Long Island is rich in diversity, and growing increasingly so, as the population of Black, Hispanic, Asian and people of other races and ethnicities continues to rise. At the same time, however, Long Island continues to be among the most segregated areas in the country. According to a report by ERASE Racism, not only is Long Island one of the 10 most segregated metropolitan regions in the nation, the divisions are increasing.
This comes as no surprise to Shanequa Levin, 41, who grew up in poverty in Glen Cove, the daughter of a teen mother and an incarcerated father.
As a child, Levin says, she often experienced discrimination based on the color of her skin and lack of money in her pocket, and that made her determined to raise up those pushed to the fringes of society. Her career has reflected her values, including her former role as the New York State director of Every Child Matters, an advocacy organization for children who are marginalized due to race, income and other issues.
From the time she was young, Levin says, her passion has been connecting people, believing the way to build a just and equitable society was by bringing together diverse stakeholders.
"During my school years, in my career and in my personal life, I often found myself to be either the only Black woman in the room surrounded by white women or in a room with only Black women," she said. "I knew it would benefit all of us if we came together to share our stories and our talents."
Levin, who lives in Huntington Station, turned her vision into reality in 2017 when she created Women’s Diversity Network, a Long Island-based nonprofit composed of women and gender-expansive people who come from many racial, ethnic, age and socioeconomic groups.
Levin’s idea was that the group would advocate for health equity, gender inclusion and dismantling systemic racism by educating communities about issues and policies that challenge community unity, advocating to break down barriers that divide people, and celebrating diverse backgrounds.
"We investigate and research issues that concern women and nonbinary people so that we can advocate for public policies that support their well-being," Levin said.
WDN has about 50 "leaders," or members. The group invites the public to many of its events, attracting more than 400 people to its Annual Summit in 2018. During the pandemic, its meetings and workshops have been virtual. WDN plans to move to a hybrid format (in-person and online), a key element in realizing Levin’s vision of expanding to a national organization.
"Racism is what poisons America’s soul," Levin said, especially now, as the country experiences a renewed racial reckoning. "It’s important that the work we are doing to create positive change gets replicated around the country so we can begin to break down barriers to diversity and unity."
WDN "leaders" can join individually or as representatives of other groups. Among the groups that play an active role in WDN is Birth Justice Warriors, a community-based organization that focuses on inequities in maternal health.
"Black women are on average three times as likely to die during the perinatal period as white women," said Martine Hackett, a WDN leader and associate professor in Hofstra University’s Department of Health Professions.
Hackett credits WDN with creating a Health Equity Task Force with more than 100 members, including the Suffolk Office of Minority Health, the American Heart Association, the East End Birth Network, the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sigma PSI Omega Chapter.
As part of these efforts, WDN has educated the public, county officials and other stakeholders through work groups, webinars and other events. It has also advocated for improved outcomes in Black maternal mortality, working with Suffolk Legis. Jason Richberg (D-West Babylon) to develop the county's Maternal Mortality Task force. WDN is working with Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) for a similar group in Nassau.
"The work that WDN is doing is unique on Long Island in that it has found unity across county lines, ZIP codes, racial/ethnic groups, gender identities, professions and personalities," Hackett said. "The focus is truly on making change and unifying all who want to be a part of that change."
Adds Levin, "Health systems must be held accountable for best practices."
In addition to its work on health disparities, WDN has been active in a variety of other areas, including educating the community about LGBTQ+ issues.
Social worker El Schneider, a board member who has led many of WDN’s workshops on gender equity, said they felt welcomed the minute they walked into their first WDN meeting. "The energy in the room was amazing," said Schneider, who identifies as nonbinary. "And when I learned about WDN’s advocacy work, I knew this is where I was meant to be."
But WDN isn’t only about education and advocacy. The group’s mission includes celebrating diversity in other ways — for example, showcasing the cultures of various ethnic groups with arts performances, participating in such events as Juneteenth and Pride Month festivities and offering opportunities for deep connections and friendships to grow.
One of the network’s most powerful elements is its quarterly Courageous Conversations, in which participants talk frankly and freely about topics often avoided. At the gatherings, which moved online during the pandemic, anywhere from 10 to 25 attendees meet to discuss racism, anti-Semitism, sexual and gender orientation, religion and other issues that can create emotionally charged, uncomfortable feelings.
"Through these conversations, we learn that we all basically want the same things," said Levin, "while also learning to value, respect and celebrate our differences."
Adesuwa Obasohan Watson, 36, a community advocate and public health professional, says that discussions among women of different races tend to be rare, especially in our segregated region.
"Because we are so siloed on Long Island, sharing opinions in an open, safe space doesn’t happen very much," said Obasohan Watson of Shirley. "We make sure we create an environment at WDN where folks can speak honestly and discuss the issues that keep us separated."
Josephine Hall, 44, a teacher in Westbury, says that although she is accustomed to being around diverse people, Courageous Conversations afforded her the opportunity to get into the "nooks and crannies" of peoples’ lives and hear the unvarnished truths of their lived experiences.
