Celebrate don’t discriminate.
That was one of the messages Ridgefield students championed during the Stand Up to Hate event in Ballard Park on June 10.
The gathering was a response to a series of swastikas drawings and graffiti, and other forms of hate speech, that have marred the town over the last 18 months.
It was not the only event focused on ending bigotry that day. Three hours before the rally in the park — and a few blocks away, the town’s Youth Commission unveiled its Kindness Mural on the side of The Barn Teen Center.
High school junior Sarah de Lange said she came up with the Ballard Park event after she discovered a swastika etched into a table in her art classroom in September 2017. A teacher directed her to chisel it out with a small knife.
“I’d just like to see them being drawn less, or not at all,” de Lange told The Press.
The rally drew a crowd of about a hundred people to the north side of Ballard Park, where different forms of hate speech have been uncovered dating back to November 2016. The organizers set up on the stage commonly used for summer CHIRP concerts — which was itself graffitied with racial slurs in incident last summer.
Becca Cohen, another student organizer, said she found a swastika drawn on the door of her English classroom in November 2017.
“Is this a swastika?” Cohen recalled her teacher asking her at the time. Cohen, a junior, told the teacher that it was.
“They had to bleach it off the door,” Cohen said.
Students suggested confronting the swastikas directly will be more effective, rather than the town brushing over the issue.
“If we expose the problem, then at least that’s the first step, instead of ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away,” said Ellie Carter, a freshman who also helped organize the event.
Cohen brushed aside a question about whether the year had been defined by student activism. “People are calling it the next student activist movement since the 70s, or whatever — I think our generation is invested in our future,” she told The Press.
Rabbi David Reiner, of Congregation Shir Shalom, spoke at the June 10 event. In his remarks, he alluded to other acts of protest by the youth.
“We’re at a time in our country here where we see the voices of our young people being amplified. It’s amazing to see some of our young students here in Ridgefield amplifying their voices together,” Rabbi Reiner said. “This is the power that we have as people — when we organize our voices together, we’re able to speak truth to power and make a change in the world, we’re able to make our world a better place.”
Ben Spiegelman, a senior at Ridgefield high, said that he first remembers being confronted with a swastika in his freshman year.
“But what I noticed — and I think most disappointed by — was not that it kept happening, but it was that people stopped caring,” he said. “It’s a symbol that, again being Jewish, that never loses its significance to me, no matter how many times I see it. But I think to the general school populace, it was the kind of thing that became like a regular occurrence.”
A few hours before, the town youth commission pulled the wraps off of the kindness mural on the Governor Street side of The Barn.
“It’s truly a wonderful addition to our community, and such a highly visible spot as well,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi, shortly before youth commissioners Shane Bowler and Emily Furfaro tore the black plastic sheeting off the mural.
Some 70 or so residents were gathered for the unveiling.
Artist Bruce Hunter, who designed the mural with his wife Joanne, said the mural was purposefully non-representational. The couple chose bright colors — reds and oranges dominate the mural — to be “warm and friendly,” he said.
“Being an abstraction, it is what it is when you look at it, instead of pushing one message,” he told The Press.
As the event closed, a dozen members of the Ridgefield Chorale serenaded those gathered with a song for the occasion — “Imagine,” by John Lennon.
“For the sixteen years I’ve been involved, I think what we’ve tried to build is a community and a family culture where kids care about each other,” said Mike Flynn, the executive director of the Ridgefield Boys and Girls Club.
The Club took over running The Barn two years ago.
“We use a simple phrase, which is ‘compliments, not criticisms,” Flynn said. “And I think we start at a young age — really going back to the basics of treating each other the same way, the older kids looking out for the younger kids. I think that’s what we try to model every day.”