Local Westchester Leaders Reflect on Race

Photo courtesy of Pace University

– Horace Anderson Jr. –

Dean, Elisabeth Haub School of Law, Pace University, White Plains

Over the last two months, I have cycled through a number of emotions related to the killing of George Floyd. I have felt anger at the police officer who kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and at the officers who watched it happen without intervening. I’ve felt pride for the mobilization of protests by people (across generations and racial/ethnic groups) to seek redress not only for Floyd’s death but also for the deaths of others at the hands of law enforcement and the treatment of Black people by our institutions in general.

I have felt anger again at those who have co-opted the protest moment for violent and destructive ends. I have felt fear for communities wracked by the current violence, having grown up in neighborhoods that took decades to recover from the rioting of the late 1960s. I have felt fear again for my friends in law enforcement, who I think exemplify a spirit of public service and community-mindedness that is common among the majority of law enforcement officers and that I believe is achievable throughout the system.

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We are scrutinizing whom we honor with statues and monuments; we are questioning how we make hiring and purchasing decisions; and we are reexamining how we police. On the other hand, I have felt pessimistic about how much we will accomplish if we are satisfied with the quick and easy answer.

If we do not move beyond the tearing down of statues to a deeper understanding of the history that led to those statues being erected in the first place, we will accomplish little. If we accept mere cosmetic changes to how we provide economic opportunity for all, we will accomplish little. If we embrace careless language about “abolishing” police that obscures the real need to balance community safety and order with the individual rights of those who have encounters with police officers, then we will accomplish little.     

“I have found myself asking questions, all under the heading of: Why now, and what now? ”

Along with all of those emotions, I have found myself asking questions, all under the heading of: Why now, and what now? What is there about this moment that has brought people to the streets, to legislative halls, and to boardrooms with such antiracist fervor? The issues were not new; people of color and their allies have been speaking out about them for centuries. Did the fact that so many of us have quarantined at home give us more time to reflect? Did our inability to distract ourselves with dinners out and baseball games and Broadway shows force us to grapple with that infamous video more than we would in “normal” times? Did mass unemployment make it easier for people to take to the streets and spend hours, days, or weeks protesting? Has reporting on the disparate and devastating racial impact of the novel coronavirus provided a timely confirmation that race still matters in the United States and that the spheres in which it matters, such as housing, healthcare, and public safety, are full of life-or-death consequences? Has the pandemic created in each of us a clearer understanding that ignoring problems will not make them go away, that politicizing them can endanger lives, that leadership matters, and that we each need to play our part in bringing about the change that will lead to better outcomes?        

It will take much more time to understand the Why now? but we need to proceed with the What now? As a father, teacher, and leader of an educational institution, I have a responsibility to facilitate a better world for my sons, my students, and my community. Actually, we all have that responsibility, and we should all be looking for ways, in our homes, workplaces, and social circles, to expand opportunity, insist on equity, and ensure that some good comes out of the George Floyd tragedy.

Photo by Stefan Radtke

– Chereese Jervis-Hill –

President & Founder, Events to Remember, a division of Events by Chereese, Inc.; Cortlandt Manor resident

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I think back upon my life growing up in the projects in the South Bronx, and I’ve come to realize that my mother, father, and grandmother all raised me to navigate a White world. Imagine having to teach to your children to survive and thrive in a world that is supposed to be equally theirs. It never felt equally mine, even as a grown-up. The most glaring instances occurred during my years in Corporate America. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, This is unfair, but I always heard my mother’s voice saying, “Life is not fair, especially for people who look like us, but don’t stop, keep going.” That was one of the lessons. “Fix your face”; “Don’t let them see you cry”; “Don’t wear braids or look too Black,” were other navigation lessons I’d received.

Now that my daughters are young adults, I have found myself teaching them some of the same lessons — one of which is how to survive if pulled over by the police. I remember that following one of the many police shootings of an unarmed Black man, my friend Caroline, who is White, was watching Van Jones say on CNN that he had the talk with his children about how to survive if they were ever pulled over. She asked me if that was real, because she never had to have those conversations with her children. I told her yes; it’s very real. It saddens me that I felt the need to repeat these lessons to my children.

