Letter: Our school committee lacks cultural competency

Posted 7/28/21

Over the past weeks we have endured a painful conversation with Bristol Warren Regional School Committee members and the community involving the school start date/Rosh Hashanah conflict. The …

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Letter: Our school committee lacks cultural competency


Over the past weeks we have endured a painful conversation with Bristol Warren Regional School Committee members and the community involving the school start date/Rosh Hashanah conflict. The mishandling of this issue reveals our school committee’s most debilitating characteristic: cultural competence inadequacies.

Cultural competency is a base of knowledge/understanding and a set of skills empowering us to interact effectively with people from other cultures. 

At the July 19 meeting, with a large audience and emotions running high, our school committee members struggled to articulate what was bothering them about this conflict. Member Sheila Ellsworth expressed feeling upset about fellow fellow member Carly Reich’s observation (made during an interview) that the majority of our community are still older white folks, and those who are not, do not always feel that their voices are heard or their faces or needs seen.

Ms. Reich’s statement was fairly simple, but provoked an emotional reaction in Ms. Ellsworth, who spoke about this being disrespectful to the people she feels built the town. She seemed to feel like it was an attack on Bristol and Warren, rejection of the community where they have chosen to raise their families.   

This feeling of being attacked/shamed for being part of the majority is very common. Cultural sensitivity training explores vulnerable feelings that relate to one’s identity.  When we are asked to recognize the feelings/needs/identity of another, we can feel that our own feelings/needs/identity aren’t being valued. This is totally normal and can be explored/addressed with proper training.

School committee member Tara Thibaudeau was sincere in saying she felt she’d done her homework but maintains her original position. She described polling her teacher/parent/student contacts and people she met around town, finding that most didn’t want the date changed to accommodate the holiday.

She received far fewer emails concerned about the school start date than she had regarding cuts to the arts. This, of course, is what it means to be a minority: issues affecting you often don’t affect the majority. We trust our elected officials to look out for the marginalized, to dig deeper on issues and discover what the average person might not understand. Cultural competency training can help.

School committee members, you just let go of a very successful superintendent who led us through the hardest year and who happens to be black. As you send our district again into chaos, it’s time to do some soul-searching about how your blind spots have interfered with academic excellence and maintaining an orderly learning environment.  Get some training and adopt the attitude of fellow school committee member Nicky Piper: that our multitude of backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives can be challenging but ultimately enrich our community and provide opportunities for personal and professional growth.

On behalf of our students, please remember these painful experiences when the next discussion comes up around how the Bristol Warren school district can be proficient in diversity/equity/ inclusion: not just buzzwords, as you’ve experienced firsthand.

Sheila Dobbyn

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.