By Sabrina Artusa
The Smithtown Anti-Bias Task Force, a team of town-board-appointed volunteers, endeavors to decrease discrimination by focusing on programs that promote inclusivity.
The task force was created as a town agency in May 1994 but only resumed activity in 2019. After a brief hiatus in 2020, the task force commenced in-person events like educational programs at the Smithtown library, anti-bias multimedia galleries and a Pride Month picnic, the second of which will take place Monday, June 26.
Programs are organized around demographics that would most profit from them. By examining hate crime statistics given to them by the Suffolk County Hate Crime Unit, the task force is able to direct its resources accordingly. Chair member and volunteer Maria LaMalfa said they use the statistics to “reach people where they are.”
“We look at what’s prevalent and we try to bring an education to remediate,” LaMalfa said. Identification of bias is a necessary first step in creating impactful programs. Last month, after identifying Asian racism as an issue, the task force worked with Smithtown Library to develop an educational workshop about Chinese calligraphy and Indonesian culture.
The task force honors differences of religion, ability and age as well. In response to antisemitism, they held a series of Holocaust remembrance programs and discussions. In 2022, the Suffolk County Police Department recorded antisemitism as one of the most frequent motivations for Suffolk County hate crimes in 2022. Incidents of discrimination are what the task force strives against, and according to LaMalfa, education could be the key to eradicating them.
“The hate crime police always, always tell us that education is the best way to get rid of these incidents,” LaMalfa said. This sentiment is reflected in their programs, which largely center around educating the public about commonly discriminated against communities.
“People tend to fear what they don’t know or understand,” LaMalfa added. “Education is the ABTF’s primary goal.”
The task force was initially developed after a series of hate crimes in Commack in 1994. In 2019, the town decided to revive the agency. Lynne Nowick, councilwoman and the ABTF’s town board liaison, was a leading figure in bringing back the ABTF. She said she felt bias “was becoming more common.” She and board members decided it was time to bring it back. “There is no such thing as a town without bias,” Nowick said.
“People that were affected should have someone to go to,” Nowick added. The task force doesn’t replace the police department; “Their jobs are to tell them look, there are places to go, people to talk to.”
The task force isn’t involved in investigating hate crimes, or bringing perpetrators to justice.
In addition to preventative programs through education, the task force also works on projects that provide support for communities that need it. The Pride Month picnic on June 26 will give a space for Smithtown residents to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
Linda Rose, Smithtown resident and member of the Suffolk County LGBTQ Advisory Board, appreciates the contributions of the task force. In the past, she has been unhappy with how the town addressed LGBTQ issues and said that town members insist upon inclusivity “but don’t walk the walk.”
Rose aspires for a Smithtown that is “inclusive to all children, not just some.” The task force is what Rose said Smithtown needs.
Currently, the town board is intending to amend the law regarding the ABTF, Chapter 43 of the Smithtown Town Code. The amendment will change the name of the agency to Town of Smithtown Unity Counsel. Other modifications include term limits for volunteers and chairpersons and more specifications to the group’s purpose and duties.