  We have work to do in Westchester County, as well. In 2006, I was a member of Leadership Westchester, and one of our classes took place at the Westchester County Department of Corrections. We had a behind-the-scenes tour, and I remember breaking down in tears as we walked through the jail. My facilitator, David Severance, and my classmates consoled me as I cried uncontrollably. It was overwhelming to see so many people who looked like me in the jail system. He looked like my brother… my cousin… my uncle. It was too much.

“I have great respect for police officers; they have a tough job. But I can tell you that the bad ones are busy…”

Another experience was when I volunteered at Woodfield Cottage [juvenile detention center in Valhalla] to talk to teens about conflict resolution. Again, so many faces looked like mine. In my conversations with them, I learned that most didn’t have the luxury of having their parents called when they did something wrong. In Yonkers and Mount Vernon, the police chief is not making calls to “Bob,” telling him his son was drinking and to come pick him up. These kids are being processed in the system. Why?

I have great respect for police officers; they have a tough job. But I can tell you that the bad ones are busy, as I don’t know any of my Black friends who haven’t had some negative interaction with the police. I remember sitting in my car in the South Bronx, visiting family, when an officer came up to my car and said, “What are you doing here in this car?” Not, “May I see your license and registration, please,” but “What are YOU doing here in this car.” I guess in his eyes, I didn’t deserve to drive a BMW.

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What brings me joy is the fire that my girls have. They are very much a different breed from my husband and me, and they know this world is equally theirs, and they will tell you and anyone else that #BlackLivesMatter and ask you what you are doing to help move equality forward. I realize that living in and having raised my children in Westchester County afforded them many advantages; it is a different world from the South Bronx.

Photo by Jonathan E. Hernandez

– Joshua Gaccione –

U.S. Army Combat Veteran and Higher Education Administrator/Director of Student Support Services & Adjunct Instructor at Westchester Community College; Tuckahoe resident 

My mother was murdered, a single gunshot wound to the head while my two brothers stood watching. I had White privilege.

My best friend died when we were 9 as he waited for me at the corner on his bicycle and was taken out by a drunk driver. I had White privilege.

Almost 10 years to the day following my mother’s murder, my aunt — her sister — was victim to a gunshot wound to the head, a murder-suicide by her live-in partner. She had two children. I had White privilege.

I served as a paratrooper in the United States Army, deployed twice to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I lost friends. I had White privilege.

I did not have a college fund and remember not days but weeks of eating ramen, hoping to get one more mile out of my car, whose gas gauge had lit up red days earlier, because I didn’t have the spare change for a single-ride Metro Card, sitting on my fire escape in sweltering heat and listening to NPR because they were both free. I had White privilege.

I am able to pick the meanest, ugliest facemask or covering (which is generally a Jolly Roger, because I am a man-child who never stopped liking pirates) during a pandemic, unlike a Black friend of mine, who told me he chooses his coverings based on what seems the least intimidating and as far away from the Western idea of masculinity as he can find, because he does not want to be deemed a threat while walking down the street. I have White privilege.

“White privilege does not mean that you did not or do not have a difficult life. It means your skin color is not one of the things making it difficult.”

For the millions of White people living in poverty, those who have nobody to rely on but themselves, who have latchkey kids, work multiple jobs, fight and claw for their next hot meal, do not know if they will make rent at the end of the month and struggle between the electric bill and a credit-card bill because they simply cannot pay both, White privilege does not mean that you did not or do not have a difficult life. It means your skin color is not one of the things making it difficult.

No, having one Black president and two generations of affirmative action in an attempt to level the current playing field does not make up for hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, separate-but-equal, systematic inequality, redlining, bigotry, hate, and outright racism.

I understand that the exterior of blond hair and blue eyes conveys a message. Being a heterosexual male conveys a message. It is a message that has been given center stage for 2,000 years, and the collective we have had a pretty good run as things go.

Recently, I learned more from one of my former students (as those of us in education generally do) than I did from anything mainstream, when she reposted: “Saying ‘all lives matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’ is like saying the fire department should spray down all houses in a neighborhood even though only one house is on fire. Yes, your house matters, too, but your house is not on fire.”

