By Tom Lyon
More than 110 folks zoomed in last Saturday afternoon, Jan. 16, for the annual, and first-ever virtual, Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival and forum presented by Building Bridges in Brookhaven. The Rev. Gregory Leonard, of the Bethel AME Church in Setauket opened the afternoon with a challenge: “To understand that we are all in this together.”
As in the past, Building Bridges held two informative programs with guest presenters and music. Food was OYO — on your own — but the popular Share Fair Exchange for nonprofit groups had to be postponed until spring. Four speakers addressed two long simmering issues for Long Island and presented us with an urgent call to action for each.
Two stories of toxic ecological damage to our Island and to some of our most vulnerable neighbors came first.
Stony Brook University history associate professor Abena Asare, one of the leaders of the newly established Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, gave a sobering history of the last remaining waste disposal facility in the Town of Brookhaven. She provided a parallel history of its growth at a time when nearby communities were becoming alleged victims of racially charged real-estate practices. A local elementary school and largely minority community there have had severe health issues and high death rates that are arguably the highest for any community on Long Island.
As the landfill has grown to 192 acres and more than 200 feet in height, plans are developing for its closure by 2024. Meanwhile, it still continues to accept waste materials for 1.9 million Long Islanders even though Brookhaven Town’s population is only about 500,000 people. “This is a regional problem,” Asare said. “We need a regional solution. Landfills are closing across the country in environmentally safe ways every day, but we are sadly way behind.”
Next Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, presented a history of the illegal toxic dumping and subsequent closing of Roberto Clemente Park and playground in Brentwood. The tragic story is also one of a powerful and ultimately successful community response.
It took strong local organizing and a long legal battle for that minority community to get justice and to see the park and pool decontaminated and finally reopened in 2018 after a six-year closure. There were clear parallels in the two stories. As the session ended, we could hear Asare call to Solis, “You most definitely have to come and speak with our group.”
Two other guests — members of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign Rebecca Garrard from the state capital region and Michael O’Brien from Nassau — spoke about the rental housing and eviction crisis that looms ahead of New York and Long Island. Currently there is an estimated $3.5 billion in unpaid back rent today across New York state and the recently extended moratorium is clearly not a permanent solution, according to Garrard.
Garrard gave a sober and fact-filled presentation with a compelling argument for bipartisan cooperation on a national level as the only viable long-term solution. Without that, we may face an epidemic of homelessness in the near future.
O’Brien spoke of the need to empower and educate tenants about their rights in order to prevent abuse. He told stories of local private groups bringing attention to this issue and providing education and emergency assistance. These groups were inspiring examples of the type of service that Coretta Scott King spoke about in 1992 when she challenged Americans to turn Dr. King’s holiday into “a day on, not a day off.”
A video of the entire program is available on the Building Bridges in Brookhaven Facebook page.
Building Bridges wants to thank the presenters, musicians Jamel Coy Hudson and John Schmeiser, Long Island Poor People’s Campaign, Setauket Presbyterian Church — especially the Rev. Ashley McFaul-Erwin — and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook for their assistance and support.
Tom Lyon is a co-founder of Building Bridges in Brookhaven.