Sitting in a giant circle, the guests and members of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force spent Monday evening discussing topics as diverse as the group itself.
A Hispanic business owner described discrimination he’d witnessed firsthand. A black woman who runs a child care service for young girls explained the importance of valuing all lives. A local civic leader argued forcefully for more housing options for families in town. The state of online political discourse worried many in attendance.
The roundtable discussion at the town senior center, the first one held since the task force re-formed two years ago, was the first step in opening up more lines of communication among the various threads in the “fabric” of Riverhead Town, said task force chairwoman Connie Lassandro.
“This is a discussion and it’s a meaningful one,” she said.
About 25 people attended the forum, including Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman Tim Hubbard, Police Chief David Hegermiller and Lt. Sean Egan, Riverhead schools Superintendent Nancy Carney and school board members, as well as other civic leaders and community residents.
For much of the night, Riverhead residents expressed concern about an unfolding gang situation in Brentwood, an equally diverse community.
“Twenty-five years ago, relations in the Town of Riverhead were not that great and there were a lot of problems,” Mr. Walter said at the start of the meeting. “We have to make sure those problems don’t wind up back here.”
The supervisor praised the work of the task force — which was revived after a series of muggings against primarily Hispanic victims in downtown Riverhead — as well as local police and schools for helping to build trust and ease tensions.
Ms. Carney also thanked local police for their help, noting that programs like Council for Unity foster friendships between Riverhead’s youth and law enforcement.
“There’s just so many positive relationships that are built,” she said.
However, Ms. Carney cautioned that much still needed to be done to help children succeed. She cited figures showing a boom in new students who can’t speak English and often arrive as immigrants with little education. She described the district’s struggle to educate these students in the face of the state education department’s bureaucracy.
Ms. Carney also expressed concern about the tenor of social media posts.
“There are so many things that are put on social media that are not true, that are not based on fact, that are downright mean,” she said. “I think it’s something we need to deal with because it’s what our kids read, it’s what our community reads.”
School board member Ann Cotten-DeGrasse agreed, saying some kids are “modeling the tenor of the times in our country.”
Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, which provides support for the local Hispanic population, said that while many in the community were struggling to survive on low wages and have inadequate housing, the process of integration has already begun.
Immigrants with green cards are seeking U.S. citizenship, opening businesses or getting more involved with their children’s education, she said.
The Rev. Enrique Lebron of Riverhead United Methodist Church agreed, saying, “The Spanish people are looking for steady jobs. They want to do the right thing.”
Sister Margaret told the story of her own Irish family coming to America and struggling to fit in.
“People are becoming more a part of the fabric” of Riverhead, she said.
The Hispanic community is also becoming more politically active this year and, thanks to efforts by the town’s police department, are more willing to trust law enforcement. But the process is still slow, Sister Margaret added.
“Where are you going to see the biggest success? The next generation,” she said. “The kids in the schools.”
Roberto Ramos, a member of the Anti-Bias Task Force, said he has personally been discriminated against because of the way he speaks and the way he looks. But, he said, his struggles were shared before by generations of other ethnic immigrants in America.
“We are all here [as] immigrants,” he said. “I’m setting the foundations so my kids don’t struggle. That’s the American Dream. And that’s what everybody’s fighting [for].”
The task force forum also touched on the state of the local black community and its relations with local police. Tijuana Fulford, a black woman who runs the Butterfly Effect Project that mentors young women, said her experience with local police has always been positive.
While many black men see the law as biased against them, Ms. Fulford said, those issues occur on a national scale and haven’t been felt in her hometown.
“What’s happening in Riverhead might not be what’s happening in Ferguson,” she said. “I have never seen a finer police department than Riverhead.”
Ms. Fulford also advocated for more support to give women confidence, as well as an end to segregating people because of their skin color. She said she was ashamed of a recent Black Lives Matter protest that she believed “attacked” her hometown and those who serve it.
“We have to stop talking about people in colored sections,” she said. “Everyone is a person first.”
However, others present at the roundtable said a mentor for young adults can help lead them toward success. Ms. Lassandro said the task force will be looking into creating a directory of activities, groups and volunteer opportunities for young people, similar to one that exists for the town’s senior citizens.
Echoing many other meetings about Riverhead’s future, the group also focused on housing concerns, especially affordable rentals and properties for young families. Jamesport resident and civic association president Angela DeVito said the housing problems throughout Riverhead are not limited to within the town’s boundaries.
“We do not have family housing, nor any plans to develop this,” she said. “Perhaps we have to approach this as a region.”
The Anti-Bias Task Force plans to hold more forums in the future and is actively looking for more participation from the community. At a meeting next month, task force members will discuss topics raised at the forum and potential schedule changes aimed at making it easier for others to get involved with their work.
Photo: About 25 people attended a forum Monday night hosted by the Anti-Bias Task Force to discuss myriad issues facing local residents. (Credit: Paul Squire)