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Approximately 350 people turned out to march from Deep River to Chester on Nov. 13 in a show of post-election community unity. The march was organized by new grassroots organization The Valley Stands Up, which aims to continue community activism and education in support of human rights for everyone and tolerance of diversity in the Lower Connecticut River Valley Community. (Photo by Peter Holm )
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Residents of the tri-town area might see some new signs appearing around the lower Connecticut River Valley, thanks to the efforts of a newly formed community civic group, The Valley Stands Up (TVSU). The organization formed after the 2016 presidential election, in response to increased divisiveness seen not only around the country, but also across the state. Residents may also be familiar with TVSU’s sister organization, Together We Rise, based out of East Haddam.
“There was a sign put up in East Haddam after the election in support of minorities that was defaced with Trump 2016 graffiti almost immediately,” said Rich Olson, one of the original co-founders of TVSU. “A lot of people felt like they needed to respond to that and show that our community was a welcoming place for everyone.”
The defaced sign in question had been put up by East Haddam resident Theresa Govert on Nov. 9, 2016. The sign held text taken from a tweet by writer and activist Shaun King, and read: “Dear Muslims, immigrants, women, disabled, LGBTQ and all people of color, we love you boldly and proudly. We will endure.”
According to Olson, social media became the tool that brought many people together who were shocked by the graffiti and other responses to the election, and the first meeting of TVSU took place on Nov. 11. The meeting resulted in a 350-person march from Deep River to Chester on Nov. 13 that was intended to spread a message of hope and community while celebrating diversity.
While the group is still finding its organizational roots, its mandate—to unite diverse communities through “outreach, organizing, and advocacy to support the dignity and human rights of all”—is being reinforced through two initiatives. To commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the TVSU organized a public reading of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Jan. 15, accompanied by a lecture on local civil rights activist Constance Baker Motley, and a film about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old who became a symbol of the desegregation of the American South. TVSU is also engaging in a sign campaign that echoes the efforts of a Mennonite Church in Virginia.
TVSU is selling signs that read “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. The motivation behind the signs is to send a clear message that the Connecticut River Valley community is an inclusive one, regardless of anyone’s background or origin, and to provide a stand of solidarity with those who may be feeling marginalized. The signs, which the Mennonite organization provides in a variety of multiple languages, have been spotted across North America from North Carolina to Canada.
“That’s the message that we want to send, to welcome our neighbors to our diverse community and to say that this rhetoric doesn’t apply here,” said Olson. “It seems like people feel emboldened to talk against immigrants and other groups, but there’s an undercurrent that seems to be coming up against those attitudes.
“Even though we are a ‘blue’ state, it is still happening here,” continued Olson. “There are also national policies that might be coming down the lane that will hurt people in our state and in our communities and we want to be ready to oppose that.”
TVSU is still organizing both proactive and reactive responses to what they’ve identified as a changing social climate. Some of the projects in the works are bystander intervention training, which would empower people to stand up and act as an ally if they do observe acts of discrimination, and education programs for the community about the history of civil rights locally, including how the Underground Railroad—a network of abolitionists who secreted slaves out of the South and to free territories in the North—manifested in Connecticut.
TVSU is also forming a Rapid Response Committee to track and respond to bias incidences in the area and across the state.
“We hope we won’t be needed,” added Olson. “But like everyone else, we’re going to have to just wait and see.”
The signs cost $10 and will be available while supplies last at the weekly vigil held outside of Two Wrasslin’ Cats Café in East Haddam, Saturdays from 10 to 11 a.m., or can be ordered by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the organization, including meeting times for those who wish to get involved, can be found on the group’s Facebook page The Valley Stands Up.
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