A Good Start to Tough Conversations. Now What?

The Sunday, April 15, screening of Get Out! provided an incredible opportunity to watch a horror film on white supremacy with an intergenerational cross-section of the Island. The Howe Theatre was packed with members of the Roosevelt Island Parents Network; the Japanese Parent Network; members of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities; young professionals; Coler Open Doors Project participants; high school students; college students; Girl Scout leaders; and with inhabitants from almost every building on the Island.

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion featuring Lamarenee Robinson, Tapan Parikh, Michelle Fei, and Sarah Lenzi. They opened up the conversation on last year’s community response to weed, immigration, the “model minority” myth, and a range of topics in response to the movie.

Most powerfully, they also shared how their personal and professional lives had intersected with racial justice. Tapan, a professor at Cornell Tech and an Island parent, spoke about being called a “sand n*****” when coming of age during the first Iraq war. 28-year-old Lamarenee pointed out that some in the audience had questioned her presence on the panel, showing how quickly people are making assumptions about others based on how they look. I shared stories of teachers threatening to call the police on my nine-year-old son, and tried to connect the film’s theme of harvesting black bodies to the reality that victims of human trafficking are mainly people of color with a history of child welfare or foster care involvement.

Thank you to all in the audience who participated, particularly Henrietta, who asked where we can locate hope in the process of unearthing injustices. I believe hope is found in the communal response to hard, uncomfortable situations – particularly when that response uplifts our neighborhood, and includes the most vulnerable among us. The volume of responses to this event (we had close to 80 attendees and were sold out a week prior to the event) reflects an unmet need on Roosevelt Island for the time and space to debate critical ideas.

This gives me hope.

Thank you to the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance and The Main Street WIRE for co-sponsoring the event, and to Starr Catering with The Café @ Cornell Technion for providing brownies, blondies, and beverages. Thank you to everyone who worked behind the scenes to bring this event to fruition.

Part of what was special about that Sunday night was how passionate people were about sharing their stories. Many in attendance were people whose voices are not usually prioritized. I want to acknowledge that the desire for audience members to be heard exceeded the time we had. I’ve been reflecting on other models that would give more space for collaborative problem-solving within the community, as we look towards developing future programming.

The screening was the launch of a series of discussions we plan to hold on critical topics including race, immigration, and women, among others, in the upcoming academic year. I also understand that people want to be heard while our experience of the film and panel is fresh.

I’m very excited to share that Cornell Tech and The Main Street WIRE are collaborating to provide a digital platform for all Island residents to actively engage in the conversations on racial justice that opened up on April 15. We are currently working out the details, but here is what we do know.

In the coming weeks, Islanders will be invited to submit a personal response to one of several questions. Potential topics will include your response to Get Out!, and where you locate hope on the Island in the process of unearthing injustice.

There will be a place to email your answer or a dedicated webpage to which you can directly upload. Your response can come as a short video, audio recording, letter, or artistic rendering. We will also host a drop-in session where we will have equipment and assistants available to help you record your submissions. Please stay tuned for more details and specific dates.

​​This is just one way to amplify the voices of the many fascinating people on the Island who have not been heard from. People who can’t come to a public event or don’t feel comfortable engaging in a public forum can begin listening in the privacy of their homes.

It is time we see this paper as a civic resource instead of the province of any specific person or group of people. Fostering the growth of local news infrastructure is critical in an era where the public trust of national coverage is being compromised by organizations like the Sinclair group. New York City, in particular, has been hard hit by the loss of DNAInfo and the Gothamist following a demand for unionization. I think storytelling has the power to kindle the empathic curiosity needed to help us heal some of the fissures in our community.

I’m excited to help create this extended forum that intelligently uses technology and our long-standing local paper to further important conversations and storytelling. I look forward to listening and learning.

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