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Leading the way: African Americans share experiences of making a difference

President of SUNY College at Old Westbury, Timothy

Timothy Sams, president of SUNY Old Westbury, talks about the events in his life that shaped who he is today, including racism and the role of family in his path to a career in higher education. Credit: Newsday / Reece T. Williams

Black History Month is more relevant than ever. After a year when race dominated the national conversation in a way not seen since the 1960s, there’s soul searching and a quest for knowledge and understanding. You can only walk in your own shoes, but a good second best is someone else’s story.

History is made in tiny steps and giant leaps. On Long Island there are Black leaders making a difference one day at a time. They courageously take on such issues as social justice, health and education disparities, voting rights, affordable housing, economic empowerment — and that’s just the beginning.

Tracey Edwards, the Long Island regional director for the NAACP, has long advocated for civil rights. Don’t call her a hero though. "I want to be remembered as someone that stood up and spoke up for what is right and what is just at every opportunity," she said.

Edwards is quick to praise others, "In this unprecedented time of economic challenges, COVID, civil unrest, health and educational disparities, those working on these issues are heroes."

This week we share the stories of six doing work that needs to be done for the good of all. Some are well-known warriors, others are millennials breathing new life into what seems an ancient struggle.

Jacob Dixon

Jacob Dixon knows what it’s like to need services. Growing up, he had a learning disability. His Roosevelt public school didn’t have the services he required, so he also attended a primarily white school in East Williston. "It was the tale of two worlds. It wasn’t a private school, but there they [my parents] advocated for me to get what I needed," said Dixon.

That experience planted his advocacy seeds. During undergraduate studies at Penn State, he worked for a Manhattan nonprofit providing student leadership development and advocacy in higher education and as a special-education teacher at a New York City charter school through Teach for America.

In 2011, from his parent’s basement, he started Choice for All, a nonprofit that now has 15 programs serving 150 children and families in Roosevelt and 22 ZIP codes. Among the programs is JumpStart Learning Hub, which provides academic support, virtually and in-person, after school. Choice for All also provides advocacy for parents of children with disabilities, working directly with school districts to increase access to quality education. There’s also youth entrepreneurial program that runs a community farm stand in Roosevelt and Hempstead to increase affordable healthy food options.

Choice for All directly supports those in need with onetime grants for fuel and utilities and vouchers for bus transportation. Its community-led campaigns focus on education justice, health equity and income stability. Inspired by Civil Rights activist Dorothy Cotton, Dixon’s Action Center offered information online during the 2020 election on voter registration as well as quick webinars on absentee ballots, early voting and the ballot.

What has Dixon smiling these days? Dancing, West African and salsa, collecting Black and Latinx art and being an uncle to seven nieces and a nephew. By early 2022, his organization will move to the Hagedorn Hub, a three-story center for family and social justice organizations Choice for All has built on North Main Street in Freeport with funding from Hagedorn Foundation. Until the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the building’s ownership was restricted to a white person, making the acquisition sweeter, said Dixon.

The 34-year-old Roosevelt resident refers to the children in his program as his kids. "This work is exciting but trying," he said. "There is a lot of emotional labor. You need emotional armor. But it’s not about me. I stand up for them and stand beside them."

Elaine Gross

ERASE Racism is marking its 20th year of working to eliminate barriers to racial equity. Founder and president Elaine Gross leads the organization that spotlights and exposes structural racism, particularly in housing and public schools, through research, policy advocacy, legal action and education.

The Syosset organization’s work has amended and strengthened local fair housing laws. Victories include successful litigation in Nassau and Suffolk counties against property owners and management companies that discriminated in showing rental apartments based on race. In 2016, Gross started the statewide campaign that led in 2019 to New York's enactment of a ban on housing discrimination against people who depend on legal nonwage sources of income (like rental housing income, alimony, and child support) for their rent.

"We’ve made an impact," Gross said, noting that the battle is far from over. "We have to keep going, I literally feel like I have no choice. I must do all that I can because of all that was done in the past. I owe it to my ancestors, those from long ago and from recent years. And also for our collective children."

