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In Belmont, a rally cry for civil discourse

About 500 people gathered to stand shoulder to shoulder at Clay Pit Pond in Belmont for a "Hands Around the Pond" event.
About 500 people gathered to stand shoulder to shoulder at Clay Pit Pond in Belmont for a "Hands Around the Pond" event. Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff

In the year leading up to the presidential election, Donna Ruvolo grew increasingly alarmed by national rhetoric targeting Muslims, people of color, and foreign-born residents.

But when it hit close to home, the Belmont resident decided to take action.

Joined by residents Mil Pierce and Deborah Donahue-Keegan, Ruvolo started the Stand Up Campaign to promote kindness, decency, and civil discourse in her hometown.

“We were noticing a very profound uptick in harassment and hate speech in the larger community and were starting to see it in our own community,’’ she said. “It was really disturbing.’’

The final straw for Ruvolo, who is married and has two teenage sons, was when some students told her about incidents in Belmont.

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In March, Ruvolo sent an e-mail to a group of people she felt would want to take a stand. Overnight, they organized the group, and six days later, they held a community meeting attended by about 50 people. The event focused on how people could work toward being more civil.

“There was an immediate outcry about this kind of emboldened language that was being used toward other people in the community,’’ she said. “I think as a community, we felt that’s not who we were. We tried to look at how do we address that in a constructive way. If we can’t address it at a community level, how can we address it at a state or national level?’’

The group recently held a visibility event — a “rallying cry,” as Ruvolo put it — to show what Belmont stands for. Despite a morning snowstorm, about 500 people gathered to stand shoulder to shoulder at Clay Pit Pond for Stand-Up for Safety — Hands Around the Pond.

“It’s encouraging to see the level of support from our community, our legislative representatives, the school,’’ she said. “So many folks have stepped up and recognized the power of starting at the community level.’’

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Ruvolo is no stranger to activism — she is a Town Meeting member, has advocated for marriage equality, and has helped form a cooperative play space in Belmont — but feels this campaign is different.

“This was the first time, for many people, that you felt as if many things we had taken for granted as a community were being challenged,’’ she said. “Treating people respectfully was something we were seeing becoming less and less the norm.’’

In the new year, the group, which is now a program partner of Belmont Against Racism, will look at other ways to bring people of differing opinions together for civil and constructive discussions.

“Some people don’t even know how to talk to a family member,’’ she said. “It’s proven to be a very complicated situation. Our organization is just trying to create an environment where people are communicating and trying not to take one side or another.’’

Donna Ruvolo organizes people at the "Hands Around the Pond "event in Belmont.
Donna Ruvolo organizes people at the "Hands Around the Pond "event in Belmont. Jonathan Wiggs/GlobeStaff

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.