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Town of Smithtown Anti-Bias Task Force and Youth Bureau

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Photo by Raymond Janis

What on the surface may have seemed a minor name change has struck a nerve with several longtime anti-bias advocates in the Town of Smithtown.

During a general meeting Tuesday afternoon, July 11, the Smithtown Town Board voted unanimously to rename the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force as Town of Smithtown Unity Council, a maneuver garnering the ire of task force members and prompting the resignation of at least one of its founding members.

Assistant town attorney Janice Hansen outlined the purpose of the proposed name change during a June 6 public hearing on the matter, stating that the Unity Council would expand upon the objectives of its predecessor organization.

“In addition to the name change, the codified purpose of the group would be expanded to also give the Unity Council the authority to plan and implement programs to promote intergroup harmony and foster respect and tolerance within the town, as well as to make recommendations to the Town Board to ensure that the rights of all Smithtown residents are protected and respected,” she said.

Despite this aspirational rationale, the name change drew considerable opposition from within ABTF ranks.

The Town Board created ABTF in 1994 as a nonpartisan agency “to identify and respond to all forms of discrimination through a program of education, conversation and support,” ABTF member Maria LaMalfa told the board during the June 6 public hearing.

LaMalfa, a resident of St. James, noted that the task force formed following an incident of “horrific graffiti-invoking bias” at Commack High School, maintaining that “this history should not be erased.”

Kings Park resident Richard Palker, a founding ABTF member, had told the board during the June 6 public hearing that bias lingers within the township.

“We do have a problem here in Smithtown,” he said. “The Smithtown Anti-Bias Task Force has as its mission proactive responses as well as educational programs to unify all the people of Smithtown,” adding, “Our program and efforts are directly related to educating and eliminating bias in Smithtown.”

Although he did not object to the proposed goals of the Unity Council, Palker suggested the change in terminology undermines the primary objectives of the task force.

“I believe that it obfuscates the main mission of eliminating bias, hate and intolerance,” he said.

In the face of resident objections, the board voted unanimously to approve the name change Tuesday afternoon. LaMalfa returned to the boardroom, conveying the sentiments of two ABTF members, Chaplain Sanaa Nadim and founding member Ben Piskorz. 

LaMalfa also announced Piskorz’s decision to resign due to the name change.

As the community approaches the 30th anniversary since the inception of ABTF, LaMalfa encouraged the board to celebrate the occasion.

“I would personally like to see the town honor the 30th anniversary of the Anti-Bias Task Force, regardless of the name, next year by hosting a community event,” she said.

The Town Board will reconvene Tuesday, Aug. 8, at 2 p.m. To learn more about ABTF, visit: www.smithtownny.gov/594/Anti-Bias-Task-Force.

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Participants in the 2022 Pride Month Celebration Picnic at Hoyt Farm hosted by the Smithtown Anti-Bias Task Force. Photo from Town of Smithtown

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.

The Town of Smithtown Anti-Bias Task Force and Youth Bureau sponsored a family-friendly Pride Month Celebration Picnic at Hoyt Farm in Commack on June 28.

In addition to the beautiful facilities at Hoyt Farm, many fun and activities were planned for young people, including professional face painting and a slew of games. Partner organizations —  the Smithtown Library, the LGBT Network, Free Mom Hugs, and Keep It Kind Smithtown — also participated in the celebration.

Duck Donuts in Hauppauge donated to the picnic, while Musicology Performance Center provided musical entertainment.