Black lives matter; be your brother’s keeper; lend a hand up, because we have all taken one. You will find that encouraging the advancement of others fills your spiritual well in the process.

Photo courtesy of Sorraya Sampson

– Sorraya Sampson –

President & CEO, Urban League of Westchester; White Plains resident

Most Black people over the age of 12 could tell you a story, or 10, about the microaggressions and racism that we have faced at the hands of our colleagues, neighbors, or friends. The truth is, very few of us, if any, are surprised by stories of insults, shame, or injustice. I was 9 years old the first time I was called the N-word by a classmate, in Mamaroneck Avenue Elementary School. Ten years later, in college, I realized that folks would shift any conversation about racism towards sexism, ageism, or even homophobia because those were less uncomfortable topics to talk about with a Black woman. I was 23 when I was looking for my first apartment, in Lindenhurst, Long Island, and had my deposit returned to my address in an envelope without an explanation. Friends who knew the history of Lindenhurst let me in on its origin story and laughed at me.

At an Urban League of Westchester forum in 2014, I stood up with my then-16-year-old Black son in the audience and explained that the killing of Mike Brown is every mother’s nightmare. Like many Black mothers, I have been numb because every time I see the abuse and killings, we see our sons and daughters, and the pain destroys us. It is simply a form of preserving our mental and emotional health.

Not much has changed since then. Six years later, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, along with the COVID-19 pandemic pause, all came together to form this heartbreaking and hopefully transformational moment for American history. The locked-in masses, who had never contemplated racism other than as a sound bite on the news, were able to look at 8 minutes and 46 seconds as the embodiment of the racism and violence that the Black community has faced since slavery.

“Change is possible. Open, uncomfortable discussions are necessary.”

Individuals who had only heard the rumors of abuse of Black men and women were shocked and moved into action. The “pause” of COVID-19 gave the viewing audience the time to absorb what they were watching and presented the opportunity to protest with their Black neighbors. This resulted in a nationwide multiracial call for change.

And, oh, the young people’s audacity to demand the systemic, strategic change that is necessary to eliminate racism and police misconduct. The conviction of these inspirational young leaders, who show you that they have no boundaries, no restrictions, and no baggage of the historical memory that tries to convince them that they cannot win, is the materialization of our hopes.

Change is possible. Open, uncomfortable discussions are necessary. Demand that you are included at the beginning of any study in your community that reviews law enforcement practices. Make sure that accountability is a part of all proposals for change. Actively call out racist actions, even those couched in well-meaning intentions. Support the federal Justice in Policing bill. Finally, when people are actively trying to change, allow them the room and support to do so.

This is what you need to know: All lives will matter only when Black Lives Matter.

Photo courtesy of Fr. Kareem R. Smith

– Fr. Kareem R. Smith –

Annunciation – Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Crestwood

The aftermath of the [civil unrest this summer] has revealed the ever-increasing issue of ideological polarization in our country. In our modern day, you can only be Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, Back the Blue or Black Lives Matter. Along with this revelation comes the danger of an entire generation of young people who have been affected by indifference, caused by the inability to make decisions based on conscience and inner reflection. The introduction of the 24-hour news cycle in the early 2000s has negatively influenced the political movement of our day. The ability to solely engage media that fits our personal biases has launched us into a society of 30-second sound bites and sensationalized headlines. All of this troubling upheaval and ideological entrenchment has caused me to resurrect an age-old question: Will we ever be beyond racism?

“We must intentionally choose to find the good in every person, and we must also seek to root out injustice in our land as a society.”

Recently, my mother shared with me a journal that belonged to my grandfather, Mr. Rudolph Vincent. Before his death, my grandfather had the opportunity to visit the United States from his native British Guyana in 1967, shortly before the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While life in his South America home wasn’t exactly a dream, he had very little experience with defined segregation. In his journal, my grandfather spoke about his excitement to visit the United States and share his experience with his wife, children, and neighbors back home. While he didn’t speak much about the civil rights movement or even experiencing the effects of segregation, he did speak about the community that his brother, who worked for the newly established Guyanese embassy in Washington, DC, lived in. My grandfather wrote: “[W]hile the struggle for an end to segregation endures here in the US, these people — black and white alike, have chosen to live as neighbors in peace. Joseph and Ermalyn [his brother and sister-in-law] and the children are happy.” In other words, despite the law of the land, people chose to do what was right.

