The Leadership We Need

February 3, 2018

I grew up on a different Roosevelt Island. There was no market-rate housing and no subway. There were only four buildings: Westview, Island House, Roosevelt Landings (then known as Eastwood), and Rivercross. Manhattan Park didn’t welcome its first tenants until 1989.


Perhaps because there were fewer people, there seemed to be less division. Just being one of that small group of people who chose to live on Roosevelt Island was enough to bind us together.

Today’s Roosevelt Island is not the “utopia” of my childhood. There are many more people, and instead of a mostly middle-income Island, we now have both $2 million dollar apartments, and Section 8 housing. These changes have altered the community. The differing perspectives about the Youth Center are a symptom of this, not the cause. 


A segment of the Island population finds family, community, and solace at the Youth Center. If I hadn’t already known that, I would have learned it by attending the RIOC meeting on Thursday. No matter whether you are a stay-at-home or working parent, it’s always a balancing act with kids, and it’s not easy. Having a place to send your kids on snow days and after school, with enrichment that is included, is important for families. I want that too. And I don’t begrudge anyone who has found it with RIYP.


Yet, if everything rises and falls on leadership, what does it say about DeFino’s that so many Island families don’t feel welcome at the Youth Center? Whether or not he is in close proximity to kids, DeFino has created the RIYP culture. Many of the complaints expressed by parents over the past weeks, paint a picture of a leader who has lost sight of what being a role model means and, as a result, has alienated newer Island parents with younger kids who don’t share longtime Islanders’ nostalgia. 


Some of DeFino’s defenders claim that they see him as someone who isn’t impressed by the changes on the Island, and as “the last person on the Island who cares about any of that stuff,” and they find that comforting. 


But whoever ultimately wins this award needs to be willing and able to work with all Island parents. So many parents get shut out of volunteering with our local Youth Center just because they have opinions or ideas for making programming better. 


Whoever wins this award needs to be open to collaborating with other on-Island groups. It would be nice for RIYP to allow the soccer academy on the Island to train its volunteer coaches, for example – something the academy has offered but was rebuffed. 


A leader of a neighborhood Youth Center should be able to listen, make adjustments where necessary, evolve with the community, and embody a spirit of unity by engaging everyone who calls the place home. 


At the moment, it would seem, that is not the leadership we have. 





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