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social work

Port Jeff village trustee candidate on her global approach to local issues

Ana Hozyainova is running for Port Jefferson village trustee. Photo courtesy of Hozyainova

Ana Hozyainova is a candidate for trustee in the upcoming village election on June 21. During a recent interview, she discussed her background in social work, her experiences abroad, the threat of climate change to Port Jeff village, the East Beach Bluff and more. 

What is your background and why would you like to be involved in local government?

I would like to answer that in reverse order — why I would like to run and then how my background is beneficial in the service to the village.

One of the key things is that I would like to build upon and preserve the legacy that the village has already created. I see that the village, just like the rest of the nation and other municipalities, faces a number of challenges that are way outside of our control. For example, we are a coastal community that will suffer significantly with the worsening impact of climate change. The flooding will become only worse.

Ana Hozyainova (left) mediating a family conference. Photo courtesy of Hozyainova

We are a community that changes in its residential structure. The nation is aging and the nation is shrinking in certain ways, and this will have an impact on the village and the way the village works. We also as a village observed decline in our tax revenue, mainly through the LIPA gliding path. Any one of those challenges is already an issue that would require significant adjustment, but three of them together compound the issue and require a long-term vision and long-term solutions to the way the village functions. 

I hope to be able to engage in that process because I would like to make Port Jefferson my long-term home. I have a family here and I would like that family to continue to grow and stay in the village. For me, the role of the trustee is a person who sets the policies, sets standards and hires people to implement those policies. This is where I believe my skills and my background are incredibly useful for the village. 

I come with nearly two decades of experience of human rights work, international work. I worked in fields as diverse as countering violent extremism to working with mental health issues to doing community organizing to developing policies to address such thorny issues as: How do we still torture?

The sunrise over a landscape in Bamyan, Afghanistan, where Hozyainova worked for seven years. Photo taken by Hozyainova in 2011.

The issues I mentioned before are very difficult to address and they require creative thinking and problem-solving in order to develop a viable, functional solution. I believe that I have those solutions. I also have an education that is very helpful for that with a degree in social work from Columbia University. Part of the reason that I chose that school is that at the core of the teaching in my school, the person was put front and center. 

With a lot of the political decisions — be it raising of the taxes or changes in the code or restructuring the zoning of the village — it is very easy to forget the human that will be impacted by those decisions. I have the skills that would be required to actually look at who would be those people who would be affected and what can we do to make sure that our decisions serve the greatest good of everyone involved, that we’re not just doing quick and dirty “let’s fix this” and forget about the unintended consequences that might come out of those decisions. 

Hozyainova and a friend dance to the tango after a full day of reviewing and commenting on human rights reports, 2013. Photo courtesy of Hozyainova

Given your experiences abroad, why did you turn your focus inward toward local issues?

Again going back to my time at Columbia University — and the reason I mention it is because when I was there, I found it incredibly frustrating when my teachers would say, “Think small. Think of the impact that certain actions would have on people at the local level. Engage with the small steps first. Don’t try to change the whole system at the same time. It will become overwhelming and unmanageable. Think about issues that affect people on the ground, and from there start building up your intervention.”

As the years passed by, I’ve learned — despite my frustrations — that that’s indeed the true way to bring real change into the lives of the people. At the moment, my residency ended up in Port Jefferson by virtue of the people who I met, the person who I married. I feel that the work that can be done at the local level is no less important than any of the work that I could have done elsewhere. Right now, the moment has brought me to Port Jefferson and this is where my skills can be most useful and could be applied right now.

You have been a vocal proponent of reconfiguring roadways in the village. In your opinion, what is wrong with these roadways and how can they be improved?

The issue of walkability in Port Jefferson, especially pedestrian safety, is an issue that is very dear to me. I live in a residential neighborhood with two main roads that kind of hug the area. I walk those streets every day and I personally experience the impacts that speeding cars or reckless driving could have on pedestrians. 

