Hate, prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism — a smorgasbord of humankind’s worst instincts and ugliest mental habits — were on the menu as more than 40 town leaders gathered for a morning of talk and truth-telling, followed by lunch and a discussion of how Ridgefield’s social climate can be made more tolerant and welcoming in an age of growing national diversity.

“Swastikas, language, racial slurs … it’s not just about religion,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “There seems to be a general undertone in our community. You see little bits of things here and there. We need to confine it and lock it up.”

Following at least five instances of hate messages — mostly swastikas, also racist words — being found as graffiti in Ridgefield High School or Ballard Park over the last year, Marconi worked with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to organize the workshop. The ADL is an organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and hate.

Marconi invited a broad swath of town and school leaders — school Superintendent Karen Baldwin and all nine school principals, town department heads, board and commission members — to the program, which lasted much of the day Tuesday, Dec. 5. The next day, the ADL team was scheduled to present a program — “Names Can Really Hurt Us” — at Ridgefield High School. It’s something they’ve done regularly, if not annually, in recent years.

Marji Shapiro of the ADL said the organization works regularly with communities that have experienced some kind of incident exposing the presence of prejudice.

“It’s not that the incident happened; it’s how they respond,” she said.

She was impressed that Ridgefield had arranged a program taking a big chunk of the day for numerous town and school leaders.

“They really are taking this very seriously,” she said.

The vast bulk of programs the ADL gives are aimed at young people.

“People think it’s the kids when there’s an incident of hate,” Shapiro said. “We all need to learn how to respectfully disagree with each other. We have to learn how to share our stories.”

Schools

The schools are a venue where prejudices surface — three of the five recent incidents of bigoted graffiti were at the high school — but Dr. Baldwin didn’t think students should be the only focus of concern.

“We have almost 5,000 kids who come to school seven hours a day, and the nature of our interaction is social,” she said. “Sometimes an interaction can be hurtful — racist, biased …

“How do we raise the conversation in the community to be focused on care and regard and respect for all?”   

Racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia may stand out as society’s most ingrained prejudices, but there are many. Some may seem more virulent, but all are cut form the same cloth — identifying people as members of a group, and demeaning them because of it.

People may express prejudice to mask their own feelings of inferiority.

“Sometimes, a perpetrator started off as a target,” Shapiro said. “Often we find it’s a hurting person, themselves.”

All kinds of biases find expression.

“It’s about life — male, female, white, black,” Marconi said.

He offered an example of one of Ridgefield’s subtle but enduring biases.

“There’s a feeling in town: Unless you were born here, you’re not really a part of town,” said Marconi, himself a Ridgefield native.

Town IT Director Andrew Neblett responded in a half-teasing way by saying, yes, he had experienced anti-“computer geek” prejudice.

“Oh, yeah. But I could care less,” he said. “I learned long ago you can’t let them win.”

“It’s definitely a stereotype,” he added.

Marconi later shared a memory from his life.

“The first time I walked into, I think it was Norwalk, a Baptist church, and I was the only white guy in the building, I said, ‘Now I know what it feels like,’” he recalled.

‘Pyramid of hate’

The program used a “pyramid of hate” visual, with broad-based, relatively minor problem behaviors leading to less common but progressively more serious offenses.

The bottom step was “acts of bias,” which are “jokes, rumors, stereotyping, insensitive remarks, and non-inclusive language.”

The next, narrower but more problematic, step was for “acts of prejudice,” including “scapegoating, ridicule, dehumanization, social avoidance, marginalizing, slurs/name calling.”

Then came “acts of discrimination,” such as “harassment” and “social exclusion.”

Still narrower but more troublesome were “acts of violence — assault, threats, vandalism, desecration, murder, rape, arson, terrorism.”

The top, smallest step — the peak of the pyramid of hate — was “genocide, the deliberate, systematic extermination of an entire people.”

Roles played

The ADL identified four roles people play in situations in which prejudice is expressed. They can be the “target,” the “perpetrator” of prejudice, a “bystander,” or an “ally” to the victim.

Near the end of the program, people were asked what they’d learned that they could apply in their lives.

“To stand as an ally more frequently,” said Democratic Registrar of Voters Cindy Bruno.

Shapiro said “anything that’s ally behavior” can help targets of prejudice feel less alone.

It can take courage.

RHS Principal Stacey Gross said training programs at the high school had prompted good actions and unfortunate reactions.

“Kids are behaving as an ally, and other kids are coming after them for that,” she said.

Finance board member Amy Freidenrich spoke of kids’ need for ethical and moral discussion and guideposts, and the importance of parents — whatever their religious inclinations — keeping spiritual practice part of kids’ lives. Too often, the activities of growing up in suburbia today — soccer, fencing, music, dance — push out church or synagogue or other sources of moral grounding.

“As busy as kids get, whatever your spiritual service is, think twice before your kids push that off the plate to put in another activity,” she said.

Sports community

“What’s not represented here is the sports community,” said Selectman Steve Zemo. He suggested providing coaches with “a playbook of dos and don’ts” to be worked into youth sports programs.

“Kids listen to coaches,” he said.

Shapiro agreed, saying a large proportion of calls the ADL gets for community programs come in the wake of incidents where prejudice came out at sports contests. She mentioned fans chanting “build the wall” — something that has happened at FCIAC games last year.

The return of peace

People felt the program was positive.

“It’s a great opportunity to broaden the discussion and bring more people into the conversation,” Baldwin said. “How do you help people embrace diversity, embrace differences and focus on those differences with a lens on compassion and curiosity, and not keeping people away?”

The event closed with ADL facilitator Oleyetta Priester reading a quote from Anne Frank: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. … I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”