Bridging Politics, Culture & Development: A Conversation with Antonia Moran and Areeba Shabbir

by Areeba Shabbir

Antonia Moran has been a Mansfield resident for over five decades, holding both a graduate degree and a law degree from the University of Connecticut. In her retired years, she served as the State Coordinator for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), teaching state and local government and law at the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) for two decades. During her tenure, she led the Center for Social Research. Antonia has been a member of the Town Council since her initial election in 2009, and became Mayor in 2019. Additionally, she has contributed to the Mansfield Downtown Partnership Board since 2011, currently leading the Finance and Growth Committee. 

Areeba Shabbir is a Fulbright-FLTA at  Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA. Areeba also serves as Cultural Ambassador of India in the United States by sharing and promoting various aspects of Indian culture, including art, literature, and values that foster cross-cultural understanding. Furthermore, she emphasizes on building networks and collaborating with educational organizations to launch projects to promote cultural exchange. Prior to joining Wesleyan University, she worked as an Assistant Professor in India. Her research is focused on Artificial Intelligence in Second Language Learning. 

Areeba: Delighted to be here, Antonia! As we embark on this conversation about politics, culture, and development, your experiences offer a rich tapestry to explore. What sparked your interest in politics and led you to become the Mayor of Mansfield?

Antonia:  I have been interested in the power of government to make change since I was a child.  From protesting segregated schools in the 1950s to advocating for women’s rights in this century, there have been opportunities for voters and their elected officials to make real change that benefits individuals, families and society.  My parents were politically active.   I learned that people need to stand up for what they believe in, express their opinions and vote.  Sometimes you have to run for office, too.

Areeba: How has your journey shaped your personal growth and influenced your views on civic responsibility?

Antonia: As you can see, I grew up believing that individuals can make  difference.  There were many years when I focused solely on my work and my family, but when those responsibilities grew lighter, I looked for other ways to contribute.  For years, I did it through my work, supporting disadvantaged young people at UConn, then advocating for higher education at the state legislature, and then finally by teaching government at a state university.  When I retired, I looked for another way to contribute, and ended up running for office.  When I was growing up, it was considered radical to argue that Black and white [people] were equal, that women should have equal access to birth control, education and work. So I don’t look as radical as I once was. But I have come to believe that Americans are much more conservative than the left thinks they are, and that it is much harder to make real social change. To some extent that’s because the big inequities in law have been dealt with and the problems are more complex and difficult.  Furthermore, there are new challenges, like global warming and pollution. However, it is very clear to me that without individual participation in government at all levels, not just the national, democracy won’t live up to its promises.  We have a long way to go.  I worry about the younger generation that tends not to vote, I worry about the role of corporations in politics, I worry about the decline of political parties and the rise of personality politics. I worry about the left misjudging its power, causing Democratic voters to stay home, and allowing Republicans to win.

Areeba: Can you share insights into building connections in the political landscape, both locally and potentially on a broader scale?

Antonia: Start with kindness.  A Catholic bishop in Hartford once gave a speech in which he emphasized that we must respect the dignity of each human being.  It’s a good place to start.

Areeba: Absolutely! Being kind is beautiful. Mirza Ghalib, an Urdu poet once said,

“دل ہی تو ہے نہ سنگ و خشت

درد سے بھر نہ آئے کیوں”


“Dil hi toh hai na sang-o-khisht

Dard se bhar na aaye kyun?”

Antonia: Impressive! Could you enlighten me about it?

Areeba: Well, it translates as,

“It is a heart, not stone or brick,

Why shouldn’t it feel pain?”

(Both Antonia & Areeba smiled humbly, and exchanged glances with a gentle reflection of warmth and grace.)

Areeba: What aspects of India do you find noteworthy?

Antonia: Its history, its vibrancy, its colors, its food, its immensity.  Its culture. The emphasis on spiritual diversity, and the coexistence of modernity with tradition are also noteworthy aspects. 

Areeba: Can you recall a situation where cultural differences posed a challenge, and how did you navigate it to ensure a positive outcome?

Antonia: The most obvious answer is language. The second is assumptions.  And the third is history. What do you assume is the proper role for women?  Or how an economy should work?  Or the role of a god in the other person’s life? What has that person’s experience been up to now? The best way to navigate is to ask questions, even the stupid ones.  Make sure you are understanding the other person.  Put yourself in that person’s shoes.  Look for answers that meet real needs, not just what everyone expects.

Areeba: Balancing historical preservation with modern development is delicate. How did you approach this respecting cultural differences while promoting progress in Mansfield?

Antonia:   To some extent we have already obliterated the past by building over it.  Americans tend to have very short historical memories.  Some people remember that there used to be textile mills in Mansfield but none of the people who came here since the 1950s have observed that.  Should it be preserved?  Should we only remember the positive history or is there a good reason to remember the bad (there was slavery in Mansfield from its first European settlements).  It matters when it matters.  It matters to some people but not to others.  Some value the modern world over the historical one. Mansfield has chosen to set aside some parts of town to preserve its rural history and others to build a more modern community.  So far it has worked fairly well.  Almost no one longs for the return of the decrepit strip mall that used to be on the site of Storrs Center. It’s a lot easier for a small town like Mansfield than it is for a larger community.

Areeba: After listening to your in-depth views, I am thinking of a famous couplet by Allama Iqbal. Iqbal, born in Sialkot, India (now Pakistan) in 1877, is remembered in Urdu literature and beyond for his impactful contributions in poetry.

نہیں تیرا نشیمن قصرِ سُلطانی کے گُنبد پر

تُو شاہین ہے بسیرا کر پہاڑوں کی چٹانوں پر


“Nahin Tera Nasheman Qasr-e-Sultani Ke Gunbad Par

Tu Shaheen Hai, Basera Kar Paharon Ki Chatanon Mein” 

Antonia: Nahee terra..?

Areeba: Well, it translates as,  

On the dome of the royal palace, not your abode,

You are a falcon, fly higher and settle amidst the peaks.

Antonia: Thank you, Areeba, for sharing this beautiful couplet. It is inspiring!

(Antonia pats Areeba in appreciation)

Areeba: It is my pleasure!

(smiles humbly). 

After the conversation, they enjoyed coffee and hot Indian vegetable pakora, delving into the significance of both American and Indian festivals such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Raksha Bandhan, Eid, Diwali, and more. Areeba also shared the recipe of making vegetable pakora and its chutney (sauce).

Special Acknowledgment: 

Ildiko Novak, PhD, Fulbright Visiting Scholar Awardee in Puppetry Art, University of Connecticut, USAAssociate Professor, University of Arts in Tirgu Mures, Romania