Whether because of isolation during the pandemic, spending too much time on our phones or fear of engaging within a polarized political culture, many people struggle with social connections. The Cranberry Area Diversity Network (CADN) aims to overcome those pressures by connecting through conversation.
Cofounded by Charles Hawkins and Gary Winterhalter in 2013 and currently coordinated by Sonia Jaiswal, CADN is a volunteer organization that exists under the umbrella of Cranberry Township’s Parks and Recreation Department. Its mission is to broaden the community’s acceptance of diversity and foster opportunities for conversations outside people’s comfort zones.
CADN has found creative ways to do that.
Involved with the group since 2014, Jaiswal said one of CADN’s most successful projects was the creation of Amplifying Black Voices, a 2021 video that features Black Cranberry Township residents sharing their stories.
Darius Burden, co-owner of Burd Video and Photography, produced the piece in partnership with Jaiswal and other CADN volunteers.
“Amplifying Black Voices is a great entry point to understanding a diverse experience,” Burden said. “It shows that there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s a great medium to start a conversation.”
Colleen Tanner, a nurse and hospital administrator at UPMC Passavant as well as a CADN volunteer, also cited the video as an important resource.
“Every time we present the material, people are surprised,” Tanner said. “It gives people pause, and they often say, ‘I can do better.’”
In 2019 (in person) and in 2021 (virtually), CADN coordinated interfaith events to help the local community come together to learn about different faith traditions. The 2019 event featured a panel of religious leaders. The virtual event—attended by 169 participants—featured six local high school students describing their faith traditions (ranging from Christianity to Islam to Zoroastrianism) with a discussion that focused on common beliefs. Interestingly, every major religion and belief system has a version of the Golden Rule.
“People in this community are reaching out, looking to connect, looking for a safe space to be together,” Jaiswal explained. The common thread throughout CADN initiatives is the goal of sparking conversation.
One of CADN’s most popular and successful events, CranFest, returns this year after being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic and in 2021 because of inclement weather.
Pete Geis, director of parks and recreation for Cranberry Township, said CranFest’s goals are for people to experience, learn about and appreciate different cultures—and ultimately, to interact.
“We are all one community,” Geis said, adding that CranFest fits well with the Cranberry Township Plan’s stated objectives for diversity and inclusion. “Our community is becoming more diverse and we want to create a welcoming environment for everyone; cultural diversity is extremely important.”
Scheduled for May 7 from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. at the Cranberry Township Municipal Center, CranFest typically draws more than 2,000 people.
Jaiswal volunteered at CranFest for three years, took on the responsibility of chairing the event in 2017, and will oversee it this year as well. CranFest typically features dance performances, music, food and cultural and information booths.
Jaiswal is particularly passionate about a new element this year: a Be the Match swab event for the National Bone Marrow Registry.
“Inequity in medical care is an important issue,” Jaiswal explained. “I am excited that we can address the larger challenge of expanding the bone marrow registry for underrepresented groups and communities, and especially that we can support Be the Match for Jax.”
Jax Ramirez is a 7-year-old boy in Zelienople in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant. Because of his mixed heritage, Jax has yet to find a match. CranFest organizers hope that the event will draw a diverse crowd and broaden the pool of donors to help Jax and others in his situation.
CranFest food offerings will include Indian, Pakistani, Thai, Haitian, Colombian, Puerto Rican, and soul food, among others. Eventgoers can visit booths to get a henna design and try Japanese origami, and see Irish, Indian bhangra and Many Nations (Native American) dancing. A new interfaith group and LGBTQ+ support group will be on hand with information booths as well.
Nazra Aboosally, who was involved in organizing the very first CranFest event and has continued to participate each year, lauded the fest’s importance.
“CranFest is a form of validation for the diverse community in Cranberry Township,” Aboosally said. “We live in a global society today. Exposing our kids to the diversity within their own community only encourages acceptance of everyone and makes them better global citizens.”
Beyond CranFest, Aboosally expressed gratitude for CADN’s work.
“As an immigrant myself, I appreciated the lengths CADN went to, making sure everyone felt welcome and part of the Cranberry community,” Aboosally said. “CADN helps foster a sense of belonging for minorities and helps foster a sense of understanding and acceptance of those minorities.”
Burden, who serves as a mentor for African American high school students in the Seneca Valley School District, said CADN offers an important way to bridge the gap among people of different religions, backgrounds and ethnicities.
“So many people have told us that CADN is why they feel welcome here, and that makes me feel energized about what we are doing,” Tanner said. “We want this world to be more welcoming, more inclusive and more loving.”
That goal is achieved one conversation at a time, and CADN is providing the space and opportunity for those conversations to happen.
To find out more about CADN or for CranFest event details, check out https://www.cranberrydiversity.org.
To learn more about being a Match for Jax, visit https://bethematch.org/blog/patient-stories/young-boy-in-need-of-a-matching-donor-is-one-in-a-million or https://www.facebook.com/bethematchforjax.