Gross, 70, lives in Huntington and is a member of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council as well as other boards. Her many awards include the Lifetime Achievement Award from Long Island Business News. She enjoys long walks in the woods, jazz and Classical music.

Reflecting on the past two decades, she said, "When two or three come together for good you can do big things. That is the story of ERASE Racism. We have done the work that had to be done even when it wasn’t popular or supported adequately financially."

Erika Hill

"I’ve been called 'Buckwheat,' the N-word, followed and accused of stealing a coat in a store," said Erika Hill.

Through it all, she has mastered the art of maintaining her composure — and venting to family and friends instead. In the end, she keeps moving and focused. She doesn’t wear that T-shirt with "Changemaker" splashed on it for nothing. Hill is the principal of Vision Street Research, a consultancy on a mission to provide research that impacts communities. The company, which she started in Georgia in 2012, supports minority- and women-owned business enterprises (referred to as MWBEs), especially those that are Black-owned.

Her clients are community-based organizations, government entities and small businesses. She has partnered with and been asked to spearhead projects with Chambers of Commerce to help MWBEs.

Hill, 40 of Baldwin, is a member of the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Coalition of Black Women Businesses. She has worked as the director of programs and community engagement for the Office of the Nassau County Comptroller and as the director of programs at Sustainable Long Island, where she led a team that implemented community-based projects, including working with stakeholders and leaders in Long Beach and Roosevelt to host sessions in which MBWE attendees got advice and resources about marketing, business formation, applying for government contracts and more.

Hill teamed with Choice for All and Minority Millennials to encourage young adult minorities to participate in the 2020 census using the social media campaign #OurLivesCount. She created the Eugenia Hill Marketing Scholarship at her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, and during the pandemic, the Willa Mae Grant for Black businesses.

A recent win was becoming a virtual work site for the Town of Hempstead Summer Youth Employment Program, developing and administering a five-week educational and professional program for three minority males. "I am most proud of it because doing so made me feel like I was honoring the life and legacy of my late father, who believed in workforce development. Viewing the final presentations from the students solidified that the experience made a lasting impact on each of them," Hill said.

She said her close-knit family keeps her centered, elsewhere she looks to Madam C.J. Walker, a fellow alopecian and the first Black woman millionaire in America. "She was very empowering to me when I was diagnosed with alopecia areata," Hill said of the autoimmune disease. "Learning how she transformed her pain point into a positive, flourishing business was exciting for me."

Hill writes poetry, practices yoga, plays tennis and ran her first half-marathon last year. How does she want to be remembered? "As someone who woke up every day wondering how she could make an impact."

Dr. D’Andrea Joseph

As a child D’Andrea Joseph wanted to be Mother Teresa. She was drawn to the nun’s dedication to altruism. The chief of acute care surgery and trauma at NYU Langone Hospital – Long Island in Mineola said giving back is a must for her.

The first woman and person of color to head her division, Joseph, 51, said, "I had a lot of help along the way."

Not only professionally from mentors but from family. "I didn't want for anything growing up, having a fairly privileged upbringing by West Indies standards, but when I came here I struggled," said Joseph. Her parents made financial sacrifices so their children could attend college — and she could attend medical school at Stony Book University and her residency at Brown University. Her brother, who lived in Washington, D.C., drove to New York so she could use his car for school until hers was fixed. Her sister, who doesn’t drive, would do things like take a bus from New Jersey to Queens to bring her a blanket to keep her warm when she was a struggling undergrad.

Joseph gives back with lectures on intimate-partner violence and has served on the board of the House of Malta, a mobile medical center for underserved communities.

"I love taking care of people, it’s my calling," said Joseph, also an associate professor in the department of surgery at NYU Long Island School of Medicine. She learned from watching her mother, who often brought home folks the family didn’t know but who needed help.

