Back in May, a Stony Brook University alumnus was restricted from entering the Port Jefferson bar and restaurant Harbor Grill for wearing what the bouncer had, at the time, thought was some kind of gang paraphernalia. The person in question, Gurvinder Grewal, was in fact wearing a turban, headwear of religious importance among those who practice Sikhism. Telling the bouncer this, he was restricted anyway.
Nearly four months later, on Sept. 24, the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce hosted Stony Brook University at Due Baci Italian Restaurant for a panel and discussion about race and its relationship to the businesses in the Village of Port Jefferson.
The event was moderated by Jarvis Watson, the chief diversity officer at SBU. Panelists included Robbye Kinkade, clinical professor in the School of Health Technology and Management; Chris Tanaka, assistant director of LGBTQ Services; Shaheer Khan, president of the undergraduate student government; and Yamilex Taveras, a political science senior and president of the Latin American Student Organization.
University officials said the framework for the discussion was centered around running a business near a diverse public university.
“We have a diverse population on campus, and we wanted to give the Chamber members a sense of who might be walking through their doors,” said Judy Greiman, the chief deputy to the president at SBU, said in a release. “It’s important for these shops to understand that differences exist, that we have buying power and that we all want to feel welcome,”
The panel walked through changing demographics at the university. Slides presented to the businesses documented that while the number of fall enrollment has steadily increased since 2012, the campus has become increasingly diverse.
Those on the panel relayed their own experiences shopping in Port Jeff. Kinkade spoke of how, several years ago, she walked into a shop and was profiled. While there were several other customers in the store shopping around, she said an employee came up to her asking if she needed help, then continued to follow her around the entire time she was there. She noticed none of the white customers were getting the same treatment. While that shop has since closed, she, a person of color, said she largely stopped shopping in Port Jeff after that experience.
With the positive reception of the panel, she said she may intend to shop more in the village.
“I have nothing but the utmost praise for those folks, the members who attended,” added Kinkade. “I think for the chamber of commerce to want to come together and talk about this issue, is kudos to them. It was a bold, brave step.”
Joan Dickinson, the SBU community relations director, and Barbara Ransome, the director of operations for the chamber, had communicated together after the May incident. Ransome said they were looking for a way to present to local businesses on how to be more inclusive. They decided on a panel presentation including several officers and students from the university. Around 40 people, mostly Port Jeff business owners, came for the presentation.
The chamber director said the meeting was one of the most well received she’s had in her years at the chamber.
“The direct feedback that I was getting from people there was amazing — they felt there was so much information, with such sincerity and such genuine sharing,” she said. “They felt comfortable enough they were speaking because they felt they were in a safe space.”
This comes as Stony Brook and Port Jefferson are becoming steadily more intertwined. A PJ/SBU shuttle was first piloted last spring semester with a total ridership several thousand students coming into Port Jeff in its two-and-a-half-month tenure. Ransome called Stony Brook an increasingly vital partner with the village with the number of students who come down to eat and shop. She added this has been a change from previous years.
The SBU officials said those Port Jefferson businesses trying to be more welcoming to all walks of life should look toward examining dress code policies, revise their mission statements and hiring practices toward being more inclusive, and even look to include gender neutral bathrooms.
Yet, even the smallest gesture makes a big difference. Panelists suggested simply posting a notice in front of the shop that all people are welcome, that those who enter don’t have to fear being profiled, can go a long way.
“It’s important that we need to be inclusive to all potential customers,” Ransome said. “One of the most important things I thought is we need to help educate and we need to examine our best business practices, so we can continue at our optimal level of service to our community.”
This post was updated Oct. 4 to amend Dickinson’s title as well as add context to several quotes in the original article.