It is the issue that I personally experience and that’s how I start organizing the work. I’ve heard too many people say this is dangerous and unsustainable, that they’re fearful of walking but it’s the only exercise that they have. So I rallied the community for stop signs on California Avenue as an interim measure to assess what other possible solutions can be brought in to improve pedestrian safety. 

As I did that work, I also got in touch with other residents in the village who also voiced their concerns and discovered that it is a systematic problem, that many people face issues about safety on the roads. What I hope to do is a systematic assessment of what can be done in Port Jefferson to make it more walkable as a village because our ability to walk is one of the prerequisites for developing strong, friendly communities. That is how my activism on pedestrian safety has started. 

The issues that I would like to address if I were elected are the questions of transparency in the village.

— Ana Hozyainova

What are the most critical issues facing the village?

Hozyainova collaborated with the policeman above to investigate and eradicate torture in the community and to facilitate public engagement, 2016. Photo courtesy of Hozyainova

I mentioned earlier that climate change, the change and declining population nationwide and the lowering of the tax base are the crucial aspects that we are facing as a village. The issues that I would like to address if I were elected are the questions of transparency in the village.

By this, I mean that we have a number of pretty large projects that are developing in the village that have not received adequate public consultation, and the village has not made the effort to engage the community in the level that it should have. For example, the question of the $10 million that was borrowed to stabilize the [East Beach] Bluff. I personally have a lot of questions about how the project was designed, what other issues have been explored or addressed, also to hear what the rest of the residents want to say or have priorities for, and how they conceptualize and prioritize that as an issue. 

I believe that the village has not had adequate engagement on those issues. The presentation on the bluff is available on YouTube, but that information does not adequately reflect the complexity of the issues that we are facing. For example, when we have a Dickens Festival, we don’t just publish a legal notice that there will be a festival and forget about it. We actually make a campaign, we engage people, we invite people over and over and over again, and the festival is a success.

So similar things need to happen when we are making decisions about the village such as the bluff or as small as figuring out the budget. What are the priorities for spending that would be in the residents’ interests? Transparency is one of the core areas to be developed if I were elected.

The other issue is climate change. Coming back to the question of the bluff, part of the reason why we have this situation is the way that climate change is exacerbating the storms and thus speeding up the erosion of the bluff. It’s a man-made issue: The harbor where the bluff sits used to be salt marshes. The movement of water in the salt marshes is significantly slower than in the dredged marshes that created Mount Sinai Harbor, which subsequently affected our bluff.

We are dealing with a double whammy of the harbor that we’ve created. I love this beach, I enjoy having access to that beach, but that beach is exacerbating the erosion of the bluff along with the more severe storms. I believe we will need a greater consultation about how we spend the rest of the money that has already been allocated for the upper part of the bluff. If elected, that will definitely become one of my priorities. 

How can residents play a more active role in decision-making?

Part of it is the way the village engages with the village. For example, the Village of Port Jefferson doesn’t have a civic association. It has a range of working committees, but it doesn’t have a civic association that will collect or take the views of residents who might not be able to attend the public meetings held once a month at 6 o’clock. 

Until I became engaged in the traffic safety issues, I found it very difficult to make my way to those meetings. It’s only after I rallied the community and took on the weight of their trust that I started making the time to go to those meetings.

If I were elected, I would explore a range of issues to engage more with the residents. One of them would be, for example, having a weekly time slot at the farmers market where one trustee can man a booth every week, so the residents wouldn’t have to go out of their way to engage the government. At the moment, I feel that the local village government is not doing enough to engage with the residents.

Ana Hozyainova drinks tea in Istanbul after a long day of interviews with community members and traders, 2018. Photo courtesy of Hozyainova

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

To summarize my message, I believe that I possess the skills and experience that are required to serve as a trustee. If elected, I would be putting the residents front and center of my work in making sure that they are consulted and engaged, and that the best interests of all of the residents are considered.


