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Volunteer Nation: ERASE Racism to host Island-wide discussions

Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, near Commack's

Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, near Commack's Mayfair Gardens, an apartment complex that in 2016 agreed to pay $230,000 to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit filed by ERASE Racism and seven African-Americans who said they were denied access to rental apartments based on their race. Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In his book, “Crabgrass Crucible,” Christopher Sellers, director of the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice & Policy at Stony Brook University, recounts the experience in 1950 of a newlywed African-American couple who sought to buy a home in Levittown.

“Driving out to Levittown they were the only black people in sight,” Sellers said. “Everyone was staring at us,” the couple told him. “The real estate salesman promptly turned them away, telling them ‘the  . . .  builders of this development have not yet decided to sell to  . . .  Negroes.’ ”

Levittown legacy

The incident was an example of the structural racism that has historically denied African-Americans equity in housing, public school education and other aspects of life, said Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based organization dedicated to eliminating discrimination on Long Island.

The federally financed affordable homes in Levittown were available only to white GIs returning from World War ll, Gross said. “GIs who were black were summarily blocked from living in these new houses, just because they were black,” she writes under Challenges Facing the Nation in a Long Island Index 2018 report.

“The deed to the Levittown homes said you cannot sell to someone who is not Caucasian,” Gross explained recently.

Not much has changed, contends Gross.

“We’re still segregated,” she said. “Long Island is one of the 10 most racially segregated regions in the country. Isolation from one another has created fear and divisions . . . There is a need to tackle racial segregation head-on.”

Beginning this fall, ERASE Racism is calling on Long Islanders to participate in a series of Islandwide “community conversations” it is launching called "How Do We Build a Just Long Island?"

The five forums planned for November and December are designed, Gross said, to increase awareness about structural racism and spark a “crucial” public conversation about moving from segregation to inclusion. 

Crucial conversation

“We feel people need to be educated about structural racism,” Gross said during an interview in her office. “There are a lot of people who are unaware; they don’t believe you when you say Long Island is segregated. They don’t see how anything they might be doing falls under the category of structural racism.”

“This is not about blaming and shaming,” she said. “We need to get smarter about what produces racial inequity, and then we can figure out ways to create more racial equity. We need your voice in a courageous conversation that moves us forward. If you want a more inclusive, Long Island, let’s work together to create change. Segregation is not only wrong, it’s causing Long Islanders to miss out on benefits that are proving vital to a competitive economy and workforce in the 21st century.”

Her organization’s fight is “more than a fight for fair housing,” Gross said. “It is a fight for opportunity, the opportunity to live in a community with high-performing schools, good jobs and other amenities for us and our children.”

The first forum takes place Nov. 29 at the Hilton Garden Inn Stony Brook,  and will be co-hosted by Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice & Policy.

Sellers, a history professor at the university, applauded the plan. “A lot of us involved with the center are impressed by this campaign that ERASE Racism is taking on to change the narrative about racism on Long Island, to make it less about individuals and to emphasize the structural nature of how it’s baked into the very nature of Long Island. People are divided across Long Island,” he said.

In the first forum, “We will increase our shared understanding of structural racism, its history on Long Island and the implications,” Gross said. “We will explore what can be done to achieve the many benefits of more inclusive communities.”

Establishing the forums “is both an opportunity and a challenge,” Gross said. “In some moments it’s terrifying to try to do something that hasn’t been done before. We don’t seem to be up for discussing deep problems.”

Gross, who was born in Mineola and grew up on Long Island, lives in Huntington with her husband, Jess, to whom she has been married for 44 years. They have a son, Alex.

ERASE Racism was founded in 2001 when Gross was hired by the Long Island Community Foundation (a branch of the New York Community Trust) to identify issues that needed to be addressed on Long Island.

Structural racism

“I decided Long Island needed to focus on structural racism — the way that laws and institutional policies create racial inequities — making it clear that the past was not the past, the past is still present; and segregated housing was a good place to start.”

Having a master’s degree in social work from Boston University, Gross, who was deputy director of the Boston Housing Partnership, brought to the task her experience in research and evaluation, in community development, as a grant maker and in working with public and private agencies in Boston and New York.

She has focused on exploring the systemic causes of social, political and economic inequities and finding ways to counteract them. The objective is “transformed, integrated communities in which no person’s access to opportunity is limited by race or ethnicity,” according to ERASE Racism’s website.

The organization has been working with officials to enforce fair housing laws and has joined housing discrimination lawsuits. Two years ago, Square Realty Group, owner of the 107-apartment complex at 11 Mayfair Gardens in Commack, and its manager, Empire Management America Corp., both of Manhattan, agreed to pay $230,000 to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit filed by ERASE Racism and seven African-Americans who said they were denied access to rental apartments based on their race.

“This kind of discrimination not only denies African-Americans access to housing but it also denies their children access to high-quality public schools,” Gross remarked at the time.

