Segregation, Racism, and Growing Up on Long Island


For the past two years, ERASE Racism has brought together a diverse group of high school students to take part in our Student Leadership Forum. The program teaches participants about the history of race and racism in the US and how it continues to affect all of us in different ways. The students have expressed gratitude for opening their eyes to topics that they had never considered. We often hear that their favorite part of the forum is being able to interact with their peers from other schools and learn from their different experiences.

It didn’t surprise me that this cross-cultural dialogue was so valuable to the students.

When I was in high school on Long Island, I helped to organize a project that taught elementary school students about other cultures from around the world. My supervisor felt passionately about putting an end to racist attitudes and stereotypes that she witnessed all too frequently in schools. She developed the C.A.L.M Project as a way to break down the belief that anyone who looks different from the majority is strange or to be feared.

Working with this project was the beginning of my journey to imagine an existence that was not racially isolated. At the time, segregation was the only way of living that I knew. I grew up in the same house that my mom lived in since she was nine-years-old when her family moved to Long Island. Her parents left Queens because “the neighborhood was changing.” In high school, I wondered what it would be like to be in a school with black and Latino students; that was not an option.

It wasn’t until I left Long Island to go to college that I was able to form meaningful relationships with peers of other races and ethnicities. My new friends had vastly distinct viewpoints that were shaped by their racial and cultural backgrounds and their experiences. My friends were racially diverse and some went to boarding school, some were home schooled, and others graduated from the nation’s poorest public schools. I learned more in the four years that I spent with these individuals than I learned in 14 years of sitting in the classroom. Their experiences helped to enrich my world view, my understanding of history, my politics, my appreciation for new knowledge, my notion of what’s right and wrong and, most importantly, they allowed me to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes that I learned from living on Long Island in a racially homogeneous community.

I returned to Long Island last year and regrettably, Long Island’s schools are still racially segregated. I’m glad to be working at ERASE Racism where our Education Equity Campaign is working to introduce polices that provide all students access to a rigorous course of study in racially integrated schools, and where programs like the Student Leadership Forum create a much-needed cross-cultural learning environment.

The workshop evaluations are evidence that participants in the leadership forum see the benefit of diversity once they are exposed to it. One participant said, “I had a blast interacting in activities and meeting new people, and I think ERASE Racism is such a great program because it makes our generation know what is going on. So I thank you, yet again for giving me an experience that I will remember forever.”

The next Student Leadership Forum will take place on Saturday, November 5. To find out more and to register, click here or call me at 516-921-4863.

Olivia Ildefonso is the communications and housing coordinator for ERASE Racism.