I’m one of the lucky ones; I only lost power for a little while. My house, car, and loved ones emerged from superstorm Sandy unscathed.
Surveying the damage last week, I realized that not all my neighbors in Gordon Heights were so fortunate. Trees were slow-dancing with power lines. Branches lay strewn across impassible streets. Houses with power were a rare sight.
I realized something else, too: The storm could have long-term consequences by making it much harder for our community to vote.
My neighborhood is precious to me. My family has been in Gordon Heights since the 1950s. Ours is a proud community that created its own fire department decades ago when nearby fire departments refused to come put out a fire in our mostly African-American area.
But, as in many communities of color, neighbors and I have voted less frequently than voters in nearby areas.
On Long Island, registered African-American and Hispanic voters are approximately 40 percent less likely to have voted in the past two of three elections than their white counterparts, according to an analysis by the Long Island Civic Engagement Table (LICET), a nonprofit organization working to increase civic participation. This disparity appears to have had consequences; politicians pass our communities over for economic stimulus programs and infrastructure developments.
That’s why volunteers and civic organizations worked to register people to vote this summer. Teams from LICET registered 4,500 voters in working-class communities of color, including Brentwood,Central Islip, Patchogue and Gordon Heights. And we followed up, making sure that new voters were aware of the upcoming election and encouraging them to vote.
But Long Island has been devastated by this storm. Friends and loved ones have huddled in houses of neighbors with power. And, as gasoline has become scarce, some fear leaving home, while police guard gas stations.
In the areas where we have worked to mobilize voters, power has slowly come back to most houses and, as in much of Suffolk County, poll site locations remain largely unchanged. But people remain focused on basic necessities like heat and gas and getting their lives back to normal.
Driving through Gordon Heights this week, I couldn’t help but think: How are people going to vote?
A few days ago, I visited my friend Lilly Crowder in Gordon Heights. Sitting on her back porch looking at the damaged trees, she reflected that life was like a storm: You can be like the trees and dance with the wind and make the best of it, or you can be like a stubborn branch and fall away, broken.
Crowder’s house did not sustain damage, but she is in her 70s, and she was coping without power or a phone while caring for a sick relative. Neighbors were pitching in, bringing over coffee and supplies. Despite all this, Crowder told me that she is voting and making sure that her neighbors join her. Like the branches of surviving trees, she will not be broken.
For decades, Long Island’s communities of color have been trapped in a vicious cycle: Politicians are unresponsive because, in part, residents frequently do not vote, while residents don’t vote because politicians remain unresponsive. This year we’ve done a lot of work to break that cycle. And a 100-year storm, however damaging, will not undo what we have accomplished.
Some of us may have lost power, cars, houses and, in the most tragic cases, our loved ones.
But we still have our proud, beautiful voices. And, today, we will make them heard. Today we vote.
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