Many terrible things have happened in our nation’s history, and we have been able to overcome them because of good people of every race and ethnicity. Like my grandfather, we must intentionally choose to find the good in every person, and we must also seek to root out injustice in our land as a society. We must be able to say that George Floyd’s death was a national tragedy that can never happen again, and at the same time, our greatest defense against this are the brave men and women who put their lives at risk daily for our safety. In order for this to happen, respect for the inherent dignity of every person must be enshrined in our national life. In a world where we are expected to choose, let us choose above all else what is true, honorable, and beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Det. Keith Olson

– Det. Keith Olson –

President of the Yonkers Police Benevolent Association; Yonkers resident

The first thing I thought when I first heard the term “Black Lives Matter” was: No kidding. Of course Black lives matter. When the BLM movement started [seven] years ago, I’d been a cop for 24 years. I’d thought to myself that fewer groups are committed to the idea that Black lives matter more than cops, especially those who work in Black and Brown communities. I was sure most people would recognize that we risk our lives daily to protect Black lives and that we are proud to do so. Boy, was I wrong.

It’s frustrating that there aren’t enough forums for people to hear the police officer’s perspective and to share their own experiences. I believe my experience is that of most police officers, regardless if you work in Yonkers or Yakima, Westchester or Waco, New York or New Mexico. My 31-year story as a police officer is similar to that of most cops, some of us just farther along on our journeys.

Here’s a snapshot.

My entire career, I patrolled the west side of Yonkers, most of it serving a Black-and-Brown community. I fell in love with my job the day I began and love it now more than ever. I’m grateful for all I’ve experienced and thankful I’ve survived to tell about it.

In my first days as a rookie, I had furniture thrown at me off the roof of a high-rise building, simply because of the uniform I wore. Since then, I’ve been cursed at, spit on, punched in the face, kicked in the head, and pushed down stairs. I’ve been in high-speed pursuits, foot chases, and more violent struggles than I can remember.

I’ve arrested murderers, rapists, and the most violent gang members in Yonkers. I’ve recovered enough guns, drugs, and stolen property to fill a room. I’ve chased, been caught in the middle of, and witnessed the tragic results of gunfire, yet thankfully by the grace of God, I’ve never had to fire a single round.

“I served a Black-and-Brown community with love and integrity yet with imperfection and humility.”

While serving my community, I’ve helped kids with their homework, played sports with them, and bought them meals when I knew they wouldn’t eat otherwise. When they became teenagers, some of these kids refused to look at or speak to me because of the anti-police stigma.

I’ve been exposed to the AIDS virus, suffered broken bones and torn ligaments, been bit by a dog, herniated several discs, and survived car crashes, all while protecting my community. I’ve witnessed people breathe their last breaths, watched a mother wail as she held her bullet-riddled son, seen dead babies, and told people their loved ones would never be coming home. My mind and soul are forever seared with images and memories I wish I could erase.

I’ve solved murders, taken down violent gangs, and received a few accolades along the way. I’ve created programs that integrate inner-city kids with cops, helped raise more than a million dollars for charity, and delivered toys at Christmas and turkey dinners on Thanksgiving to the underprivileged. 

And, yes, I’ve made mistakes. There are some things I wish I could do over again. There were times I let my frustration get the better of me and have treated some people with less respect than they deserved, and for that, I am regretful. I recognize that there were times when another human was on the other end of those mistakes and that their perspective matters as much as mine. Through it all, I served a Black-and-Brown community with love and integrity yet with imperfection and humility. I still love my job, my coworkers, and importantly, the people I serve.

I wish everyone understood how cops feel. My experience isn’t unique by any measure. My story is similar to droves of cops who protect and serve the beautifully diverse people of America. I’d love to share our perspective with as many people as possible, but I know it’s equally important to listen to others’ viewpoints. It’s time we all step out of our echo chambers and do our best to listen to each other.

