CB8’s racial equity committee seeks change

Key findings include a need for more training, and focus on racial and gender issues inside some of the board’s committees

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Summer marks a well-deserved break for community boards across the city. Monthly committee meetings are typically suspended in July and August, allowing the hundreds of volunteers on the various boards enjoy some sunshine and take advantage of a chance to refresh.

Community Board 8 is no different — but for one exception this summer.

Sergio Villaverde, who unsuccessfully ran to become CB8’s chair, pushed the community board instead to form a special committee on racial equity in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and weeks of protests across the country.

Villaverde was successful in getting the committee formed, although not with him on it. Instead, it was led by board secretary Rosalind Zavras and included CB8 vice chair Bob Bender along with Robert Fanuzzi, Daris Jackson, Julie Reyes, Jyll Townes and Margaret Della as committee members.

The committee met four times over the summer, intending to wrap up by the time CB8 returned for normal business in September.

They succeeded, putting together a report clocking in at 50 pages, outlining recommendations giving board members more training in gender and racial bias, asking committees to address racism in their own meetings, and figuring out what skills and resources board members could provide in efforts to identify and solve such issues in the community.

It was the first time the board’s executive committee — manned by chairs of various other CB8 committees — had the opportunity to provide feedback, ranging from criticism of the report’s tone to conversations about extending the timeline for the committee’s final report to be released.

Ultimately, Zavras said, her committee’s draft is meant to start the conversation, not end it. That means hearing voices from the rest of the board, which hopefully means the equity committee could complete a final report by October.

Camelia Tepelus wasn’t part of the special committee, but she still attended a few of its meetings over the online videoconferencing app Zoom. Still, she felt the committee still had a ways to go to finalize a report. And, given the bureaucracy of the board and a need for transparency, it could take longer than a month to get all of that done.

“This is just the first phase,” Tepelus said. “There should be a Phase Two where more board members can provide input and comment. So far, I feel like (the special committee is) doing a decent job, but they have to pass it on to the wider body.”

The racial equity committee’s impact will likely be felt even before its final report is released. At least two committees — housing, and law, rules and ethics — planed to discuss incorporating the racial equity committee into their September meetings, at least according to their posted agendas.

“You’re going to see that in a couple of different spots this month, and next month as well,” Zavras told The Riverdale Press. “I know, for instance, health and hospitals wants to do a joint meeting, that’s probably going to be in October. There’s a lot of energy.”

Putting racial equity on committee agendas was her group’s first recommendation, Zavras said, as it gets the conversation started. Since all the special committee members are also members of other more traditional committees — like housing and land use — they realized it was important to bring their findings back to their colleagues for discussion.

“There are some really interesting initiatives that I’m hoping the board will take up,” Zavras said. “There was a lot of really good research done. What I like about the report and what we were able to do is compile a history of the movement, demographics of the neighborhood, detail on what a community board is. I learned so much this summer about the community board structure, and what we are ‘supposed’ to be doing.”

Community boards are advisory and don’t hold much real decision-making power within New York City’s government. But they do represent neighborhoods and communities on the smallest scale, and can work to coordinate help for those who need it, serving as a connecting element between the community and city resources.

Tepelus was frustrated with CB8’s slow development pace — special equity committee or not — and hoped to see a clear focus moving forward.

“There are things that need to be said, I’m sorry,” Tepelus said, “but Community Board 8 needs to keep moving forward and keep up with the times.”

Bender, a longtime member of the board, said he looked forward to getting feedback, emphasizing that the first draft was subject to change.

“I don’t think anybody on the committee feels that this is the last word on the subject,” CB8’s vice chair said. “This is not our final report. This is our first report. It would be nice to have as many comments as possible so we can consider them and review them when the committee meets again on Sept. 29.”

The special committee’s research of the community’s demographics and history has prompted its members to branch out beyond racial equity. Zavras was surprised by the high number of people living within the community board’s jurisdiction who give up at least a third of their income to rent.

“To me, it was pretty shocking that this is still a big issue for Community Board 8, and what can we do to support,” she said. “We have that housing guide that was just translated into Spanish. Maybe there are ways that we can get that housing guide out to more individuals, and how we can support job forums. You know, this is an economic development issue too.”

The draft report’s initial recommendation for ongoing training — whether it focuses on unconscious biases or gender equity — is something that’s been discussed among board members before, Zavras said.

“The dialogue is a little rocky, but I am really heartened by the fact that the community board keeps trying and keeps showing up,” she said. “And that’s part of this work, that it’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to be a little messy.”

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