Lee Cruz, director of the Ronald McDonald House in New Haven, developed the idea for a unity forum when driving in Fair Haven. While stopped at a red light, Cruz noticed a sign tacked to a telephone pole which read “Death to the Arabs.” Cruz promptly removed the sign.

Fearing retaliation from the people who posted the sign, Cruz felt that a discussion forum was needed. He contacted Interfaith Cooperative Ministries and the Greater New Haven Muslim Communities, who subsequently organized the event.

“What’s most helpful is for us to have a discussion,” Cruz said.

Last night, New Haven residents from all walks of life participated in the unity forum in the Ives Memorial Public Library Program Room. During the two-hour session, members of the 100-person audience took turns answering two questions: “As a community, where are we unified?” and “Where are we divided?.”

Much of the discussion centered around the effect the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have had on the New Haven community.

“We are coming together to discuss how the events affect New Haven, regardless of who we are,” said Cynthia Joyce, director of Community Mediation, a nonprofit group that teaches mediation to local residents, businesses and schools.

Joyce and Clinton Robinson, a child advocate with the Yale Child Study Center, moderated the forum.

New Haven’s Neighborhood Management Teams, Interfaith Cooperative Ministries, the Interracial Dialogue Project and the Greater New Haven Muslim Communities sponsored the event.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. began the forum with a two minute welcome message.

“New Haven has always had this ability to see how we’re the same even when we’re so different,” DeStefano said.

Audience members had different responses to the questions posed by the forum. One resident, Michael Lowe, answered the unity question in economic terms.

“We all go to the supermarket and take food off the shelves, but somebody put the stuff there,” he said. “Often, this economic interconnectedness is taken for granted.”

Others viewed the group’s unity in terms of joint national goals.

“We want America to be the way it was before Sept. 11,” Rob Hernandez said. “I hope my child, and all American children, can embrace all cultures and religions.”

The forum included two moments of silence. Imam Hassan of the Islamic congregation Masjid Al-Islam directed the first moment of silence before the discussion in memory of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. About 40 minutes later, an audience member who identified herself as Joan asked the crowd to take a minute to think about the Afghanistan civilians affected by the U.S. attacks.

Rose Shaw, 77, felt the forum’s date was appropriate.

“I’m glad that we’re meeting exactly one month after the catastrophe,” she said.

Although the mediators attempted to keep the discussion focused on local issues, audience members continued to speak about the current U.S. attacks.

One man wearing a black farmer’s cap compared the current events to both the Vietnam and Gulf wars.

“The Gulf War had serious consequences, mainly bringing cocaine into our country,” he said. “The consequences of the war of the United States against Afghanistan will flood the United States with heroin.”

Four follow-up sessions will take place in different parts of the New Haven community on Oct. 25.