Ijeoma Opara. Photo by Emmanuel Igbokwe of Emman Photography

By Daniel Dunaief

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Ijeoma Opara was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her first name means “safe journey” in Igbo, the language of Nigeria, and is something people say when they wish each other a good trip.

For Opara, her first name has proven prophetic, as this social worker is determined to help youth in Paterson make a safe journey through the challenges of substance abuse and mental health issues.

Recently, Opara became the first social worker to receive a $1.84 million Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Apart from her unusual scientific background in a field dominated by award recipients who work in the natural sciences, like biochemistry and physics, Opara also stands out for her background.

Ijeoma Opara. Photo by Emmanuel Igbokwe of Emman Photography

“At the National Institutes of Health, there’s been a lot of discussion about how black scientists don’t get as much funding as [their] white counterparts,” Opara said. Black scientists don’t often receive early competitive grants.

Michelle Ballan, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University, recruited Opara. She appreciated Opara’s “grit and tenacity.”

Ballan encouraged Opara to apply for the Early Intervention Award. With Ballan in her corner, Opara put that determination to work.

Ballan described how readily Opara responded to guidance.

“She not only accepted constructive feedback, she built upon it,” Ballan said.

When Opara applied for the award, she suspected she had little chance of receiving it. “Someone like me, who went to a state school in Montclair, New Jersey” writing about urban, black and hispanic youth has never receiving this kind of funding support, she said.

Opara received a score in March that she didn’t understand. She sent her score to her two mentors, Ballan and director of the REIDS program at Yale Dr. Trace Kershaw, and asked what it meant. Dr. Kershaw said it was almost a perfect score and told her she would likely receive the grant.

In July, she received an email congratulating her on her selection.

“I started screaming,” Opara said. She told her close friends and colleagues, but she couldn’t share the news on social media until the NIH press release came out in October.

She was so excited about the opportunity that she celebrated with a large order of food and ate herself into oblivion that first weekend. Her indulgent feast included Oreo cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory and chicken and waffles from her favorite brunch place.

“I got so sick,” Opara laughed.

While Opara was thrilled that the award came, she felt another emotion mixed in with her elation. She said part of her felt guilty because she and other black researchers would like to see more representation in these awards and grant mechanisms.

Opara has appreciated the support she has received from other scientists.

“So many black colleagues, even people I didn’t know, saw this as a win not just for me but for all of us,” Opara said. Other graduate students and postdocs have reached out to her since the press release came out, asking for advice on applying for high reward and high risk awards and other NIH grants.

Opara is grateful for the confidence and support from Ballan.

Indeed, Ballan believes Opara is a “role model for all women, especially women of color in research intensive fields.”

When Opara interviewed at Stony Brook, Ballan told her that she “wanted to make sure you are very successful.”

Even early in her tenure at Stony Brook, which will start with extensive work in Paterson, New Jersey, Opara feels Ballan has “lived up to that promise.”

At an Oct. 19 press conference announcing a new study to help youth in Paterson, New Jersey, from left, Paterson Mayor André Sayegh; Antoine Lovell; Director of Paterson Youth Services Bureau Christina Barnes Lee; Ijeoma Opara; Program Coordinator at Municipal Alliance Prevention Program Tenee Joyner; Councilman Luis Velez and Chief Operating Officer of OASIS Paterson Jim Walsh. Photo from Ijeoma Opara

By Daniel Dunaief

Stony Brook University’s Ijeoma Opara, a new Assistant Professor in the School of Social Welfare, is starting her promising early scientific career by making history, becoming the first social worker to receive an Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Opara, who hopes the award opens doors to other social workers and to other scientists of color, plans to use the funds to create a research study and intervention program that will make a difference.

Opara will study the link between mental heath and substance abuse in Paterson, New Jersey, where she conducted her PhD training while attending Montclair State University and where she hopes to help youth who may not attend school often enough to benefit from programs in academic settings. She also hopes to understand issues that youth may be facing that lead to substance abuse and poor mental health.