"I’ve learned more about other religions, LGBTQ rights and language use," Hall said. "I’ve become more aware of how, even if I don’t purposely set out to hurt someone, my words and actions can impact others, which has been eye-opening and empowering."
Like Hall, Lareicha Hunter, 40, a longtime friend of Levin’s, says that being part of WDN has had a profound impact on her life.
"People have a tendency to gather with others that look just like them, and that needs to be actively challenged," she said, adding, "I’ve made so many long-lasting friendships with women from all different cultures, and we’ve done amazing work together."
Founding member Retha Fernandez, 50, of Babylon, agrees. "WDN is unique in that it gives women across Long Island the opportunity to gather with and learn from women they’d otherwise not likely meet," she said. "Shanequa is an inspirational leader who knows how to meet people where they are on their social justice and racial justice journey."
WDN’s efforts have resulted not only in friendships and greater understanding among diverse women, but policy changes. The organization counts among its recent victories: advocating for bail reform, the inclusion of mental health professionals on police calls in cases in which a person presents a danger to themselves or others, and the establishment of guidelines for equal treatment of gender-expansive people by police.
Sarika Kumar, 27, says that being part of WDN has dispelled her notion that real change was unlikely in a suburban area such as Long Island.
Kumar, whose parents are from India, said she "felt disconnected" from the political process when she was growing up in a predominantly white Long Island community. "I didn’t feel like I had a voice," she said. "The ‘othering’ was always there, and I internalized it."
Attending WDN’s Annual Summit in 2019 was a turning point for her. "It brought together so many organizations and individuals that were doing incredible work in social justice, gender violence, incarceration, LGBTQ rights, health equity and other critical issues," said Kumar, whose work on WDN’s Justice Leadership Team includes email and telephone campaigns. "It gave me such hope!"
The next generation
WDN’s Youth Justice Team was launched four years ago by Ariana Levin, 18, founder Shanequa Levin’s daughter, and Peyton Hall, 18, daughter of WDN member Josephine Hall, the Westbury teacher.
When they were just 15, they spoke with their friends about what role they should play in WDN, choosing to create a workshop to tackle a difficult subject: the use of the "n" word among their peers. Their first workshop, at the 2018 Annual Summit, drew about 40 people. They've since presented the workshop at locations including the Brentwood Freshman Center, where 15 teens participated.
"We thought it was important to arm people our age with the historical facts and context surrounding that word," Peyton said. "Whether they choose to view it as a word they want to reclaim or decide not to use it anymore is up to them. The point is that they can now make an educated decision."
Both Peyton and Ariana say participating in the Women's Diversity Network has help them develop a strong sense of self-confidence and awareness of the importance of civic engagement.
"I’ve learned to speak up about the things I’m passionate about," said Ariana, who was by her mother’s side as a little girl handing out pamphlets. "My mother, father and whole family have modeled for me the importance of being someone who is willing to stand up for people, no matter what."
Peyton added that, while there can be a lot of drama in high school, the lessons she has learned through WDN "helped me avoid all that. It made me see other women my age less like competition and more like sisters."
WDN member Stephanie Freese, 73, values how the organization offers her a rare opportunity to connect with young people.
"As a baby boomer, I don’t often get to hear the views of high school- and college-aged kids," she said. "When you spend time with people that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet, it transforms you."
Until recently, Levin was the sole paid employee of Women’s Diversity Network, which faced fundraising challenges early on, as do many new nonprofits. But that changed in July when the organization received a $100,000 grant from the Racial Equity Donor Collaborative at Long Island Community Foundation, an early supporter of WDN’s work.
The funds are being used for WDN’s new initiative, The Wealth Equity Fellowship, a 16-week program to expose Black women and Black gender-expansive people to higher-income careers and provide mentorship, networking, career exposure and a hiring pool.
"With this project, we will be working to decrease the income gap that exists between Black Long Islanders and their white peers," said Levin. To qualify, applicants must be employed for less than $25 an hour or be unemployed. WDN has just begun seeking mentors and businesses partners for the program, expected to begin in January.
"The members of the Racial Equity Fund see potential in this emerging group led by strong, committed and diverse women and nonbinary people," said Sol Marie Alfonso-Jones, LICF senior program officer. "As this work develops, it will be an important contribution to equitable growth and sustainability on Long Island."
• For more information about joining Women’s Diversity Network, visit womensdiversitynetwork.org. Memberships are available at varying levels; “leaders” pay $65 per year, and “supporters” pay $100, for example. Group memberships and sponsorships are also available.
• Many events, including educational workshops, quarterly Courageous Conversations and Annual Summits, are open to the public. Some require a fee or a donation. The next event, a virtual workshop on how to write a letter to the editor, will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 24; visit the website to register.
• To learn about applying for the Wealth Equity Fellowship, email Tanika Steele at Tsteele@womensdiversitynetwork.org.