What’s it like, asked Joey Ramirez, the moderator for a lively panel discussion with a racially and ethnically diverse group of teenagers in Amityville on Thursday night, to be young and live on Long Island?
For some of them, like 17-year-old Justin Bethea, who attends Amityville High School, dealing with prejudices that people have against the high school he attends is a constant bother. Naya Pierce, 14, of North Babylon High school, said dealing with “cultural cliques” annoyed her. And Jeffrey Reyes Espinal, 17, who said he planned to run for the school board for Amityville schools, said he felt ignored by the adults who seemed to make decisions affecting his life without his input.
Each of the 11 panelists from Nassau and Suffolk weighed in during an evening of discussion about the challenges they face while growing up — encounters with police, the specter of gun violence, group identity, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, as well as other issues common to every generation’s coming of age. About 100 people attended the forum.
The two-hour event, which appropriately featured the sounds of DJ Liv and Nigel Tariq spinning young people’s favorite hits and the spoken word poetry of Dimaex Louis-Charles, was designed to be among the first of many forums to give younger people on Long Island — specifically millennials and Generation Z — a chance for their voices to be heard.
“You don’t have to be a politician but what you do have to do is become civically engaged,” said state Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Babylon), who helped coordinate the event at Bayview Kitchen in Amityville along with Daniel J. Lloyd, founder and president of Minority Millennials Inc.
“Our goal for 2020 is to mobilize 2,500 young people to actually go out and vote,” Lloyd said. “The narrative that young people don’t want to get involved is false.”
Indeed, the panelists all expressed a desire to do something to improve their communities.
Avalon Fenster, 17, founder of March For Our Lives LI who serves as northeast regional director for the national organization, said she wanted to see her peers get more involved.
“I want to see young people come out to the polls,” she said.
Samuel Wong-Schultz, who is Chinese, Guatemalan, Russian and Romanian, said he wanted to help bridge the economic and cultural divides separating North Amityville and South Amityville.
“You can definitely see the segregation,” he said. “You can definitely see the difference.”
Bethea said he had come to terms with the unfavorable views that uninformed strangers may have of his hometown and school, adding that his environment forged his identity — and he’s proud of it.
”I’m proud of where I’m from,” he said, rejecting the stigma he said comes with the territory. “If I didn‘t grow up the way I did, I wouldn’t be who I am.”