Huntington could use a Council for Unity

A pedestrian walks on New York Avenue in A pedestrian walks on New York Avenue in Huntngton Station. (March 22, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Huntington could use a Council for Unity.

Start it in the high schools. Spread it to the middle and primary schools. And maybe the students, like those at Riverhead High School, will push communities of adults to form their own successful councils.

What's a Council for Unity? It's a not-for-profit, created more than 30 years ago, that specializes in resolving issues including gang violence. A council brings conflicting groups together. In schools, that might be gang members and athletes, geeks and Goths. In Riverhead, over time, their high school council, to the group's astonishment, grew to include police officers.

"I thought there was no way it was going to work," Town Police Officer Richard Freeborn said during a recent presentation about councils in Riverhead. He had good reason for doubt: He'd served warrants at some of the kids' homes. "I was stunned when it did," he said.

Over in one corner, Robert DeSena, a former New York City high school teacher who founded Council for Unity in 1975, sat smiling. "They thought I was nuts," he said. "We couldn't guarantee that it would work, but it did."

How do councils work? They establish agendas, focusing -- and this would be key for Huntington -- on problems rather than individuals. The council then works toward a solution that will benefit all parties.

DeSena's got them working at other Long Island high schools, and at the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead, where rival black, white and Latino gang members work together.

In Riverhead, the Family Partnership of the Council for Unity, the group the kids wanted their parents to form, meets at the local library and once a year holds a recognition dinner. "One night at the library, we had one of our older residents . . . in the room," recalled Chris Hopkins, a Partnership leader. "She says, 'I'm guessing this isn't the book club,' " she said, as the room laughed. The woman went on to join the council.

The council idea sounds deceptively simple.

But the Riverhead police chief and the local high school principal say the council helped the community gain control of its gang problem. And, residents said, the council bought together residents in communities separated by the Peconic River. "It was almost as if they'd been raised to dislike each other," DeSena said during the meeting, which was attended by representatives of the Brooklyn district attorney's office, which wants to bring the program there.

Let's contrast that to what's going on in Huntington. There's a public meeting slated for Tuesday night -- 7 to 9 p.m. at the community center behind the shoe store at the Big H mall -- about a study of the potential for economic development and environmental improvements in the area around the Long Island Rail Road station.

It will be the first chance the community has to gather since a report by Victor Ramos in Sunday's Newsday detailed the challenges posed by gangs and other issues in Huntington Station. Is there, as suggested by meeting materials from Sustainable Long Island, which is running Tuesday's meeting, an opportunity for Huntington Station? That's yet to be determined.

Already on local websites some are asking whether there is a "secret" development plan.

If true, would that be an issue? Certainly. But would it deter a Huntington Council for Unity from revitalizing Huntington Station? No, because the focus would stay on the agenda -- fixing Huntington Station -- rather than another cross-community fight.

Huntington residents deserve better. But better, alas, has eluded a divided community for decades.

Bring in Council for Unity.

Let the children take the lead.

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