During a year in which much has been said nationally about the need to bring people of all backgrounds together, a group in Southold Town is making a difference locally.
In the shadows of two major national news events this year — the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the contentious presidential election — the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force organized a pair of events to unite people from Laurel to Orient in the name of respect and civility.
“They go beyond any border to bring people together,” Rabbi Gadi Capela of Greenport’s Congregation Tifereth Israel said of the 16-member committee.
Local religious leaders, elected officials, law enforcement personnel and educators from across the North Fork all agree that the task force’s work is making a difference. For their dedication to eliminating bias and creating a sense of unity across Southold Town, committee co-chairs Valerie Shelby and Sonia Spar are The Suffolk Times’ 2016 Community Leaders of the Year.
“I can think of no group I work with that presents more honor and a sense of pride,” Supervisor Scott Russell said of the task force, which has now served the town for 20 years. “It’s a good group of people and like any committee it needs people to take charge and harness that focus into the tasks at hand. These two women have done that.”
Ms. Shelby and Ms. Spar themselves come from very different backgrounds.
Ms. Spar, who joined the task force in 2014 and lives in Southold, was born and raised in Colombia. Her mother preached the importance of getting a good education and being mindful of people in the community who do not have a voice. She has since traveled all over the world, learning as much about different cultures as she can. She lived in Israel for nine years before moving to the North Fork in 2006. When Ms. Spar came to the United States, she said she immediately became interested in civil rights and now works for the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-governmental organization that defends and protects those rights.
“I feel like we are graced with the obligation that we always should try to leave this place better than we found it,” she said.
Ms. Shelby has lived in Greenport most of her life and has been heavily involved with the community there, serving on the Greenport Board of Education, teaching Sunday school at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church and serving on the village housing authority.
Ms. Shelby said the diversity among the people working together on the task force, on which she has served for more than a decade, is what makes the group thrive. She personally hopes to make an impact in her hometown.
“I want to be effective in making a change,” she said. “I want to make a difference, be a good example, a good role model.”
Other community leaders say Ms. Shelby and fellow task force members are doing just that.
“They really understand the importance and the significance of getting the youth of the community involved in this type of work,” said Greenport and Southold Superintendent David Gamberg. “They’re just terrific examples of people who ‘walk the walk’ and don’t just ‘talk the talk.’ ”
This year, aside from the two candlelight vigils after the Pulse shooting and the election, the task force held its annual unity picnic, an event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and an event called Synergy that promoted communication between the community and the town police department.
“We really appreciate the relationship we have with them,” said Police Chief Martin Flatley. “I think they are doing an excellent job in bridging that gap.”
Other task force members said they enjoy working with Ms. Shelby and Ms. Spar and that the two have helped to raise awareness of the group and the ways it can help victims of bias throughout the town.
“We’re getting a little more active and people are not reluctant to speak up about what’s happening to them and how we can help them,” said Marjorie Day, a 10-year task force member.
Member Susan Dingle said the women complement each other, bringing different styles to the table in leading the group.
“[Ms. Shelby] empowers people,” Ms. Dingle said. “She tells you, ‘You can do it.’ ”
As for Ms. Spar, Ms. Dingle said she “came in like a shining star” when she joined the organization.
“From the minute she appeared in the anti-bias task force, she brought new energy and vision and a new level of commitment that inspires everyone,” Ms. Dingle said.
Mr. Russell said the women have certainly realized their goal of improving the community where they live.
“They are two people who aren’t just leaders of the Anti-Bias Task Force, but serve as leaders to the entire community,” the supervisor said. “We do have a wonderful community; they’re tapping into that good nature and they’re making a difference.”
Photo caption: Sonia Spar and Valerie Shelby. (Credit: Krysten Massa)
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2015 — Don Fisher
2014 — Designer show house organizers
2013 — Ron and Doris McGreevy
2012 — Group for the East End
2011 — American Legion Post restoration volunteers
2010 — Peggy Murphy
2009 — North Fork Community Theater
2008 — Lori Luscher
2007 — Committee for Phil McKnight
2006 — Relay for Life organizers
2005 — Merle Levine
2004 — Christine Roache
2003 — Barbara Taylor
2002 — Kim Tetrault
2001 — Elinor May
2000 — Mark Miller
1999 — George Hubbard Sr.
1998 —Ed Siegmann
1997 — Freddie Wachsberger
1996 — Shelley Scoggin
1995 — Craig Richter
1994 — Stewardship Task Force
1993 — Walt Krupski
1992 — The Eklunds
1991 — Bill Grigonis
1990 — Merlon Wiggin
1989 — Jeanne Marriner
1988 — Ray Nine
1987 — Bessie Swann