Working at a Level-1 Trauma Center that treats some of most complex injuries, Joseph said she understands the stresses on patients’ loved ones, at times giving out her cellphone number to text her if needed. "I sleep comfortably when I get a text because I feel like I’m connecting with my patients. I feel blessed to help."

Joseph, who trained at the noted Shock Trauma program at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, is a member of several societies and serves on such national committees as the American College of Surgeons and the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma; she was elected a board member this year for the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma. Her research includes injury prevention for intimate-partner and gun violence, among others. She received the humanitarian award from former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine for her volunteer work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

How does the Roslyn resident keep going when she constantly sees the worst of the worst? "Shoes. Louboutins."

Zodelia Williams

Zodelia Williams, 49, aspires to be a modern-day Harriet Tubman, taking to heart the abolitionist's words, "Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."

That’s the positive thinking she wants to instill in the children who cross her path. She is the executive director of Baldwin’s 3 D’s Aftercare Inc., which she founded in 2008, as well as its Empowerment Circle and Community Empowerment Center. She opened a second Empowerment Center this month.

Williams believes children have the right to be free from circumstances or challenges that hinder their development. A single mother of three, she understands the complexity of family life; her nonprofit is named for her grown children, Dwight, Danielle and Daria.

From the outset, Williams, who got her master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University and a doctorate from Capella University, wanted to boost children’s self-esteem and fill in academic and social gaps. Her center offers STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math), after-school programs open until midnight, a summer camp, teen parenting program, teen café, mentoring, scholarships, ESL, workshops, social emotional learning, parenting programs, Aged Like Fine Wine 55+ Club, and more.

Her many programs and services impact more than 200 families. The needs are great. Racism, she said, "impacts all aspects of Black and brown life, generational poverty, violence, underserved schools, inadequate housing."

Williams is also a co-leader of a Girl Scout troop, a member of the Nassau County District Attorney’s African American Advisory Council. In 2019 she received the Allen Jamison Black Woman That Rock Award and the SBC Women of Distinction Award. Somehow, Williams walks 20,000 steps a day, trekking from Freeport home to Baldwin and back. "It’s a time for me to gather my thoughts, answer phone calls, and be still with God," she said.

The victories keep her going. "We had a student come in as a cutter and she is now one year cut-free," Williams explained. "That is the benediction. If I had to wake up from this dream right now, that would be enough.

"When she initially started coming to us, she hated it. She was older and hated being at 3 D’s. She would sit in the back and isolate. Now she and I have a relationship that goes beyond our walls, and I know that she knows that I am going to support her as long as I have breath. That is a win for us, our community and humanity."

Fred Brewington

Fred Brewington was a second-grader when he was a part of the court-ordered integration of the Malverne School District. "When I left my Black school, I realized for the first time that people didn’t like me because of the color of my skin," Brewington said.

He’ll never forget that first day at Lindner Place Elementary School. "There was picketing by the folks from the white community, and the press greeted me as I arrived at school."

The impact was huge. Brewington would take up anti-racism as part of his life’s work in law. Before opening his firm in 1987, he worked with lawyer Vernon C. Mason, was a clerk at the Office of the Legal Counsel of the U.S. Senate as well the Community Organization Legal Assistance Project of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the Community Development Legal Assistance Center.

He’s long been a social justice advocate, challenging the "at large" voting system in the towns of Hempstead and Islip along with discriminatory practices on Long Island in such areas as affordable housing and employment.

The 64-year-old, who lives in Freeport with his wife, works pro bono advising community groups, and for 30-plus years, he’s volunteered as a football coach in the Malverne School District. Brewington has received numerous awards, including one from the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Civil Rights.

Has he grown weary of the fight? "I’m hopeful. After George Floyd and the protests there is a real possibility for change, but we need to go at this with a jack hammer because people are slow to change and systems are slower to change."

Brewington is hardly finished "bringing people to the altar," he said. "I’m never satisfied."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the hospital where Dr. D'Andrea Joseph works; it is NYU Langone Hospital – Long Island. She went to medical school at Stony Book University and did her residency at Brown University, details that were incorrect in a previous version of this story.

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