Even Community Board 8 deserves a break. And like in past years, it’s getting it with a summer hiatus that not only allows its nearly 50 members a chance to recharge their batteries, but also a chance to reset the board itself.
Some new members are coming aboard, and some new committee chairs. And then there is, of course, the biggest change at the very top as longtime member Laura Spalter is elevated to chair, succeeding the term-limited Rosemary Ginty.
Yet, before that break could happen, there was just one piece of business left — get through CB8’s June full-board meeting. And it was an important one, as members were asked to cast their ballots for who they believe should be leading CB8 on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the first time since 2014, board members had a chance to choose between two people for the top spot. Spalter, of course, and outgoing economic development committee chair Sergio Villaverde. A lawyer who also spent years in the U.S. Coast Guard, Villaverde knew he was a long shot to win the top job. So he laid the groundwork for what he hoped would make such ascension easier in the future: a resolution he said was aimed at addressing systemic racism and injustice not just in the community as a whole, but also within the community board itself.
“It’s long overdue that we not conduct business as usual, in my opinion, and that we really undertake, without hesitation, to state unequivocally that this is something that matters,” Villaverde told the board during its June 9 meeting.
The resolution was in response to days of protests following the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Those protests would spread throughout the country and world — and even locally in the greater Riverdale and Kingsbridge area, calling for an elimination of what has been described as systemic racism at many levels of government, including law enforcement.
Community board resolutions typically are a long series of “whereas” clauses, which essentially outline the conditions the resolution itself is responding to. In his resolution, Villaverde wrote that the board “rarely, if ever” addresses systemic racism, and that it’s the responsibility of the board to address racial inequalities in education, economic development, housing and “access to the American dream.”
Ultimately, the resolution asks the board not to return to “business as usual,” but to seek real reform and change in the community.
The proposal immediately drew criticism.
“I’m not sure what the alternative is that you’re proposing to business as usual,” said Bob Bender, who was later elected vice chair. “And, you know, to say that we seek and continue to work toward real reform and equality for all members of our society, I’m in agreement with that. But that’s an aspiration, not an instruction.”
While the goal was “noble and proper,” Bender said, it didn’t provide the board with any concrete items to act upon.
“I guess that’s the point, is to start imagining doing something differently because we’re not addressing this issue,” Villaverde said. “And I will disagree with the sentiments that because it doesn’t include everyone it shouldn’t include anyone. Because this is a very specific issue, that we rationalize ways to not address.”
The language Villaverde chose wasn’t inclusive enough for all minorities, said Chuck Moerdler, longtime chair of CB8’s land use committee, since the resolution only specifically mentioned racism against Black people. In his 10 years working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Moerdler said he saw racist acts carried out against all kinds of people.
“You seem to suggest, or it can be implied, that the others don’t count,” Moerdler said. “The largest number of acts of racism in the present (MTA) system was Latinos.”
Aging committee chair Eric Dinowitz spoke up in support of the resolution.
“Some of the wording may not be right, I think all of that is irrelevant,” Dinowitz said. “The right time is not even now. The right time is a long time ago to address this. And the truth is, we’re not. And I think one of the things we’re all learning — especially those of us who consider themselves very liberal, progressive — is that we have a lot of reflecting to do.”
While it may be difficult for board members to acknowledge the the body doesn’t often address racism, reflecting on the issue, Dinowitz added, was crucial.
“As a white man, I am trying to amplify the voices of people of color,” Dinowitz said. “And I hope and I think that a lot of other people feel the same way.”
Members discussed forming a committee to take on the subject during the board’s summer break and reconvening come fall, but others believed the current situation demanded immediate action.
“I’m extremely new to the board, but I’m not extremely new to racism,” said Eider Garcia.
“The fact is I’m glad you brought this up front. I’m glad that the board members are saying we’re taking it as it is, and this is how it should go. Because we can’t wait over the summer. By that time, there will be seven more incidents.”
Villaverde agreed that a months-away committee wouldn’t be enough to take on racism within the board, and has since proposed adding a meeting to the July calendar that would tackle the issue.
“This is not something for a committee,” Villaverde said. “This is something that we must fundamentally change the way we do business. Going back to business as usual is part of the problem. Business as usual works for the group that is in power. Going back to business as usual is a code word, for people like me and people of color. It’s a code word form ‘We’ll let this blow over and go back.’
“That is the problem with business as usual.”