Race Relations in the Catskills: A Letter to Sandra Cuellar Oxford

Dear Sandra:

As we discussed last week, I am writing this letter (ok, its really an op-ed) to not only congratulate you on becoming the new Sullivan County NAACP president, but also to offer you some of my insights on race relations here in Sullivan County.

The purpose of this letter is not only to encourage you to increase the influence of more people of all races in our politics and community, but also to help preserve and grow toleration here.

The state of race relations in our country now centers these days on the divisions created by very unfortunate events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.

In Sullivan County, I believe there are other immediate concerns to be addressed by you and the NAACP as well as police relations in our communities (which I believe are relatively good at this time).

First, messaging at this juncture is critical for the NAACP.

While I believe that we live in a very tolerant community, continuing problems and issues should be obviously highlighted. Just as important, what is good and positive already needs more emphasis in the press too.

For example: It sickened me recently to see Mayor Gordon Jenkins seize the headlines when he led a failed, truly insignificant demonstration against alleged local police brutality. The wrong message was again being sent about Monticello and Sullivan County by our Middletown daily looking to accentuate the negative in Sullivan County and sell papers.

At the same time, there was no reporting of a brilliant, ad hoc community Holiday dinner that was organized by spirited people of all faiths and color which drew hundreds of people and evoked community cooperation and spirit which made me and others proud to live in Monticello and Sullivan County.

Second, a new effort should be spearheaded for more inclusion of minorities in our political system and as employees in our municipal halls and DPWs.

To the best of my knowledge, a minority has never sat in our County Legislature and very few have served on village and town boards. Except for Judge Josephine Finn, how many minority judges have sat in our various village and town courts?

The time is here to start incubating and encouraging minority candidates to run for these jobs.

Culturally, when was the last time you heard a Afro-American DJ on a local commercial radio station here or programing specifically for minority ethnic communities here in Sullivan County? How many minorities are members of local community organizations boards that serve minority populations? Not enough.

As we discussed, taking a page of Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals," it's important at this juncture to place Sullivan County NAACP members on as many volunteer boards, political, religious, or not for profits, to promote inclusion and increase the say of the minority community in Sullivan County.

Third, while there's concern over police relations, an examination of how the poor are represented in our local courts and how judges are meting out punishment toward them is long overdue here in Sullivan County.

Also, while there's a new effort to reduce welfare fraud, there's no one talking for those locals unfairly discouraged from applying or questioning the true efficacy and cost of these harsh policies.

Monitors from the NAACP need to be appointed to attend social service interviews and court sessions, both in County Court and local justice courts.

Also, a commissioned study should be called for to see how bad the differentiation is between sentencing for those represented by Legal Aid and those by paid private attorneys and to calibrate the severity of sentencing on felonies of the poor.

Fourth, as one of the sickest communities in the U.S., Sullivan County is not doing enough to truly address nutritional concerns at the grassroots level.

I would suggest the NAACP spearhead developing a program to ask grocery stores and convenience stores to sell less crap in the form of sugary caloric sodas, snacks, and cakes. Another suggestion: The development of community gardens in our "urban" areas, maybe through Cornell Cooperative, to teach our kids how to grow food and how good it is to consume can be explored.

Finally, and most importantly, building your membership in the various communities in Sullivan County is critical.

A NAACP with a strong voice that draws from all in the community guarantees more tolerance and understanding in Sullivan County.

In closing, I hope you use your stewardship of the local NAACP to build an organization that is not only effective in its work, but serves as a model for other communities in future race relations in our country.

I believe that you have the skills and we have the right community to do so. I am here to help.