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Building Bridges: Community activist promotes importance of conversation

Diaz Bonville, Outreach Coordinator for Kent and Sussex Counties, chats on the phone with U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware. (Special to the Delaware State News/Butch Comegys)

REHOBOTH BEACH — Diaz Bonville looks at the world today and, with deep sadness, sees a nation — America the beautiful — divided by racial and social injustice.

“My heart is broken that we had to get to this point,” said the 64-year-old resident of Rehoboth Beach. “I mean, I watch the news. I read the papers.”

A community activist with organizational ties to numerous efforts spanning basically all compass points, including many at-risk communities in Sussex County, Mr. Bonville said healing, unification and equality for all must begin with something seemingly so simple: sincere conversation.

“In terms of building bridges, I think this is a golden opportunity for people to sit down across the board, across ethnicity, across communities, across cities, towns, and engage in ongoing courageous conversation, about how can we build bridges,” said Mr. Bonville. “And I am all in favor of building bridges. The conversation has to start now. We can no longer let issues such as the things happening around us in this country and worldwide occur. We have to talk.”

“When people don’t talk, then sometimes, assumption sets in,” he said. “I know that happens all the time. We see a group of people, a person of different background, and we have these preconceived ideas without ever engaging in a conversation. I love it when people talk to me.”

Diaz Bonville, Outreach Coordinator for Kent and Sussex counties, with his 8-year-old granddaughter Kendall DeShields. Special to the Delaware State News/Butch Comegys)

Through the name game, Mr. Bonville said he is a prime example.

“We didn’t choose. I didn’t choose to be the color I am,” said Mr. Bonville. “In fact, many people confuse me because my first name is a Spanish name, and my last name is a French name. But I am as Sussex County as you can get, and I am proud to be.

“Just last week, I had a conversation with somebody on the phone. They asked me, ‘Are you Hispanic?’ Why does that even have to be a question? This is in 2020. So, I educate the person. I had no control over my name. That name came from my parents who were good friends with Puerto Ricans. My last name is a French name. When I worked in the (Indian River) School District, my Haitian friend thought I was French,” said Mr. Bonville. “I thought, ‘I still have to explain who I am, what I am.’ And it gets old after a while.”

Mr. Bonville’s many community connections range from youth to senior citizens, through the likes of the Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence, the Richard Allen Coalition, CHEER Inc., M.E.R.I.T. (Minority Engineering Regional Incentive Training), LGBTQ initiatives based in Rehoboth Beach and others.

His numerous accomplishments also include:

• Co-founder/adviser for the West Rehoboth Children & Youth Program.

• First African American community prevention coordinator for the cities of Rehoboth Beach and Lewes.

• First to receive the Delaware Technical Community College Alumni Walk of Success award.

• First community home liaison for the Indian River School District TOTS Program.

• First to serve as president of the Coalition for West Rehoboth.

• First African American to serve as safety educator for Sussex County.

• First African American school/community home liaison for the Indian River School District A.P.E.L.L. (Accelerating Preliterate English Language Learners) Program.

“My father never went to school. He couldn’t read or write. My mother never finished school,” Mr. Bonville said. “Of the six children, I was the first in my family to graduate high school and college. I had a different focus and a different goal. At that time, was it difficult? Yes, it was. But I always tried to surround myself around people who were positive people. I had good people speaking life into me and saying, ‘You can do it.’ ”

A community advocate dating to about 1990, Mr. Bonville is constantly learning and educating. And that includes issues in today’s sometimes divisive world.

“I engage in conversation. But I educate people. I think there has to be changes so that it is fair for everybody. What is good for you, one group of people, should be good for somebody else — whether it be male, female, LGBT or whoever … white, Black, Hispanic,” said Mr. Bonville. “I think if we could put our blinders on and take away the stigma that he or she is Spanish, or he or she is white, and talk. I believe that we can build bridges. I really do.”

Positive change, Mr. Bonville said, must come from policy.

