Race, gender identity, sexual orientation and food distribution in the Hewlett-Woodmere School District were the focus of animated chatter in the Woodmere Middle School cafeteria on March 9 as more than 100 students, teachers, parents and residents brainstormed in small groups.
The Community Equity and Overcoming Barriers forum delved into the meaning of cultural diversity, how it impacts the community and what can be done to raise awareness of it. “We have tremendous cultural diversity,” Dr. David Rifkind, a social studies teacher at Hewlett High School, said of the Five Towns. “What we lack is the cultural awareness of each other.”
Rifkind and Rose Panarelli, the district’s business education chair, coordinated the program with Youth Leadership, a group of several dozen middle school and high school students who aim to promote leadership skills and plan community events.
Four guest speakers addressed forum attendees to begin the evening: Gerri Feemster Bostick, managing principal of GFB Enterprises; Syd Mandelbaum, a Cedarhurst resident and founder of Rock and Wrap It Up!; Scott Petersen, a social worker at Pride for Youth, a community center in Bellmore for LGBTQ youth; and Beatrice Bayley, president of the NAACP’s Lakeview branch for the past 11 years. Rock and Wrap It Up! is a poverty think tank that also collects unused food and distributes it to organizations or institutions that help feed people in need.
Peterson spoke about the language people use when referring to the LGBTQ community, including words like “tolerate,” “accept” and “support.” He also explained the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.
“What we’re really talking about is respect,” he said when asked about LGBTQ awareness.
Bayley addressed racial inequality, and explained the mission of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, which includes ensuring that all people have equal rights without racial discrimination. In the interest of minimizing bias, she said, “What we need to do is think of the things that we have in common.”
Youth Leadership President Alec Fischthal, of North Woodmere, Daniel Foster, the group’s vice president, and other students organized the forum. They summarized the smaller group conversations and then presented the ideas to all of the attendees in the second half of the event.
“Diversity is really a blessing,” said Foster, 16, of North Woodmere. He added that although there are people from a wide variety of backgrounds in the district, there is room for integration and inclusivity.
“It’s a lot to cover in two hours, but I thought it was really well done,” Ramsha Ansari, 24, of Hewlett, said of the event. A 2011 graduate of Hewlett High School, she said she was impressed by the diversity of the attendees, who included parents, students, teachers and community members. Ansari emphasized the importance of a diverse administration to foster a wider support system for district students.
Tyler Walter, a Hewlett High freshman, said that being in Youth Leadership helps him understand his community and his relationship to it. He has been involved with the group for four years. “Millennials are open-minded,” the 15-year-old North Woodmere resident said, referring to the issues that were discussed. “They’re the people that are going to make the change.”
Youth Leadership members have attended the Youth for Human Rights International Conference at the United Nations, where they heard from civil rights activists. They also attend Camp Snowball, an annual conference that encourages high school students to take on leadership roles in their schools, enhances teachers’ practices in the classroom and fosters relationships between learning communities and their local government leaders.
These experiences inspired the students to organize the March 9 event, Rifkind said. “I’m a very proud principal right now,” Dr. Theodore Fulton said, beaming.
The next forum will be held on Friday, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Woodmere Education Center, at 1 Johnson Place in Woodmere. It will focus on race equity.