On Monday, October 28, the College of Southern Maryland’s Diversity Institute hosted “Defying Definitions: Justice for All?” Sponsored by the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights and the Maryland Humanities Council, this community conversation about freedom and equality was designed to challenge participants to reflect on how they perceive others, how they are perceived by others, and what they understand about themselves.
The event offered a rare opportunity for neighbors to enjoy a meal together and to share experiences and perceptions of the world. Working in facilitated small groups, we discussed a photograph and a poem.
I have a degree in language and literature, and I’ve seen firsthand the ways that the humanities can transform thoughts and lives. But it’s been a long time since I’ve found myself in a place where I was able to sit down with people I didn’t know, to use the humanities to engage in civil discourse about difficult topics. Our culture sometimes seems to shut us apart from one another, but the humanities provide a unique vehicle for bringing us together and generating honest and revealing discussion.
- Share your experience with stereotypes, identity, and diversity on DefyingDefinitions.org.
Guiding the conversation, the facilitators, with their clear but gentle articulation of “the rules” (be concise, respect others, be comfortable in moments of silence), helped to create a safe place for sharing. I tend to be quiet in groups like this, but the format created openings for everyone to participate. I was drawn out irresistibly by the opportunity to have a serious dialogue, framed in the context of the group’s personal, but shared, experience with the photograph and the poem. Art created space for the conversation, allowing us to transcend the ways that we may have defined ourselves or others prior to the conversation.
“Imagine the Angels of Bread,” by Martin Espada, illustrates what can happen if “this is the year” that the traditional power structures and values shift. This poem, which we read aloud together, was described by a fellow group member as being all about “flipping the script.” Our conversation that evening reminded and inspired me to look for the opportunities I have to flip the script in my own life: to see the story through others’ eyes and to help build a community where every story is heard and valued.
Laura Ford is Vice President of the Accokeek Foundation, a nonprofit that connects people to history, agriculture, and nature in Piscataway Park. Prior to joining the Foundation, Laura was a project manager and technical writer for the Maryland Center for Environmental Training. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Language and Literature from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an Executive Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. Laura is a senior program officer with the Corina Higginson Trust. Laura was raised in Charles County, where she lives on a small farm with her family.