Photo courtesy of Pace University

– Suede Graham –

Coordinator for Student Development and Campus Activities, Pace University, Pleasantville

I remember the first realization that my mother and I were a different color.

Sitting in the bed of my grandpa’s truck, on a hot July afternoon in a small Arkansas town, my 4-year-old eyes rummaged back and forth between my mother’s white thigh and my caramel-colored arms.

“Momma, why aren’t you brown like me?”

My mother, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Southern belle, sat in silence, not necessarily prepared to have the birds-and-the-bees conversation with her 4-year-old son. Nervously, she grabbed me by the hand, and we scurried inside the house to the kitchen. I sat at the kitchen table and watched as she retrieved two clean glasses from the countertop, a gallon of milk from the refrigerator, and a bottle of chocolate syrup from the cupboard. She began to fill the two glasses with equal amounts of whole milk but proceeded to pour and stir Hershey’s chocolate syrup into only one of the glasses. I watched as her concoction transitioned from notebook-paper white to a color quite similar to that of my arms, legs, face, and body.

“You are just like me, Suede, with just a little bit more sweetness in you.”

To my curious mind, that all made sense. But now, as a 27-year-old Black man in America, I wonder to myself: When did that “sweetness” my mother presented to me turn into a setback?

“Being biracial, specifically as a Black-and-White individual in America, understanding your identity can be elusive and arbitrary.”

My mother and father divorced by the time I was 2, and we soon relocated to a town full of people who looked more like my mother and not like me. In my earlier years, I never realized and grasped the idea that I was a different color than many of my friends. As I grew into a young teenager and then into an adult, navigating life in predominantly White spaces became awkward and oftentimes confusing. Being too White for the Black kids but too Black for most of the White kids, I felt the need to look, talk, dress, and act a certain way. Hannah Montana once had a song titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” but what does one do when your two worlds neither collide nor coincide?

Being biracial, specifically as a Black-and-White individual in America, understanding your identity can be elusive and arbitrary. Race can often be used to define so many aspects of our lives, and we feel as if we are forced to make a choice. We did not choose our skin color, but the world chooses to cast upon us judgments and prejudices simply because of our darker complexions.

A big part of the biracial experience in America is being treated, or not being treated, like a Black person. Because of my darker skin tone, I identify more, and live this life, as a Black man. I walk into a room and immediately search for someone in the room who may look like me.

I love my Blackness. I love my culture. I love my hair. I find joy in the things that make me unique and different.

I just wish our nation loved my people the same way that I do.

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Bradley

– Tiffany Bradley –

Founder, Colored Criticism (a digital media platform for art and cultural-heritage stories); Westchester resident

I look for a living.

As an art critic, I’ve spent over a decade discussing visual culture. Perception is a tricky thing. What seems reasonable or fashionable one minute can appear out-of-touch the next. I’ve watched with amazement and a fair amount of skepticism as our country’s perceptions changed over the summer. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor galvanized my generation in the way that the murder of Emmett Till mobilized generations past. The power of a magazine photograph or cellphone video still surprises.

As our internal perceptions change, so do the look of our communities. Statues and memorials have come down with dizzying speed, whether at the hands of a crowd or a municipally sanctioned crane. The monuments of the Confederacy are the most visible in disrespecting Black experiences but by no means alone. I look no further than the supermarket aisle to see Aunt Jemima, an iconic figure reinforcing the servitude of Black women. PepsiCo’s [$400+ million initiative] Journey to Racial Equality includes removing her image from the 130-year-old brand. I can recall artist Betye Saar’s imperative for corporate change with her series The Liberation of Aunt Jemima over 45 years ago. I’m not sure why it took decades for the message to reach PepsiCo’s Purchase headquarters.

“Perception is a tricky thing. What seems reasonable or fashionable one minute can appear out-of-touch the next.”

