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Rye to resurrect Human Rights Commission

January 26, 2017 3:54 pm  by  James Pero

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A perceived uptick in racially motivated vandalism and rhetoric has left some members of the Rye City Council calling for the revival of a local Human Rights Commission; a long defunct arm of the broader county organization.

City Councilwoman Danielle Tagger-Epstein, a Democrat, who was approached by Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, about reviving the committee, has been tasked with leading its charge.

Rye Councilwoman Danielle Tagger-Epstein, a Democrat, will lead the charge in reviving the city Human Rights Commission following what she described as an “uptick” in racial intolerance. Photo/Andrew Dapolite

“Danielle stood out naturally as a leader in the area, especially given her focus on condemning hate crimes,” Sack said. “My charge to her is to use her imagination and skill to resurrect this committee and to reclaim its goal in addressing human rights issues.”

The call to reignite the commission, which has been inactive since 2004, also comes in the wake of a rash of racially motivated vandalism countywide, including multiple instances of swastikas being scrawled on county property; an issue which Tagger-Epstein points out has taken hold nationally.

“If you have one day when 16 or 20 [Jewish community centers] are getting bomb threats; we have a problem,” said Tagger-Epstein, referring to a recent slew of reported threats to Jewish centers across the country.

Even within Rye’s own borders, according to an email sent out by county Legislator Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat and former member of the Rye City Council, since late November, racial tensions have boiled over.

Specifically, the letter detailed a Latino woman being taunted at the Westchester Children’s Museum on the Playland boardwalk and told to “go back to her own country.”

Sack’s proposal would mark a return to a local commission format which, throughout the course of the last two decades, has been phased out by municipalities across the county in favor of a broader county-centric commission.

The absence of the local body has not served the city well, according to Tagger-Epstein.

“We should really be addressing [issues] on our own,” she said. “To put it on the county is a cop-out.”

According to Tagger-Epstein, a local commission would play a more active role in bringing together city institutions—including schools, the Police Department and government—in public forums meant to address issues of inequality or bigotry.

Ideally, she said, the commission would also play a role in helping track issues of intolerance or hate crimes by aggregating potential complaints and responding when necessary.

In the past, Tagger-Epstein said, the city Human Rights Commission had been successful in responding to issues of inequality in its own community; namely during the late 1970s when women launched a discrimination complaint regarding a policy of preferential tee times for men at the city-owned Rye Golf Club.

According to Rye resident Linda Lefkowitz, who was a part of the original complaint leveled more than 40 years ago, access to the Human Rights Commission turned out to be a linchpin for policy changes at the club.

According to minutes from the committee’s last meeting, in January 2004, nine members of the group, in addition to outside guests, discussed a range of topics relating to diversity, including affordable housing, coordination of diversity workshops, and even television programming focused on potential racism in comedy. The meeting lasted approximately one hour.

Since the 2016 presidential election, issues regarding racist rhetoric and bigotry have fallen into the both national and regional spotlight, fueled locally by vandalism depicting swastikas on a walkway adjacent to the Bronx River Parkway, school buildings at Purchase College, and punctuated by a speech from Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, condemning such acts of hate.

While discussions around hate crimes and racial tensions have centered on the current political climate, for Tagger-Epstein, tamping down inequality transcends the political arena.

“This has nothing to do with the political spectrum,” Tagger-Epstein said. “This is a human issue.”

A Time to Stand to Together

 

OPINION

A time to stand together

March 9, 2017 11:49 am  by Danielle Tagger-Epstein

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Over the last several weeks we have seen a surge in hate crimes against minorities across the nation. We have not been immune to this in Westchester. Swastikas were found in a bathroom in a high school in Lewisboro, and Jewish community centers in Tarrytown and New Rochelle had to be evacuated due to bomb threats.

Then there are the members of our community, who are feeling unsafe because of where they were born, or who they love, or which bathroom they use.

While the problem is national in scope, increasingly constituents are paying attention and getting involved at the grassroots level. They want and expect more from their local representatives. New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has laid out a guideline for municipalities and local police to protect the vulnerable in a legal and thoughtful way.

As Schneiderman said, “New York’s diversity is its greatest strength and we will not allow anyone to turn that strength against us.”

Our strengthened diversity was evident last month at the 18th annual Trailblazers award ceremony honoring local African-Americans for their range of civic contributions as part of Black History Month. I was moved by the remarkable work of people like Judith Watson, the executive director for the Greenburgh Health Center, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive health services to more than 31,000 patients regardless of their ability to pay; and Nathaniel Fields, the president and CEO of the Urban Resource Institute whose mission is to provide client-centered services to victims of domestic violence. Nathaniel spoke of groundbreaking programs that include shelters that allow pets, as research has shown that women often do not leave abusive situations if they have to leave a pet behind.

The Trailblazers ceremony took place at the John Jay Heritage Center. I found this fitting because in important ways, John Jay himself was a trailblazer and whose legacy offers inspiration in challenging times.

According to Eric Forner’s “Gateway to Freedom :The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” on the eve of the War of Independence, approximately 20,000 slaves lived within 50 miles of New York City, the largest concentration of unfree laborers north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Brooklyn was even worse than Manhattan: In 1771, one-third of its population were slaves.

Jay, while helping to draft New York state’s first constitution immediately after independence in 1777, sought to abolish slavery but was overruled.

In 1785, Jay and a few close friends founded the “New York State Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves.” They organized boycotts and entered lawsuits on behalf of the slaves. Jay also advocated subsidizing black education. “I consider education to be the soul of the republic,” he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1785. “I wish to see all unjust and all unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may soon come when all our inhabitants of every color and denomination shall be free and equal partakers of our political liberty.”

Some 230 years later, we can still take encouragement and guidance from John Jay’s example. In this spirit, I am pleased to announce the first meeting of Rye’s newly resurrected Human Rights Commission on Thursday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m.

The Human Rights Commission was written into the Rye City Charter in 1963, just months after President John F. Kennedy delivered his historic Civil Rights Address to the nation. It was a response to the segregation and divisiveness that plagued the country at that time. President Kennedy called for nationwide participation in addressing this moral crisis, and our city heard the cry.

“This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened,” he said.

I’m happy that in our times, both men and women will come together under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission to promote equality, fairness, understanding and acceptance of all.

If you are interested in the future dates of the Human Right Commission, please visit egovlink.com/rye/events/calendar.asp.

To learn more about the organizations mentioned in this article, please visit greenburghhealthcenter.com or urinyc.org.