This past year I became a certified Green Dot instructor. Let me tell you why it is important to me - and should be important to you.
About a year earlier, I had been standing in the checkout line at Home Depot on a Saturday morning. A man in line ahead of me started making loud and nasty comments about a Somali woman in the next line over. His comments escalated to “Take off your f**king rag (referring to her hijab) or go back to Africa where you belong.” The target of his comments ignored him but was obviously upset. Several of us on my line exchanged silent glances of horror, sharing both outrage and a feeling of helplessness. We knew this was wrong but we said and did nothing. For days afterward I replayed that scene in my head, unhappy about the harassment I had seen and deeply disturbed by my passivity. I’m a 200 pound white male and not shy. Why didn’t I act in the presence of such hateful behavior?
Over the next several months I described the incident to numerous friends and acquaintances and discovered two things. First, they all said they or a close friend had personally experienced a similar episode of xenophobic harassment or interpersonal threats and violence. And second, they all shared that a sense of powerlessness resulted in passivity despite their desire to intervene. Clearly, the community that has treated me so well since I moved here in 1977, where I have raised a family and enjoyed 4 decades of medical practice, is not equally welcoming and supportive for everyone.
Then something very good happened.
A group of local citizens here in Lewiston-Auburn had been meeting for months, disturbed by their sense of a growing trend toward intolerance in the community and motivated by a desire to make a local difference. They decided to pursue bystander intervention. They grew their group and partnered with the YWCA of Central Maine. Together they researched options and discovered a nationally recognized organization named Alteristic that provides training in proven safe and effective bystander intervention techniques through their Live the Green Dot program. This group of motivated L-A residents raised money locally and brought Green Dot to town, first to study our community and its needs, and then to devise a curriculum tailored specifically for Lewiston-Auburn. And that is how, in August of 2017, I came to be one of 46 Lewiston-Auburn residents who completed the four day training offered by Green Dot of Lewiston-Auburn. I am excited to now be an instructor, prepared to teach members of our community safe and effective ways to respond to (and prevent) incidents of hateful and hurtful words and behavior. (More information about our local program can be found on its website and Facebook page.)
Thanks to the training, I have an understanding of my personal barriers, the things that can make it hard for me to step up and advocate for a targeted individual or defend a community standard. I have learned a wide range of tactics that I can use despite my personal barriers. That morning in Home Depot I could have stood next to her in line, reassured her that she was welcome here, and offered to walk with her to her car. I could have asked the checkout person to page the manager. I could have asked the verbal abuser questions about the brand of paint he was purchasing. And I could have gone back to Home Depot and asked them to put up a sign saying that all are welcome and that harassment and intolerance are unacceptable in their store, with a number to call to report problems.
None of these interventions would have put me or the woman at risk, but would have offered the possibility of either minimizing the pain and risk or preventing future incidents. They aren’t big and dramatic things. They wouldn’t magically ‘fix’ our community, but if enough of us do things like this it will add up and make Lewiston-Auburn a safer and more welcoming community, a community with a culture that doesn’t tolerate things like harassment, bullying, or domestic violence. The next time I am a Bystander when something like this happens, I will be better prepared to be an Upstander and make a difference. I look forward to doing local presentations and workshops teaching others what I have learned. Because, while no one can do everything, everyone can do something.