Trumbull diversity task force learns to turn down the heat

TRUMBULL — At its first meeting since January, the town’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force didn’t do much talking. Instead, members practiced their listening skills with an elementary school game at the group’s Sept. 21 meeting.

Dede Robinson and Lincoln Johnson huddled together for a few seconds, then returned to the group, having devised a story about a man who took a woman home from a bar using a short cut that was so fast that she was still able to watch the 6 o’clock news.

Robinson whispered to Tara Figueroa, who spoke to Jonathan Tropp, and so on until word had spread to all eight members. Co-chair Jeanine Stauder, at the end of the telephone line, reported what she heard.

“A man met a woman at a bar, they decided to take a shortcut home at 10 o'clock,” Stauder said.

The task force laughed, but the lesson was clear, according to Steve Gardiner, who runs a management consulting firm and trains organizations on conflict resolution. Gardiner said this particular training exercise underscores the importance of listening.

Gardiner worked with the committee on strategies to prevent disagreements from boiling over, as happened in February when Figueroa, the former chair, became a target of online anger from residents and town officials over a social media post she made last summer. The backlash led to four of the group’s original eight members resigning. The town council replaced the members in August, and appointed new co-chairs.

Gardiner said he wanted the task force to understand that there are ways to move past conflict and to come to a better understanding of what others want. These tools, he explained, will help keep conflict to a manageable level. The members took his words to heart, at least at the meeting, with a cordial, lighthearted atmosphere prevailing.

Andrea Fonseca, the other co-chair with Stauder, said that while she didn’t believe the training was necessary, it could be an effective tool to break the ice with others.

“I don't think the task force needed the training but it was suggested as an effective team-building activity,” she said. “I felt that coming all together in a no-pressure learning environment was a great way to kick off our mission.”

Gardiner said members should engage with each other using a mixture of empathy and non intuitive thinking, including considering what the consequences would be for someone if they acceded to someone else’s demands.

Robinson, whose addition to the task force had been met with reservation by some town council members, said he had enjoyed the exercises the group had conducted during the meeting.

“It was fun. So I look forward to the next one,” he said.

Robinson also enjoyed the opportunity to speak to Figueroa in person, having spent the meeting seated next to her.

“I actually got the chance to speak to Tara and made amends with her and she seems like a really good person,” he said.

Figueroa said she thought similar sessions would benefit other boards and committees in town.

“I hope that other committees and boards in Trumbull will be taking similar meetings,” she said.