Column: Where a meal is more than just food


It’s a tradition as old as food itself: sharing a meal with others.

That tradition was on display one recent weekend as hundreds gathered at Strawberry Fields on Route 48 for the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force’s annual picnic, a barbecue that brought together residents of all different backgrounds and ethnicities.

It’s no March on Washington or Occupy Wall Street movement, but plenty of change has happened — and happens every day — through smaller acts that could very well be considered more meaningful than larger movements in places far, far away.

For the past six years, the work of the Anti-Bias Task Force has started at the lunch table.

“When you sit down and share a meal with other people, the ‘other’ is no longer someone you don’t know,” said Sonia Spar, a task force member for the past two years. “We don’t need to get the point of holding vigils — once we get to proactively doing things like this, we understand we are together in this community.”

A native of Colombia, Ms. Spar works with the national Anti-Defamation League as a coordinator of Latino community relations. And the North Fork’s Latino population has risen in recent years; census numbers show that 2,382 Latino or Hispanic people lived in Southold Town in 2010, more than double the 982 living there 10 years earlier.

But promoting respect of racial differences in town isn’t the beginning and end of the Anti-Bias Task Force’s mission. In fact, that’s just one small aspect of its overall purpose, which is to focus on “all forms of bias and prejudice.”

“Discrimination is not knowing enough,” said James Banks, keynote speaker at the Aug. 8 picnic.

Known more commonly as Dr. Love, Mr. Banks is the coordinator of multicultural affairs at Suffolk County Community College. He also serves on Southampton Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and is the chair of Suffolk County’s African American Advisory Board.

Pointing beyond race or handicap, Dr. Love said discrimination of thought is perhaps the worst kind — and sitting down with people different from yourself is simply a starting point for hearing other kinds of thought and maybe breaking through walls people didn’t know were there.

“When we’re able to socialize and have conversations with people, it gives us insight into caring for them,” Mr. Banks said.

It’s no secret that the media landscape has become very compartmentalized — and not just in how people receive their news. Pandora allows you to customize your music selections, choosing which other songs you might like. You pick the people you follow on Twitter and your Facebook friends, and it’s easy to get caught up in the echo chamber — often unaware of what’s going on outside it.

What if, instead of “liking” a post your Facebook friend shared, you sent a complete stranger a Facebook request and started chatting with him or her about what’s going on in their part of the community? That person would probably be very weirded out, I understand — and rightfully so, probably, considering general Facebook etiquette — but the comparison to eating a meal with other people in the community you may not be friends with doesn’t fall too far, I think. Speaking with strangers may seem strange, but does it have to be?

Determining how to take the environment promoted at the task force’s annual picnic and use the momentum to make real change in the community takes a lot of time and effort. Even the Rev. Marvin Dozier, a co-founder of Southold’s Anti-Bias Task Force, recalled that the group was created in the mid-1990s in response to discrimination in the county. But fast-forward 20 years and discrimination still exists — sometimes more obviously than others. In fact, only half of Suffolk’s 10 Anti-Bias Task Forces were still active last year, until the county executive asked that they be reignited.

Southold’s had been active all along. And it has no plans to slow down. In fact, its next event is scheduled for Oct. 5, when Helen Prince, a teacher who promoted diversity in Southold, will be honored with an inaugural award presented by the group.

“Our work is never done,” said the Rev. Dozier. “It must continue.”

Pinciaro_Joe.jpgJoseph Pinciaro is the editor of The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 298-3200, ext. 238.