fun thing the diversity council is doing meant solely to create discussion," said Ms. Lawrence. "People are afraid of the ethnic issue. Seeing themselves in a different light will create discussion in their mind." She explained that the hope is that people will be so struck by the experience that they will be moved to talk about sensitive matters that they normally avoid.

Fund-raising to meet the $5,000 rental fee has been ongoing and Ms. Lawrence announced that the group has already amassed some $3,000 from private donors. She intends to host a festive benefit luncheon for 100 guests at her West Tisbury home on July 29. The private "friends-only" affair will boast an auction of gourmet box lunches donated by local restaurants to be consumed picnic style on the Lawrence lawn and a silent auction with a number of tempting offerings.

Ms. Lawrence noted that $5,000 for 12 days is actually a bargain price because Scott Wolfman, the entrepreneur who handles the five existing machines, has former Vineyard ties. The usual fee is $5,000 per week, she said.

This winter the council plans to sponsor a sign-language workshop facilitated by Bob Lane, West Tisbury assistant principal, and his wife Jill, a teacher. Both have extensive skills and training in this area. The workshop would be available to anyone who wishes to learn sign language.

Council members anticipate turning to Vineyard schools with their suggestions for diversity curriculum at some point in the near future. They will encourage a program of training for educators as well. But first, said Ms. Lawrence, the council wants to solidify its identity as a strong and viable body that's in it for the long haul. She said that like the issues that are not going to go away, the council intends to remain steadfast as well.