By Meg Barone

Continuing a town discussion that began last year to address the issues of diversity and tolerance in Fairfield, about 100 political figures, business leaders and residents gathered Wednesday evening to ask, "How do we recognize and celebrate the diversity that exists in Fairfield to create an atmosphere of change in town?"

The event began with a reception at Penfield Pavilion and then moved to eight local restaurants and one residence where the break-out groups of about six to eight people shared a meal and conversation. There, participants asked difficult questions about challenges, barriers, hopes and opportunities for all people in a town that, despite a greater diversity as charted by the 2010 Census, remains overwhelmingly white, relatively affluent and Christian.

Last year's Community Conversation was held at Sacred Heart University, but organizers changed the format this year for a specific reason.

"It goes back to the original breaking bread together, which is a wonderful way for people to get to know each other," said Phil Dwyer, vice chairman of the Board of Education, a member of the Fairfield Community Conversation Committee and the chairman for Wednesday's event.

Additionally, he said, there is a variety of ethnic restaurants in Fairfield so by meeting in those establishments people may be introduced to a new cuisine and culture. "It exposes them to a wider group of people," said Dwyer, who hosted a break-out group at Safita Middle Eastern restaurant.

The conversation opened at Penfield with remarks from local clergy, a proclamation from First Selectman Michael Tetreau, and moving comments from Masooma Ali, a native of Pakistan who spoke about the discrimination she has faced as a real estate agent. Ali said she has had limited success in her profession and, when she asked a colleague for help to improve her odds, he recommended she lose her accent.

"I could try to change the way I speak. I could even change my name, but I cannot change the way I look. Just because I look and speak differently does not mean that I am not good at what I do," Ali said.

She also shared a heart-breaking story about her then-6-year-old daughter (now a third grader) who asked her "when was she going to be blonde and blue-eyed." Ali encouraged those attending to reach out to neighbors who are different, schedule play dates for their children with children of backgrounds different from their own, and encourage more community and school functions, like McKinley School's annual World Fair. "Our homes are our first teachers. Change has to come from within. We have to encourage our kids to cherish the differences in color, language and culture," Ali said.

"It does start in the home," said Dorothy Domeika, who offered praise to Ali for her brave words.

Domeika echoed what many people seemed to think, and what State Rep. Tony Hwang articulated, that Fairfield appears on the surface to be a homogenous community but, "If you look around and make an effort you see (diversity) all around you. That's the true beauty of living in a community like Fairfield," said Hwang, who was born in Taiwan.

Hwang said Fairfield offers everything "from the Pilgrims and the Mayflower to the Hungarian enclaves to the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

"One only needs to go to McKinley School for its annual World Fair to see children from over 50 cultures and countries demonstrate their ethnic pride," Hwang said.

The Thompson Street elementary, which has been cited by state officials as being racially imbalanced, has traditionally been home to the town's most diverse student body because its less-affluent neighborhood is more accessible to a broader spectrum of income and ethnic backgrounds.

Domeika said the individual school districts in Fairfield are all different, but those differences are generally not recognized until children leave elementary school, except perhaps at McKinley. "We are lucky when we move our children to our middle schools and high schools. As we move out to this greater city, we're almost a city, the students in the middle schools and high schools get to know each other bringing 60,000 people together," she said.

"It is a much more diverse community than people recognize," said Carla Miklos, executive director of Operation Hope, who was assigned to the Fairfield Cafe group.

Tetreau's proclamation designated March as Fairfield Celebrates Diversity Month. In it, Tetreau said the Community Conversation initiative "seeks to broaden the conversation from one of tolerance of differences to a celebration of the diversity found in Fairfield." Tetreau said when he was growing up in Fairfield it was a community of about 55,000 residents. It hasn't grown by much -- there are about 59,000 people now, but, "It's a lot more interesting now. There's a lot more culture, a lot more richness in our community. It makes it a much more interesting place to live," he said.

The Rev. David Spollett, pastor of First Church Congregational, reminded everyone gathered there that "diversity is a gift created by one God. We are one people. Everyone shares a common heritage." Spollett said diversity is not something to be tolerated but a gift to be embraced.

Rabbi James Prosnit, of Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, said people share a "special oneness" that allows them to be divergent while sharing common hopes and dreams.

At Fairfield Cafe, which serves American and Hungarian cuisine, Bernadette Thottam, a native of India who came to Fairfield in 1982, said the program proved to be an eye-opener. "It makes people understand that there is so much commonality in human beings than there are differences. When we understand that we truly begin to appreciate each other. Diversity has its uniqueness that is so enriching," she said.

At the King and I Thai restaurant, Tyson Toller said Fairfield exemplifies what a community should be "because we allow each other to extrude our individuality while retaining that communal bond." Jay Wolk, a member of the RTM, said it is important to listen to other people's opinions no matter how different from your own. "You learn from a different point of view," Wolk said.

Khorshed Randria, the facilitator of the King and I group, said people grow up in a "comfort zone," but to embrace diversity people must leave that zone and meet people in the middle. "It doesn't happen overnight," she said.

At Bangalore Indian restaurant, the group enjoyed a communal meal during which Jean Sturges said that growing up in a homogenous community is unlike the "real world" and will make people feel out of place when they leave the comfortable surroundings of home for higher education or work.

Thulo Shrestha, a native of Nepal who came to the United States in 2005, suggested that immigrants reach out to their new community rather than waiting for the community to find them, which may never occur. "Maybe there are things I can do to contribute to the community," he said.

Trudi Durrell, chairwoman of the Fairfield Community Conversation Committee, said the discussion on diversity will continue throughout the month with a number of scheduled events sponsored by the committee, the Fairfield Public Library and other organizations. The events address other kinds of diversity that go beyond culture, color and language, she said.

"We wanted to have a number of different activities touching on different aspects of diversity. One event is targeted to the gay and lesbian community, specifically to teens. We have another event related to mental illness, and one is targeted to seniors and how they can have a voice in the dialogue about diversity and tolerance in the community," Durrell said.

The month-long list of activities is available on the Fairfield Community Conversation Committee's Facebook page and website at fairfieldcelebratesdiversity.org/conversation.html.