Summit tackles diversity, remembers Miller

Jessica Reynolds | The Daily StarFrom left, Lee Fisher, president of Oneonta's branch of the NAACP, and David Hutchison, of Oneonta, place stickers on the inclusive ideas they like the most at the community diversity summit at Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center on Saturday.

ONEONTA – Imagine Oneonta as a more welcoming and inclusive community in the year 2025. What's different? What has improved? Most importantly, how do we get there?

These were some of the top questions at Saturday's community diversity summit, titled “Oneonta: An Inclusive Community,” at Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center.

More than 70 community leaders, educators and residents gathered at the public forum from 8:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. on Saturday to answer these questions by identifying the ways in which Oneonta should be more welcoming and planning a course of action to make the city more inclusive to all people, including visitors, students and residents.

The day began with a free breakfast for participants and an introduction by Oneonta City School District Superintendent Joseph Yelich, who led the audience in a moment of silence in memory of the late Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller, who died Oct. 25.

By all accounts, Miller, who was to have been the master of ceremonies for the summit, was looking forward to the event and was excited about the promise of a more-inclusive and more-welcoming city.

“His vision is the reason we're here today,” Yelich said.

The keynote speaker, Mark Vaughn of Corning Inc., also spoke of Miller. Vaughn said he met Miller only once but exchanged many emails with him in preparation for the summit. 

“This summit was obviously something (Miller) was extremely passionate about,” Vaughn said. “And one thing I learned about him was that he was not one to tolerate moving slow. It would have been understandable for you all to postpone this event, but I salute you for carrying on in his honor.”

Vaughn, who has led conversations on inclusiveness in business environments, introduced the idea of an upward PATH that must be taken to create a more welcoming and inclusive Oneonta. The acronym PATH, he explained, stands for people, processes and programs, which are needed to attract, acclimate and accumulate targeted talent to the area.

The audience was then randomly split up into 11 small focus groups, in which individuals could brainstorm and voice their concerns and ideas. Thoughts and opinions were written in colorful marker on large pieces of paper and hung around the room.

After coming back together, designated facilitators of each group stood up in front of the audience and described some of the goals and strategies that were identified.

Some of the most popular ideas that were voiced included creating a welcome packet for newcomers to the city or providing one place, such as a resource or civic center, where new families and residents can find out everything they may want to know about the city; encouraging young professionals to come to the area and stay with mixers and more neighborhood groups; inviting college students into homes for meals or a cup of tea; and realizing that Oneonta is essentially two different communities: one during the school year and one during summer, and learning how to understand both populations.

Nancy Kleniewski, president of the State University College at Oneonta, spoke on behalf of her small group members, who felt that a welcome committee would serve the city well. Her group also had the idea to organize and hold community potluck dinners, where everyone – not just the affluent or leaders of the community – would be involved. The group also called for more diversity in leadership positions. 

Kleniewski said she would also like to see the colleges making more of an effort to include the community in on-campus events.

Other ideas included expanding housing options, making sure minorities feel safe and validated, anticipating the needs of others and fostering personal relationships through time and energy; developing trust by bridging the gaps between people of different socio-economic, racial, or faith-based groups; more arts and crafts programs in the summer in addition to sports programs; and inclusion and celebration of all holidays, not just Christmas.

One Jewish Oneonta resident described November and December as “a time of real pain” for her and her family because of an apparent city-wide focus on Christmas and related images, such as the city Christmas tree lighting and visits from Santa. She suggested incorporating holidays from other religions into the city's traditions.

Some individuals voiced a frustration with the lack of diversity at the summit itself, noting a marked absence of college students, families with small children, financially disadvantaged folks and developmentally disabled individuals.

Elliot Ruggles, director of SUNY Oneonta's Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, said he encouraged many college students to attend the event and participate. Several of them did come to the event, he said, but left early on because they felt intimidated by the abundance of professionals, business owners and leaders and the lack of young people.

The majority of participants agreed that a concerted effort must be made to reach out specifically to those who were not in attendance so their voices and feelings can be heard, as well.

Yelich, who was also a group facilitator, spoke about the importance of educating, training and preparing students for relevant jobs, so they will stay in the community, work, and raise families here.

Yelich's group had one of the most popular ideas at the summit, which was to use the dilapidated and condemned houses in Center City to train future carpenters, plumbers and electricians. This way, students will have real-life, hands-on learning experiences and the houses will be renovated and redeveloped to help alleviate the lack of affordable, decent housing in the city.

After all of the small groups were heard, individuals were given several stickers to place next to their favorite ideas.

Susan Turell, dean of the school of social sciences at SUNY Oneonta and a facilitator at the summit, thanked participants and assured them that the forum was the first of many steps in the important process. The ideas and visions generated will be subject to change and develop with later discussions, she said.

Vaughn reminded participants that some of the changes that may need to be made will not be easy. In fact, they may, at times, feel quite uncomfortable, but will be for the betterment of the community, he said.

“As someone once said, 'We tend to remain in a place of comfort until someone or something pushes us out of our comfort zone, often to something better,'” Vaughn recalled. “Who was it that said that? It was your Mayor Miller.”