2018-02-23 / Front Page

Something to talk about

SMCC students engage in ‘Real Talk’
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

As Guy Francois, right, looks on, Matthew Aceto, center, makes a comment during a “Real Talk” event held at Southern Maine Community College. The open forum, the first in a series of monthly explorations of current events entitled, “America in Stress – Where Do We Go Now?” is sponsored by the SMCC chapter of the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Duke Harrington photo) As Guy Francois, right, looks on, Matthew Aceto, center, makes a comment during a “Real Talk” event held at Southern Maine Community College. The open forum, the first in a series of monthly explorations of current events entitled, “America in Stress – Where Do We Go Now?” is sponsored by the SMCC chapter of the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — In hopes of combating, or at least understanding, the extreme political polarization that has gripped our country since the 2016 presidential election, students at Southern Maine Community College are staging a series of open forums.

A continuation of sorts of the internal “Real Talks” the school sponsored from a few semesters starting in 2015, the new events are offered under the title, “America in Stress – Where Do We Go Now?”

The series, scheduled to run monthly through the end of the spring semester, is sponsored jointly by the SMCC Student Senate and the local school chapter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama that offers legal advocacy in civil rights and public interest litigation.

Topics of discussion at the kick-off session held Feb. 14 included the “Take a Knee” protests that have gripped the National Football League this season, and the protest and counterdemonstration over the removal of Confederate statues last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in one death and at least 19 injuries.

Future events, which are open to the public, are expected to include the #MeToo movement, approaches to immigration enforcement and reform, and the recent spate of school shootings, among other highly charged social issues.

“I’m the type of person who is really into dialogue – not debate, but dialogue, because I feel like those are two different things,” said Dorcas Ngaliemu, a member of the student senate who also is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center club. Ngaliemu spearheaded revival of the Real Talk series and moderated the first forum.

“What happened before though was that everyone had just three minutes to speak to the topic and that was it. So, it wasn’t really a conversation, just a series of statements,” she said. “I felt like we needed more of that series, but with more of an open exploration of ideas.”

Ngaliemu, who had looked into starting a social justice club before hearing of the poverty center’s interest in establishing a branch at the southern Maine campus, launched the new series last semester, using short video clips to prompt discussion. This semester, the clips are still used as a starting point, but Ngaliemu says she’s actually trying to steer at least some of the commentary in a conservative direction.

“Because our school is very liberal, I try to focus some of the discussion that way, because we don’t have a lot of those views in this space, so that we can respond to them, and not just have this thing where everybody agrees with each other,” Ngaliemu said.

Although that might seem on the surface to be a recipe for angry exchanges, Ngaliemu starts each session by preaching respect for free speech and the open exchange of ideas and opinions. For students, especially those majoring in political science, who may wish to enter the political arena one day, it is important to test their ideas by “getting into a space where they are uncomfortable,” where they can be exposed to opposing beliefs and concepts, Ngaliemu said.

“For civility of discourse, and diversity of viewpoints, these talks have indeed proven themselves, and the strength of a community college like (Southern Maine Community College)” said adjunct history professor Herb Adams, who is faculty advisor to the school’s Southern Poverty Law Center club – which, he notes, is the only one of its kind in Maine.

“These talks show that a civil exchange of opinions and ideas is possible,” Adams said. “And it’s at this stage of life when that is most important, I think, allowing students to gain that experience, because out in the rest of life, which is not structured like a college auditorium full of friends, it will become much more difficult. But the hope is that student by student, and campus by campus, you begin to spread the idea that in America, our strength is in diversity, but also in civility and respect.”

Many of the students, as well as a few non-students in attendance for the Feb. 14 talk, said they found the Real Talk series to be beneficial, in part because it happens live, in person.

“We’ve become a country of extreme views, on the right and the left,” said criminal justice major Chris Higgins, a self-described conservative. “I think it’s so easy to promote that mentality online, because there are no real repercussions, other than to get unfollowed if someone doesn’t like you. That’s the difference between debating like this online and in person, which is why I think these discussions are absolutely critical.

“I don’t agree with much of what has been said here, but at the same time I respect those opinions and I feel like we can use these discussions to build on that a sense of mutual respect for all views,” Higgins said.

Most in the audience supported the “Take a Knee” movement, at least in the sense of fostering awareness of a controversial topic such as police brutality. Several students wondered, however, what the connection was supposed to be between that issue and football, or even kneeling and the National Anthem.

Others, like mechanical engineering major Emmanuel Eni, pointed out that quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, had begun his protest in 2016 by not standing, and was actually advised by a military veteran that kneeling would be a more respectful form of protest. Doing so, symbolizes those lost at war, and those who suffer under alleged police brutality, in the same way it is meant as a sign of respect in football, when players take a knee while an injured comrade is carried off the field.

Most in the audience also sided with the counter protesters in Charlottesville, openly questioning why anyone would want to pay homage to a leader of the Confederacy.

Those people, Nicholas Sebastian Moll said, should only be considered “as traitors” to the United States. Moll and others also suggested that as most of those statues reportedly went up in the 1920s and 1930s – during an era when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its influence, with many members secretly holding powerful municipal positions across the south – the statues were probably about more than merely celebrating states’ rights and personal perseverance in the face of a vast central authority. Most found it easy to understand why anyone of color might be offended by the very idea of such statues in their town square.

However, many speakers also suggested that events in Charlottesville might have unfolded differently if the counter demonstrators, including members of Antifa, had simply stayed away and let the protesters have their say, even though that group included numerous white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

“When we shame people for their ideas, then you silence people, and when you silence people, that’s the worst thing you can do, because then you create hardened, lone wolf activists,” Matthew Aceto said. “We want people to be able to express themselves, so that even if they have stupid ideas, they don’t feel like they have to blow up buildings and commit other extreme acts of terror to get attention.”

“I am fearful that if you don’t have a mix of idea, things will get very bad,” computer science major Leah Parrish said. “I worry about that, because change is so important, and because we are in a world that changes so fast right now, but people are so scared of change they are not capable of making the changes that really matter.

“I think we need to spend time sifting through these ideas and learning about people and talking to them,” she said, “because I think a lot of this fear is why things escalate – because we’re not willing to put ourselves out there if we feel vulnerable to something we’re scared of.”

“The problem with the ability to ban a flag, or thought, or idea – to cast it aside and make it never be acceptable anymore – is that people can’t imagine being on the other side of it,” engineering physics major David Plouff said. “What if white supremacists were in power and were banning our ideas? Imagine someone actually banning something from your platform in its entirety, meaning you are not allowed to even raise the idea or have the conversation. That’s basically its own form of terrorism.”

And, Plouff pointed out, such acts are often ultimately futile anyway.

“Ideas don’t die as easily as passing a law happens,” he said.

But what can kill a bad idea, or promote a good one, everyone agreed, is respectful conversation.

“I am so proud of these students,” Adams said. “Maine can be proud that SMCC students are talking, listening, and trying to make sense of their world with civility and reason. We hope this Real Talk series is a sign that Maine’s future is in good hands.”

The Real Talk series will continue on selected Thursdays in March and April. The sessions are open to the public. For dates, times, and topics, follow the “SMCC Chapter - SPLC on Campus” page on Facebook.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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