I know that Black female artists remain at the forefront of a new imagination. Our distinct way of looking at the world manifests itself in a creativity that includes struggle, as well as joy. I knew there was one woman already making the monuments I wanted to see, so I hopped the Metro-North down to Yonkers. I raced through the rain with sculptor Vinnie Bagwell to visit the sites she is enlivening with new memorials. Vinnie is reshaping the Hudson Valley landscape, from her first sculpture of hometown heroine Ella Fitzgerald at the Yonkers Train Station to the upcoming installation of Sojourner Truth for the Empire State Trail in Poughkeepsie. Her commissions stretch from Milwaukee to Memphis to Montgomery. But I’m most excited to see such radical, representational change in our backyard.

Public art is both an intimate history and a capital expenditure. We spend millions of dollars to commission, install, and maintain monuments in our communities. But they aren’t just art. They are the people and stories that show us who we are. Vinnie’s five statues of The Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden, along the Yonkers waterfront, change the narrative of Westchester’s history. The visages of Themba the Boatman, I’Satta, BiBi, Sola, and Olumide all represent an inalienable part of our nation. As Vinnie explained: “My orders are to bring dignity to the memory of Black people because white people have not done it.” These figures remind us of the skilled, stolen labor that built the wealth of the Hudson Valley. Blackness in America is often shown as a flat, one-dimensional caricature or stereotype. I look forward to seeing the depth of souls that have been with us for centuries past and will remain visible in the present.

Photo by Stefan Radtke

– Alvin Clayton Fernandes –

Restaurateur (Alvin & Friends), Artist, Former Model; New Rochelle resident

I’m a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Trinidad to Washington, DC, at age 15. I received a scholarship to attend Mount St. Mary University for academics and soccer. It was during our soccer team road trip to play Frostburg State that I first encountered blatant racism, when we stumbled upon a Klu Klux Klan rally in Frederick, MD. The team feared for my safety; mind-bogglingly, it was the 1980s.

Even though Mount St. Mary’s class consisted of just 3% minorities, I never really felt the impact of racism among my classmates. My Black “brothers” had warned me of an outwardly racist classmate in my dorm. They were right, but I found him innocuous. Upon graduation, this young man came to me, confessing that there were no Black students at the schools in his New Jersey town. He said his views were media-biased until our friendship and that because he got to know me, it changed how he saw Blacks. That was very touching to me but also shocking. What other way is there to be?

After graduating from Mount St. Mary, I moved to New York to become a fashion model, signing with Wilhelmina Models. Being a successful model was a longshot, regardless of color. Fortunately, GQ magazine was the launchpad to a successful modeling career. Even though I had become one of the top models in the industry in the 1980s and ’90s and was in GQ practically every month, getting a cab in New York City was almost impossible. Walking into an elevator as a Black person was also challenging. I remember trying to gain entrance to a store on the Upper East Side where one had to be buzzed in. As I approached the door, I saw a sign that read “Open.” I buzzed for entrance; no one came to the door. I went across the street and called the store. I asked if they were open; they said yes. I said, “Well, I’m an African American trying to buy a wooden car for my son and was referred by one of your employees. Could you please open the door for me?” I returned to the store and buzzed for entry. One of the employees walked up to the door, and while I was standing there, turned the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed.”

“It’s not my problem if you feel uncomfortable when I pass you on the street. It is your problem, because there’s nothing I want from you.”

I have never stolen anything in my life. I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve earned. I grew up with parents who instilled great values in me and my siblings. We are all successful entrepreneurs. I have never seen myself as a second-class citizen and still don’t. While I don’t automatically assume anyone is a racist, I’ve been around long enough to know racism when it’s directed towards me. The beautiful thing about the human spirit is that we have free choice. I choose to see the better spirits in people; I choose not to be angry; and I treat others the way I would like to be treated.

George Floyd’s murder did something to my psyche, however. It put me in a place where I just got tired of carrying the burden of being Black and thinking I needed to make my White friends comfortable at all points. It’s not my problem if you’re threatened by me when you walk into an elevator. It’s not my problem if you feel uncomfortable when I pass you on the street. It is your problem, because there’s nothing I want from you. I am a husband, father, son, and artist. I am a business owner, a neighbor, and a friend working to make a better life for my family while abiding by the laws of this great country. How different am I from you?

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