Unity Starts With Listening
Unity. Unity. Unity.
Everyone is preaching it, but who is actually practicing it?
Some residents, initially filled with a heightened sense of unity after Sandy, now scream “UNITY” to silence those whose views differ from their own. The idea is that unity is great until you disagree. At that point you are being “divisive” and not part of the unified community.
So much for unity.
Miriam Rosenberg’s March 29th column “Stay United and On Topic” was more of the same. Her column went on to criticize those whose concerns at a Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resilience (SIRR) meeting strayed too far from her own priorities (i.e. jetties, small businesses) as being “off topic.” Now obviously there are others who share with her those priorities. Those folks would be, more often than not, in the west end.
Hold on, wait. I’ve probably broken this new mandate on “unity” by pointing to the historic divide between the east and the west ends. Apparently we live in a new age where the east and the west have united as Mrs. Rosenberg suggested:
“Before it was the east end against the west end. Now it is Rockaway against everybody else.”
I must have missed the memo or perhaps I’m just being divisive but I did find it odd that Mrs. Rosenberg was chiding east end residents for raising their voices in an east end meeting. She pointed to “closing schools” as a distraction from the real issues. Not only was that issue not brought up as something SIRR could address, it was only brought up to highlight this Mayor’s autocratic governing style and disregard for the families of Rockaway—an important reminder for residents who didn’t yet recognize that this charade of a “public workshop” was designed to give the illusion of participation as cover for business as usual.
And in fact, most concerns brought up in that meeting by east end residents were issues directly related to Sandy and the role of the City in making Rockaway more resilient: Rockaway’s lack of a trauma center, LIPA’s energy monopoly and the need for sustainable energy, and the lack of economic development that exasperated Sandy’s effects for many residents (among other issues). Still, those are things that Ms. Rosenberg and others might conclude are “off topic.” Obviously we aren’t “united” enough behind what really matters (i.e. issues near and dear to the other end of the peninsula).
These differences in priorities between the east and the west were recognized even by SIRR officials, who openly discussed the distinct differences between east and west. It’s no secret that the east and west are different. There are different demographic and socio-economics, so of course there are different priorities. To ask that we all “unite” under a handful of priorities would be like asking a family of 10 what they want for dinner. There are differences. Not all of us are homeowners. Not all of us are business owners. Not all of us were affected by this terrible hurricane in the same ways.
Now this isn’t to say there is no common ground or that there aren’t things that could benefit us all. Some folks aren’t making west-centric demands for unity. Peter Corless’ idea about reviving the plans for a CUNY by the Sea is a win-win. And the long-fought struggle for transportation justice (toll rebate, the old LIRR line, etc) can benefit all of Rockaway.
Occupy Sandy and the Wildfire project are striving to help politically organize and strengthen the community as a response to Sandy. There are local grassroots groups that played such pivotal roles before, during and after the storm (Action Center, Culinary Kids, RYTF, and others) that need continued support after being overlooked by Robin Hood Foundation aid.
It would, however, be irresponsible to say Mrs. Rosenberg’s concerns aren’t deserving. We need protections. We need to regenerate the local economy. But attempts to stifle east end voices aren’t only un-democratic, they’re counterproduct-ive and shortsighted if you really do have aspirations of one day uniting the Rockaways. A concrete step towards unity entails being honest with the inequity of the Rockaways and striving for a more balanced peninsula. That starts with listening to each other—-not quieting the other side.
How do we get there? Solidarity.
Perhaps we could be honest with ourselves and come to terms with the notion that the City isn’t really concerned with community input. East end residents certainly aren’t the only ones who feel government is avoiding transparency and public participation, as the 2-part Wave “Special Editorial” has pointed out.
Calling out the City or the State when it disrespects us can unite this community as a whole.
Perhaps it would be better to be honest, but respectful, of our differences. Attempting to undermine other voices in the name of “unity” ignores our diverse range of needs—-that Sandy only worsened. Needs that don’t simply begin with jetties and end with small businesses.
Responding to the needs of both ends can do the most towards uniting this community... as a whole.