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Event at Diman takes on stigmas facing the vulnerable in Greater Fall River

By Deborah Allard
Herald News Staff Reporter

Franklin Cook, Director of outreach for MassMen.org, outlines the activities in which those attending his program about stigm
Franklin Cook, Director of outreach for MassMen.org, outlines the activities in which those attending his program about stigma will participate - Herald News Photo | Jack Foley

2017 School Community Partnership's Stigma Event
FALL RIVER — Those who serve the most vulnerable people in the community live sad stories every day.

They aim to help people who are sick, homeless, suicidal, disabled, unemployed and poor; those who have criminal backgrounds, are addicted to substances and have lost their children to the state.

It's hard not to become jaded. Maybe impossible.

"We want to begin a new conversation in Fall River about stigma," said Franklin Cook, director of Community Outreach for MassMen.org — a group that offers mental health resources for men — and facilitator of the World Stigma Cafe at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School on Tuesday morning.

A stigma is marked by negative or unfair beliefs about a person or a segment of the population. It is defined as a mark of disgrace or inferiority.

Cook led a variety of group exercises with people who work in human services around the topic of stigma. The event was coordinated by United Neighbors of Fall River/ Community Connections Coalition, Greater Fall River Partners for a Healthier Community, Greater Fall River Suicide Prevention Coalition and the School-Community Partnership.

Participants were tasked with having roundtable conversations about the impact of stigma on the community.

They were given pieces of paper, each marked with a single word, like bipolar, hungry, immigrant or addict. Participants were to anonymously write the first word that came to mind.

Many of the answers showed tolerance and understanding. Some were surprising and proved that stigma is always present. For the word "addict" someone wrote "trauma," and another wrote "drain on the family." For "mom on food assistance," one person wrote "lazy."

Wendy Garf-Lipp, executive director of United Neighbors, said communication leads to better understanding.

"It's amazing," Garf-Lipp said. "We're confronting our own stigmas."

She said human service workers may think they don't carry negative feelings toward their clients or populations, but "when we dig deep, we have some."

Diman Superintendent-Director Thomas F. Aubin thanked everyone for the "groundbreaking" work they were doing.

"There are two things I'm incredibly passionate about: Diman Regional and the kids in this community," Aubin said.

Cook said those who participated in the World Stigma Cafe will be able to use what they gleaned from the event to better understand their community.

"You can feel it," Cook said. "You can feel we are communicating. This conversation has begun. You can take it with you."

Garf-Lipp said the consensus of the group was that work is needed on the issue of stigma.

"We hope to be able to continue this work in the next few weeks as we discover together how we can change perceptions, practices and personal feelings," Garf-Lipp said.