About 100 locals turned out Tuesday evening for a discussion in South Berwick aimed at encouraging parents to speak to their children about race and empower them to be compassionate and conscious individuals. Credit: Deb Cram | Foster's Daily Democrat

SOUTH BERWICK, Maine – About 100 locals turned out Tuesday evening for a discussion aimed at encouraging parents to speak to their children about race and empower them to be compassionate and conscious individuals.

The town’s public library hosted the “How to Talk to Your Kids About Race” community conversation, co-sponsored by the Central School PTO and facilitated by Will Lusenhop, a clinical social worker and professor at the University of New Hampshire. Lusenhop, a South Berwick resident and parent, urged the crowd to become curious about racism, to educate themselves on the history of the topic and work to grow comfortable talking about race and creating a community willing to create change.

Library Director Karen McCarthy Eger said she was pleased with the number of attendees and that she is glad people are ready to talk about race in this majority-white town.

“Bloomberg listed South Berwick in 2013 as the best small town to raise a family in Maine. We have had some racial incidents in town and I’m sure there is a lot we don’t know about, so maybe it’s not the best town to live in depending on who you are,” Eger said.

Rather than focus on racial incidents on the Seacoast, the residents, educators and students on hand were encouraged first to explore in small groups why it’s sometimes uncomfortable talking about race.

“It’s a hard sell, but I try to convince people not to embark on this journey saying you are a racist or you are not a racist, because you might as well be saying you are a pedophile, drunk driver who killed someone. It’s viewed as such a terrible thing to be racist and it causes people to be defensive and say I’m not, rather than examine the prejudices inside us, how they happen to us and how we enact them. When we realize they are in there, we need to examine them and determine how to change them,” said Lusenhop, who is the chairman of the Diversity Committee in the UNH Department of Social Work and is a member of the diversity task force in the College of Health and Human Services and provides in-service training on diversity to the New Hampshire Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Despite his experience, Lusenhop repeatedly said he doesn’t have all the answers and reached out to the attendees to share techniques they have found successful.

One mother of a 5-year-old in town said she keeps it simple when teaching her daughter. She proudly displays a sign in front of their home saying: “Hate has no home here” and explains to her daughter in basic terms what this means.

A Marshwood High School student who said she has repeatedly been the victim of racial slurs and threats by her peers on the school bus urged parents to teach their children to call out those using racial slurs.

“Teach your kids to stand up. That bus ride still sucks every day and it gets worse,” said Jalion McLean, 16. “Teach them that they will get a lot of backlash, people are not going to be happy if they are standing up for someone, but it has to be done.”

A small group of South Berwick residents began presenting programs on race two years ago after national attention was drawn to police shootings of black citizens across the country. Another conversation is not scheduled at this time but Lusenhop said he expects more opportunities will be planned.

“There was a lot of tension at the end because people really need to talk about this. It doesn’t get its due and I felt bad coming to a close,” Lusenhop said.