Brunswick residents trickled into the Curtis Memorial Library’s Morrell Meeting Room on Tuesday evening, taking their seats in a circle of chairs for a facilitated discussion about racism and bias as part of the library’s “One Book, One Community” program. Led by Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Leana Amaez and Director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life Benjamin Harris, the event aimed to help to make Brunswick a more inclusive and welcoming community for Bowdoin students and Brunswick residents alike.
The discussion used the book “Writings on the Wall” by Kareem Abdul Jabbar as a starting point for discussions about topics that people in the community might find uncomfortable or unfamiliar. The book addresses many of the most pressing social issues in today’s America, including homophobia, sexism, socio-economic disparity and racism.
“I think it’s important when you’re having a discussion around a difficult topic that many people have had personal experience with to have something that grounds your conversation and gives you a common language from which to start,” said Amaez. “The book really does that.”
Amaez and Harris began the discussion by asking attendees to share their definitions of racism. The conversation then progressed as people shared their own experiences with both overt and implicit racism within the Brunswick community.
“I really appreciated people’s willingness to participate and ask questions and share things that they hadn’t fully worked through,” Amaez said.
Director of the Curtis Memorial Library Elisabeth Doucett said she hopes that the discussions will help generate further conversations and awareness within the town community. In addition to being part of the library’s “One Book, One Community” program, the event was also part of a series of “Dig Deeper” conversations hosted by the library.
“It’s always important to remember that when bad things happen, the more that we talk about it, the better,” Doucett said. “When you put things in the sun, bad things shrivel up and go away, but if you stick them in the shadows they grow and get worse.”
Doucett said the library invited Amaez and Harris to host the discussion in order to engage the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities in a conversation about topics that deeply affect Bowdoin students. Harris believes his co-facilitation of the event served another important purpose.
“I think we need to have these conversations around race, and I think it’s important for folks of color, like me and Leana, to be a part of this conversation,” he said. “If you have us in the room, you definitely have a different perspective than what the majority of people in this state probably have.”
Amaez said that one of the most rewarding parts of the discussion was hearing the steps Brunswick community members had taken when confronted with displays of racism.
“The part of the conversation that was personally really moving as a person of this community was hearing how willing people are to intervene if they can see it,” she said. “Our community is full of good people—I really do believe that—and I hope that they’re aware so that they can help to safeguard the values of the community.”
Amaez also emphasized the awkwardness of talking about race in Brunswick’s mostly white community.
“We are in Brunswick, and I wish there had been more diversity represented outside of Bowdoin,” she said. “Only one person didn’t identify as white, and he came late. And clearly that’s not his fault. That creates a funny dynamic.”
Harris hopes that the awareness these discussions seek to foster will make Brunswick a more welcoming and comfortable place for students of color.
“The people you talk with in the town are part of the community,” he said. “Our students may interact with these people in restaurants, as patrons of different stores around campus, even in passing.”
Doucett expressed a similar sentiment and hopes that these events will demonstrate that the town is enthusiastic about welcoming Bowdoin students of all identities and backgrounds.
“I think that Bowdoin students need to know that Brunswick cares about them,” she said. “They care about their role in the community, and this is just one example.”
Sadie LoGerfo-Olsen contributed to this report.