At Sunday’s Riverhead-North Fork Unity Town Hall, organizers asked for a volunteer from the audience to stand up and share what they’d just learned about the person sitting next to them.
Without hesitation, one woman popped out of her chair.
The man sitting next to her, with whom she’d just spent the previous five minutes in conversation, is a Catholic priest.
“A lot of the people he cares for at [his church] are at risk,” the woman told an overflow crowd of about 150 mostly East End residents who gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverhead for the event.
In just a few minutes, the audience had received a glimpse of the diversity surrounding them by performing an exercise as simple as speaking to the person nearest them. They also heard about various concerns their neighbors have under President Donald Trump’s administration.
Joining the priest were a rabbi and a young physician assistant making an effort to get out into the community and speak of her experiences as a Muslim American. The speakers were black, white and Hispanic, as well as gay, straight, transgender and lesbian.
Their purpose Sunday was to join with others who feel they are being targeted in today’s political environment, to pledge unity and to answer a call for political action.
“We all need help and these are all issues that need to be worked on, so find common ground,” said Lisa Votino-Tarrant of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, who spoke about efforts to stop repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “Some people may not like one thing or another thing, but we all need to help each other.”
The two-hour event was modeled after Long Island Unity Collaborative events held elsewhere in Suffolk County, including one earlier this month in Hampton Bays. The discussion was led by Dulce Rojas-Mendez of SEPA Mujer, Carolyn Peabody of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force and Donna Stovall of the Peconic River Community Development Alliance.
Speakers were invited to discuss a variety of topics, including accessible health care, protecting the environment, LGBTQ and women’s rights, and profiling of black, Jewish, Muslim and Hispanic community members.
Audience members were asked to sign a pledge to follow four “principles of unity.” Those principles included supporting community members who fear for their safety; committing to take action to support members of groups that face discrimination; calling on local elected and law enforcement officials to publicly condemn harassing behavior; and working to better understand neighbors who are different.
“What’s striking to me is that all of us are talking about safety,” said Fizzah Idrees-Iqbal of Westhampton Beach and the Islamic Center of Long Island. “It’s a concern for many of our marginalized groups.”
Ms. Stovall spoke of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial profiling faced by young African Americans. Rabbi Michael Rascoe of Temple Israel in Riverhead discussed being the victim of anti-Semitism.
Donna Riley, a transgender social worker from Lake Grove, recalled a former reluctance to discuss her identity.
“One time it got out [in the 1970s] … and someone hit me in the side of the head with a log and then dragged me out of my car by my hair,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Sunday’s unity event had been scheduled for St. John the Evangelist School in Riverhead, but the church asked organizers to change locations due to the participation of representatives from Planned Parenthood. As a single protester stood outside the hotel with pro-life signs, Leslie Wright of Planned Parenthood in Riverhead was greeted by a warm ovation inside.
She spoke of misconceptions about her organization, rattling off a list of services Planned Parenthood provides.
“I invite you all to come down and see the good work we’re doing for the men and women in our community,” Ms. Wright said.