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    Thursday, February 29, 2024

    At Coast Guard Academy, Eclipse provides window into past and present experiences

    Brooks Fitch speaks onstage during a "fireside chat" with Superintendent Rear Adm. Bill Kelly and Commandant of Cadets Capt. Arthur Ray, at an Eclipse event at the Coast Guard Academy on Friday, April 14, 2023. (Courtesy of Coast Guard Academy)

    New London ― “I hear your story; this is mine,” Coast Guard Academy cadets from different years said as they got up to the podium in Leamy Hall one by one Friday morning, during a session new this year but part of a 48-year-old event.

    Jean Ryu talked about her grandparents’ Korean restaurant and vowed to “show them the fruit of their labor with my efforts.” Hannah Apelizan shared her mental health struggles and the realization she didn’t need to be perfect to be loved, while Aidan Shaw talked about how his experience as a firefighter changed his perspective on drug users.

    Jerry James “JJ” Banek-Gabelle shared his story of growing up in Sierra Leone, being adopted by a white family after his parents died when he was six, experiencing racial profiling as a child at a magic show after coming to the United States, and going to boarding school.

    They were among six cadets who spoke in an event called My CGA Story ― a concept borrowed from the U.S. Naval Academy’s diversity conference ― as part of the Coast Guard Academy’s annual summit on identity and inclusion, called Eclipse. The theme this year is Rise Together: Embracing Differences to Lead the Teams of Tomorrow.

    Chief Diversity Officer Aram deKoven said these stories are designed to provide windows and mirrors: “windows into the experience of other folks” and mirrors “where you can see your own lived experience reflected back to you,” to feel belonging and connection.

    In the afternoon, Commandant of Cadets Capt. Arthur Ray moderated a “fireside chat” between Superintendent Rear Adm. Bill Kelly and Brooks Fitch, whose father was the victim of a racist incident at the academy in 1934.

    Harrison “Honey” Fitch was the first African-American student to play basketball at the University of Connecticut, then known as Connecticut State College, and the only Black student on campus.

    When the time arrived for a game at the Coast Guard Academy, cadets refused to compete against a Black player, and the Connecticut State College coach benched Fitch but the game went ahead. Fitch had the support of his teammates.

    Kelly said the situation was not on his radar until February 2021, when The Hartford Courant ran an article about Honey Fitch and the incident.

    The superintendent wrote a letter to the editor in response, calling the article “a staunch reminder that we must continue to self-examine how our past has shaped us today and how we can do better now and in the future.”

    And he wrote Brooks Fitch a letter.

    The younger Fitch said Friday when he first got the letter, he was skeptical and hesitant to respond. He thought it was another public relations statement, and that responding would take a lot of time and emotional effort.

    But he asked himself, “What would my father do?” He looked at the letter again and “detected a real sense of sincerity.” He responded.

    Fitch and his wife then visited the academy in October, meeting with affinity councils and talking to basketball players. And he said the Fitch family was there again Friday because they wanted to engage.

    As for his own life, Brooks Fitch had a career at IBM after getting his bachelor’s degree at UConn and MBA at American University, and he led an initiative to create a memorial in Dallas to African-American freedmen and enslaved people.

    After returning to his hometown of Springfield, Mass., he got involved with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and W.E.B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst, among other organizations.

    A changing history of Eclipse

    DeKoven said Eclipse began two years after the 1973 founding of Genesis, the first affinity council at the academy. He explained that with such a small number of African-American cadets at the academy at the time, they teamed up with Connecticut College to start Eclipse.

    “Basically it was a homecoming event, an opportunity for African-American officers to come back and gather, because at the time, they did not feel welcome in the other homecoming events,” deKoven said.

    Spectrum this year included eight sessions for Genesis and other affinity councils: Spectrum (LGBTQIA+), Women’s Leadership, Tribal, International, Compañeros, Hillel and Asian Pacific American.

    Gerard Viola, education program specialist in the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, summarized the sessions. For example, Tribal Council flew in the tribal liaison specialist for the Coast Guard district based in Alaska, Compañeros and Diversity Peer Educators talked about serving in Puerto Rico, and Hillel Council hosted a discussion with leaders from Hillel, St. Francis de Sales Society and Officers’ Christian Fellowship.

    Eclipse concludes Saturday with a workshop between affinity councils and an awards luncheon. The awardees this year are Ray, Ensign Juan Acevedo-Perez, Command Master Chief Maria D’Angelo, Chaplain Kamille Williams, retired Lt. Cmdr. Mark Braxton and educator Maggie Favretti.

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