LI schools segregation

The situation in the public schools has worsened, Gross said. Using data from the New York State Department of Education, a 2017 ERASE Racism study found that more black and Hispanic students attend segregated schools now than did 12 years ago, and there are more than twice as many intensely segregated school districts. 

When asked if more should be done to include students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in public schools on Long Island, 60 percent of blacks, 49 percent of Hispanics, and 28 percent of whites said yes, according to ERASE Racism’s research. Asked if less should be done, 43 percent of Hispanics, 32 percent of blacks, and 54 percent of whites said yes.

Gross said her organization set up the Student Task Force because "we felt students are impacted by the segregation. We thought they should be educated about this and they should use their voices to speak to the adults and share their opinion. The children are often ignored."

At the end of October, nine students from Nassau and Suffolk high schools who are part of ERASE Racism's Voices Campaign participated on panels at the 99th annual New York State School Boards Association and Education Expo in Manhattan Oct. 25 to 27. The three-day event attracted more than 700 school boards.  

Gabriela Daza, 17, a senior at Mepham High School in North Bellmore, was in the ERASE Racism contingent.

"We spoke about education equity in Long Island public schools and the segregation that exists," Daza said. "The platform that ERASE Racism gives students is a unique platform," she said. "It is very rare you are able to speak to your school board members about topics like this."

Her panel focused on diversity in school curriculum. "We want more focus on Latin American, African and Asian cultures as opposed to just a Eurocentric curriculum," said Daza, who is Hispanic. "In my school there was not a lot of diversity in the student population; you were just a student of color if you were not European.

“There was no distinction between Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern or Latin American; we were all grouped together. I hope they take our words into consideration and put them into practice," Daza said.

David Albert, a spokesman for the state School Boards Association said, "We believe it is important for schools to have a diverse and inclusive curriculum so that students learn and understand the contributions that people from all backgrounds have made to society, and we encourage educators to listen to all members of the school community, including students, when making decisions, including decisions related to curriculum and instruction."

ERASE Racism also has a prestigious board of directors and a College of Advisors drawn from the fields of education, law, banking, marketing, immigration and real estate. Both groups help ERASE Racism carry out its mission to expose racial discrimination and advocate for laws and policies that help eliminate racial disparities and segregation, particularly in the areas of housing, education, health and community development.

“Race is a big issue,” agreed the Rev. Calvin Butts, president SUNY Old Westbury and a member the College of Advisors. “To bring people to a table, that is truth telling,” Butts said. “Perhaps through that we’ll have some reconciliation.”

“Both the blacks and whites she [Gross] works with are men and women of good will trying to address this amorphic and endemic racism that exists on Long Island,” said Butts, who is also pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. “I believe the work they’re doing is necessary and important and brings people together in a way that’s going to be productive.”

To bring people together, Gross is urging residents in Nassau and Suffolk to join ERASE Racism’s Partnership for Racial Equity, “a diverse coalition of community voices to fight injustices caused by policies and institutions.”

That support “will create a Long Island undivided by race,” she said. “We want people not just to say, ‘We’ll support your mission.’ We want to have a group of active constituents to come together to push for things we are working on. We hope we will have people of all means participating, that we’ll have people saying, ‘We can’t let this die. I have to be part of the solution.’ ”

Toward that goal, the organization also aims to train public school educators, college and university professors, school board members,business leaders, health care providers and the general public to “understand racism’s personal, institutional and cultural manifestations, the effects of white privilege, internalized racism and how individuals can work to dismantle racism in their personal and professional lives.”  

Jeong-eun Rhee has been a volunteer with ERASE Racism for three years. A professor of education and researcher at LIU Post, she is helping a colleague collect and analyze data about Long Island educators and administrators — kindergarten to college level — “brainstorming about strategies we can use to address racial equity issues.”

“I knew the organization, and always wanted to get involved,” Rhee said. “I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to work with them. I can introduce what they do to my students who are going to become teachers. Doing this racism work with local organizations, I think that’s very important.”

A $100,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock has made the upcoming forums possible. “The congregation has a long-standing commitment to racial justice and racial equity,” said the Rev. Ned Wight, interim senior minister of the Manhasset congregation.

“Knowing as we do the history of Long Island, where housing discrimination and racial injustice have been part of our history, it’s important for us to partner with organizations on Long Island to create a practice of much greater equity; to partner with them recognizing that they are taking the lead,” Wight said. “I hope there’s a good turnout for these conversations.”  

That is also Gross’ hope.

“I think this is both an opportunity and a necessity,” she said. “The time is ripe for us to do this, because people are open to it. We shouldn’t lose this opportunity. We can’t just do nothing; we can’t afford to have things continue as they are.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Connie Lassandro

Receiving complaints that an antique store in Riverhead was displaying “African American jockeys with lanterns” in front of the store prompted Connie Lassandro, chair of Riverhead Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, to visit the shop. Lassandro, 72, is a volunteer with the task force, which bills itself as a group of "concerned citizens, government officials, representatives of law enforcement, education and clergy, all of whom work together to address the issue of prejudice."

