Last week the Wilmington Fire Department hosted a series of conversations on divisiveness in the country entitled, ‘Perspective Change’. But as WHQR reports, the goal wasn’t to change anyone’s mind, but to provide space for firefighters to have an open discussion.
“I’m Nick Shepard, and I grew up in Swansboro, North Carolina.”
Nick, who’s Black, has worked for the department for six-years. His dream as a young kid was to grow up and become a firefighter.
“The first time that I ever put out a fire was a big field in front of my house caught on fire, and I ran back and forth with a bucket and put the fire out before the fire department got there.”
And it was Nick who approached the fire chief about having conversations with his colleagues about the acrimony in the US over race, protests, and politics:
“There was a lot of negativity going on in the world. Our department as a whole, the Wilmington Fire Department, we don’t have these issues in our department, but I wanted to make sure that we understood that different people come from different backgrounds and we all do have different perspectives.”
Nick along with six other moderators from diverse backgrounds wanted their fellow firefighters to contemplate questions like,
‘How did you grow up? What words really trigger people emotionally?’
Eli Venecia, like Nick, is a six-year employee of the department. He’s a Mexican-American and says this wasn’t necessarily sensitivity training:
“I don’t know if ‘sensitive’ is the word that I would use, but yeah so the main goal there was to just to understand that it’s okay to get someone else’s opinion, and not necessarily accept it as your own, but at least listening to it, it will help you to maybe empathize with someone else.”
The Wilmington Fire Department employs a little over 200 line personnel. About 89% of them are White, 5% are Black, and 4% are Hispanic -- and it’s a male-dominated profession at 96%.
Debra Jo Harts is one of just a few women. She’s been working as a Wilmington firefighter for 13-years and was one of the moderators along with Nick and Eli. In the beginning, she says, there was some reluctance and confusion about the conversations.
“No one exactly knew what we were going in there to talk about; I think there were some concerns going in.”
But she says ultimately one of the goals was to show that respectful dialogue is the foundation for discussing any uncomfortable topic:
“I know sometimes tempers can flare, and when you feel very passionate about a subject, if you can’t go in and be an adult and have a logical conversation with someone from the get-go then you need to take a step back and calm yourself down before you go into any conversation.”
All of them -- Nick, Eli, and Debra Jo -- hope the discussions will continue, so the department can work together as a cohesive unit, ready to serve the Wilmington community.