“I think we have to look at our policies, our institutional policies, and see how they affect everyone, especially people of color. You just have to use common sense,” he said. “I think voting is the key. I think change (by) looking at the current policies that we have in all institutions, not any particular one. And when I say institutions, I am talking about schools, education, employment, across the board, and say, ‘What are we not doing that we should be doing, based on the current climate that is across this country?’ People in power positions can make those changes if they look internally and are honest with themselves.”

It will not be an easy task, Mr. Bonville admitted.

“I think we have to build bigger bridges. We can’t build small bridges. And the conversation has to start now and be ongoing. It can’t be a one-time thing,” he said. “It is going to take all of us, all walks of life working together and having those ongoing courageous conversations. Is it easy? No. But it has to start sooner than later. We have to do it now.”

He remains hopeful and optimistic, noting the diversity in public support following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in police custody May 25 in Minneapolis.

“We need to engage community leaders, everybody, every sector of the community,” said Mr. Bonville. “And as you can see from the marches, it is not just African Americans marching. It is white and other people, which to me sends a big message: Wow! They may not understand our pain, but they understand that things have got to change. We can’t continue the way we are going. And that means all groups.”

The foundation for building bridges is the willingness to have an open mind, he said.

“You have to have an open mind and say, ‘I am willing to listen to what you have to say, and why is it that African Americans get upset when people use the ‘N-word,’ when people don’t respect who we are? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if you go into a particular agency or organization, a business or an institution, and you see 10 positions and eight or nine of those positions are headed by white people, something is wrong with this picture,” said Mr. Bonville. “I would think, if we have 10 positions, it would be five minorities and five white. And how many males, females? Look at the age groups. To me, it is a no-brainer. I don’t get it. Why should it be one race is more dominant than the other race? I am a Christian, and I believe God created us all and all of us should be equal. I have biracial in my family. I don’t believe in separation. I don’t believe that one race should be more superior than the other.”

Mr. Bonville experienced racial inequality even as a school student. Growing up in the Slaughter Neck area, he attended a school for Black people first grade through fifth and then moved on to the Cape Henlopen School District.

“I remember that we were riding on the bus. Black would be on one side, and white would be on the other. But why?” he said. “We are all riding the same bus and going to the same school. I didn’t get it. Then, later on, I realized we were being belittled because of the color of our skin. And people are not born that way. I believe that people are taught hatred — I really do — how to hate. And it hurts very deeply.

“I remember being called the N-word when I was growing up. I grew up in the middle of the civil rights (movement),” said Mr. Bonville. “I didn’t know I was poor until we started going to a white school and they were telling us that we were poor. So, we came home to our parents (saying) ‘They are telling us that we are poor. What is that?’ Because our parents never told us that we were poor, not in our household. That was a way of keeping you suppressed and depressed, if you allow that. But I always had in my mind that I was going to do something and be something.”

He recalls his experience with the Ku Klux Klan as a youth.

“My family, my parents, moved to Bridgeville — and this is no lie — we lived in a chicken house. Seriously. We thought we were in heaven. I remember one night, there were Ku Klux Klan, who were hooded, and they burned a cross right across the road from where we lived in Bridgeville. I’ll never forget that experience as a boy. And, of course, I was frightened by that.”

Now, he said, is the time for change.

“We can no longer have waters that divide us. I have grandchildren growing up. I don’t want them to live in fear. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to think that if I get in my vehicle and drive somewhere that something may happen to me just because of the color of my skin. I talk to people all the time, and some people are feeling that right now,” said Mr. Bonville. “We live in the country that is supposed to be the land of the free and home of the brave. What happened to that land of free for all of us?

“As the saying says, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he continued. “We know what is right and wrong. We have to keep moving — in a peaceful way. We can’t stop now.”

Mr. Bonville and his wife, Linda, reside in Rehoboth Beach. They have three grown daughters.

“I don’t say this egotistically, that I am holier than thou, but I say that I am a highly intelligent, dedicated African American male,” said Mr. Bonville.

“And I am proud to be that, proud to be who I am.”