Opara plans to use the $1.84 million, five-year grant to conduct venue-based sampling, where she will search for at-risk youth and where she can tailor mental health and substance abuse questions that are relevant to the experience of the children she hopes to help.

“A lot of youth that needed these services, who had substance abuse and serious issues with mental health, weren’t going to school,” said Opara. “They weren’t in locations [where] a lot of researchers collect data.”

It didn’t make sense to collect the survey information from students in school when the people who need these services are not present in the system. “Meeting them where they are to figure out how to get them engaged” became a critical element to conceptualizing this study, said Opara. “There is no such thing as hard-to-reach populations.”

The NIH award Opara received encourages young researchers who recently completed their graduate work to engage in high-risk, high-return studies.

The risk in Opara’s work is that she won’t be able to recruit enough youth. She is, however, is convinced that her past experience in Paterson, a city filled with communities she’s grown to love, will enable her to find and reach out to targeted youth.

She’s currently in the first phase of her two-part effort; finding staff, figuring out ways to find people for her studies and designing questions relevant to them and their lives. In the second part of her research, she plans to provide mental health and substance abuse services.

Michelle Ballan, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Social Welfare, applauded Opara’s approach to her research.

“Venue-based sampling takes considerable work,” Ballan said. “It’s much easier to send a survey to schools.”

Indeed, this kind of effort “takes time, manpower and a tremendous understanding of how [Opara’s] inter-disciplinary focus is intertwined,” Ballan said. “She’s a family studies researcher, a social worker, and a public health researcher. Having those three areas of expertise, it’s not surprising that venue-based sampling was the one she chose.”

Opara is turning to some of the leaders in Paterson to advise her during this effort. She has created a community advisory board that represents youth and includes community leaders.

One of the challenges this year is that some of the sites where these youth might typically congregate may have fewer people during the pandemic. “It’s something we’re really focusing on in our first couple of meetings: where are the youth going?” Opara asked. She suggested sites could include basketball courts and parks. She is also exploring ways to recruit youth (between ages 13 and 21) online.

Opara is hoping to understand how the environment may impact people in the community as either a protective or a risk factor for substance abuse and mental health.

“What are some structures that could be serving as a protective buffer for kids who aren’t engaging in substance abuse and who don’t have negative mental health symptoms?” she asked.

On the other hand, she would like to identify those buildings or features that increase the trauma or risk and that might cause youth to mask their symptoms.

Once she finds these at-risk youths, Opara will ask about drug and alcohol use, lifetime drug use, their feelings about mental health and their levels of anxiety and depression. She also expects to ask about suicidal ideation.

When she understands the challenges and stressors, she hopes to create a culturally relevant, community based and neighborhood focused intervention. For this to work, she plans to recruit some of the people involved in the study to inform these solutions.

Opara is determined to make a difference for the city of Paterson.

“I don’t want to leave the community with nothing,” she said. “I don’t want to come in, collect data and leave. It’s important to create a sustainable change” that will “empower the community and empower youth.”

In Paterson, Opara recognizes the diversity of different neighborhoods, with people from different backgrounds, experiences and languages living in different blocks.

As a research assistant at Montclair, Opara said she encountered resistance at efforts to change neighborhoods, particularly when she was involved in programs to reduce the hours when liquor stores were open. She said youth mobilization, which included speaking about their experiences witnessing alcoholism in their neighborhoods, helped encourage the city council to pass the ordinance.

People came from other neighborhoods, bought alcohol, drank until they passed out and created a “really dangerous environment” as youth and teenagers were afraid to walk home past people who were drunk in the streets.

Opara appreciates the support of educators in the Paterson School District and the mayor, André Sayegh. She said her efforts may be particularly important in this environment, as New Jersey has cut funding from school-based youth services amid a declining budget caused by a slowing economy triggered by the pandemic.

If the program Opara creates works, she hopes other researchers can extend it to other communities.