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.