Community Conversation panel highlights city’s inclusivity; says more can be done

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Julia Gaspar-Bates leads panelists (from right) Rommel Sandino, Mia Abdul Rahman and Shannon Wyss in a Community Conversation on how Hyattsville can be a more welcoming community on Feb. 26. Photo by Helen Parshall

BY HELEN PARSHALL — A group of residents at a recent panel discussion agreed that while Hyattsville has had great successes in recent months, they see important work still ahead to deepen the city’s commitment to building an inclusive community. About 40 people gathered for a discussion on how to be a more welcoming community featuring panelists representing the local Latino, Muslim and LGBTQ communities in the latest of the Community Conversations series held at the Hyattsville Municipal Building on Feb. 26.

Panelists Mai Abdul Rahman, Shannon Wyss and Rommel Sandino praised the recent social and political successes of Hyattsville during the discussion. Then the floor was opened for discussions of ways to improve the city’s supportive structures. Both the recent passage of noncitizen voting and the upcoming legislation to make Hyattsville a “sanctuary city” were topics on attendees’ minds.

“Noncitizen voting opens important doors for our immigrant community to engage in local politics and celebrates our diversity within the city,” said Sandino.

Abdul Rahman praised the sanctuary city legislation, but said she wanted to see it taken further.

“We need to codify these conversations and put teeth to the legislation, especially with becoming a sanctuary city,” said Abdul Rahman. “There are mothers and fathers being separated from their children. We have to make our vague declarations explicit and have the tools in place to build a support net under them.”

Wyss spoke about the need for everyone to step up.

“It’s along issues like the sanctuary city legislation that the LGBTQ community sometimes falls out. We’re not really great about issues that are not stereotypical ‘gay’ issues, and we need to get better at that intersectional work,” said Wyss.

Wyss also highlighted the need to support Hyattsville’s youth now that the Trump administration has withdrawn federal protections for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

“A student who has socially transitioned will be outed if they are forced to use a bathroom that does not match their gender identity,” said Wyss. Wyss spoke of the physical, emotional, social and academic vulnerabilities that LGBTQ youth face without vital federal protections.

“We cannot allow this culture of fear to push us back,” said Sandino. “We have to come together in solidarity.”

 

Those who attended were also invited to speak.

“We have to take some of this on ourselves,” said Bette Dickerson, a resident of Hyattsville. “It’s on all of us to step outside our comfort zones and talk to our neighbors.”

The purpose of the Community Conversation series is “to build community among residents and take advantage of their tremendous diversity and wealth of knowledge and interests,” as stated on the city’s website.

“It’s a space to have a dialogue with members of our community, to hear their voices and open up space for others,” said Julia Gaspar-Bates, the facilitator of the panel.

The discussions started about a year ago as a response to the divisive rhetoric surrounding Muslim communities on the presidential campaign trail. The conversation series is just one of the things the city does to make residents feel welcome. 

“As an intersectional queer family, our first priority was making sure that we were moving to an inclusive community,” said Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, who bought a home with her wife in Hyattsville less than a year ago.

“We don’t want to live in a community that isn’t struggling with these issues in the same way that we are in our own lives. We want to live in a place where all of these issues are important, and Hyattsville definitely is that,” said Weiner-Mahfuz.