The items for sale were so-called lawn jockeys in “black face” that are viewed as icons of the Old South. The statues are seeing a resurgence in popularity as collectibles, according to LawnJock.com.

The lawn jockeys are "kind of a yearning for a lost era," said Christopher Sellers, director of the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice & Policy at Stony Brook University. "It has to do with nostalgia. It's like the cartoons they had in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It's not slavery per se, but a low-status position. It's a way of objectifying a people, stereotyping the racial features."

Those Lassandro saw at the antique store were “apparently a very popular item,” she said. “There were people offended by it and wrote to us. I went to the store and expressed concern. The proprietor said he was sorry and would no longer sell or display them. This is an example of people being unaware of how they are offending someone. People innocently do something that offends somebody.”

Lassandro, of Baiting Hollow, has been a volunteer with ERASE Racism since 2011, when she retired as Nassau County director of housing. She has chaired ERASE racism’s annual benefit for several years and is on its College of Advisors. She considers herself and members of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force ambassadors for ERASE Racism. The task force will co-host the ERASE Racism forum in Riverhead on Dec. 4 that Lassandro is helping to coordinate.

She brings to the group a background in housing, including as a trustee on the board of Long Island Housing Services, which advocates for fair housing.

“I strongly believe in the mission of ERASE Racism; it’s a good partnership with the Anti-Bias Task Force,” Lassandro said. “I’m a strong believer in saying, ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ ”

“I have seen over the years discrimination not only in housing but in all different aspects of our lives,” Lassandro said. “Being part of this organization allows me to bring the message: This town is a town that does not want to see any hatred or anything of that nature. As an individual I passionately feel this way, and feel I am instrumental in getting this message out in a positive manner. It makes people look at what they’ve been doing and what is not politically correct. We’re all volunteers. We all try to do whatever we can.”

Lassandro plans to continue being an ambassador for ERASE Racism, “taking on different challenges and speaking out for the people, now more than ever,” she said. “I’ve been around a long time and I have never seen the climate the way it is today,” she said. “It’s very sad, and we really need to do our part and change things.”

“It’s as much effort to hate as it is to love,” Lassandro said. “I would rather put my effort into love.”

Sign Me Up

From doing research to serving on benefit committees and helping with mailing, there’s a lot that volunteers can do to help ERASE Racism carry out its mission to end racial inequities in housing and public education and build a just Long Island.

“People sometimes have special skills,” said Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism. “PhD students do research for us; volunteers assist with our annual benefit, fundraising, organizing events and soliciting items for silent auctions. We’ve had students help us plan what we’re doing in a way that will be exciting for youth. There’s always plenty of work to do.”

“Sometimes we need a pro bono attorney; a few extra hands to make phone calls, help with the mailing, logistics, and help us make connections to people who may want to help the organization,” Gross said. “Retirees can help in the office.”

Later this month, the organization begins hosting five "How Do We Build a Just Long Island?" forums for community members and potential volunteers.

Thursday, Nov. 29, 6 to 8.30 p.m., Hilton Garden Inn, 1 Circle Rd., Stony Brook; co-hosted by the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice & Policy, Stony Brook University.

Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6 to 8.30 p.m., Riverhead Senior Center, 60 Shade Tree Lane; co-hosted by Town of Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force.

Wednesday, Dec. 5, 6 to 8:30 p.m., Hofstra University Club, 225 Hofstra University, Hempstead; co-hosted by The National Center for Suburban Studies, Hofstra University.

Thursday, Dec. 6, 8 to 10 a.m., Bank of America Building, 300 Broadhollow Road, Melville, downstairs conference room; co-hosted by Long Island Association; includes light breakfast.

Monday, Dec. 10, 6 to 8:30 p.m., Radisson Hotel-Hauppauge, 110 Vanderbilt Motor Pkwy., Hauppauge; co-hosted by State of Black Long Island Equity Council, convened by the Urban League of Long Island.      

All but the Dec. 6 event include light dinner; the forums are free, but registration is required at eraseracismny.org (go to “Our Work”); space is limited; for more information, call 516-921-4863. 

To become an ERASE Racism volunteer: “They have to tell us something about themselves, and what they’re looking for,” Gross said.

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Raising Voices, a coalition of community leaders in Rockville Centre, also offers opportunities for people to speak up about racism, and other societal issues they are passionate about, to help create change. The group holds forums and panel discussions on such topics as climate change and health care. An anti-racism project enables conversation "about things that are difficult," said Emma Travers, of Rockville Centre, who co-founded of Raising Voices there. The history of racism, how different people have been treated and the Melting Pot "as something that is beneficial to all of us," Travers said, are among subjects discussed. "We're trying to get people to become  more aware of what is going on in our society. Conversation breeds understanding." Volunteers can help Raising Voices register people to vote, Travers said. Contact the organization at RaisingVoicesUSA.org

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