Executive director Rahsmia Zatar of S.T.R.O.N.G Youth (Struggling to Reunite Our New Generation), a non-profit gang prevention organization, spoke about how her racial and socioeconomic struggles growing up on Long Island have empowered her to make changes in local communities, at the Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) Center Latina Alumna in Residency Luncheon on Wednesday, Oct. 10.
Surrounded by undergraduate students from minority communities, Zatar said she grew up in poverty in the affluent community of Roslyn Heights in Nassau County, which is a predominantly white neighborhood, where she faced racial struggles as a Latina without much representation.
“From a very young age, I understood and was confronted with the fact that there was class and race. We lived in Section 8 housing. Everybody knew you lived on Laurel Street,” Zatar said. “Can you imagine being a poor five-year-old and wanting to have playdates and the messages you got back was you couldn’t invite anybody over because they were never going to be able to come over to your house?”
Inspired by her background, Zatar wanted to pursue social work. She met Sergio Argueta, the founder of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, at her first class in the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare master’s program.
Based in Uniondale, S.T.R.O.N.G’s mission since its founding in 2002 is to reduce youth gang and gun violence and help formerly incarcerated youths trying to seek change when re-entering their communities. On its website, it says that S.T.R.O.N.G. is now “one of the leading youth and gang prevention and intervention agencies in the Northeast region.”
The organization has worked with over 78,000 people and has programs with 800 youths in Suffolk and Nassau County. It also provides vehicles to pick up kids and bring them to the organization, Zatar said.
“The segregation that exists here on Long Island has had horrendous implications on the communities that S.T.R.O.N.G. focuses on. Gangs on Long Island is not something that’s new either,” Zatar said. “When we talk about what leads kids into gangs, it’s seeking basic normal human needs. A lot of gang involved kids are demonized.”
After Zatar spoke, students discussed being Latino in predominantly white affluent communities in Queens, the Bronx and Long Island and being treated differently or oppressed because of it.
“I’m Mexican and my parents are immigrants and the area I grew up in Queens is very affluent. I was the only Latina in my neighborhood. Everyone else was white,” Lisseth Aguilar, a sophomore political science major, said. “I felt ashamed of my identity. I didn’t want to be recognized as a Latina. When I got to high school, that’s when I started hanging with a lot more Latinos, which I never had in my life, and it made me aware of certain issues that I didn’t even know that was happening, and one of that is the incarceration rates of minorities in the criminal justice system.”
Another student who worked in a museum this summer that had an exhibition on Robert Moses, an architect who designed much of the infrastructure on Long Island and New York City during the early 1900s, said that she had some issues with the exhibit because the racist intentions of infrastructure on Long Island were not mentioned.
“It goes to show how easy [it is] to perpetuate this idea that Long Island is white picket-fence,” Isabela Kyle, a junior Hispanic languages and literature major and LACS minor, said. “You’re just going to lie to these people seeing the exhibit. I thought it was so strange.”
Growing up with immigrant parents — a Dominican mother and Brazilian-Palestinian father — Zatar’s parents encouraged her to speak Spanish in the house and told her to embrace her heritage. When she was in middle school she noticed that there was only a handful of Latino students. In the sixth grade, she went to the principal and asked to start a multicultural advisory committee so faculty could be aware of minority students’ struggles.
That same year, when she attended a workshop on the U.S. prison system and minority communities, Zatar asked in a Q&A what is driving the incarceration rate of Latinos and blacks to be so high, and this question sparked her interest in social work and helping incarcerated men.
“Long Island is considered one of the most highly segregated regions of the country. Historically, the way Long Island was set up was to intentionally isolate and segregate people of color. The landscape of Long Island lent itself to the formation of gangs,” Zatar said. “People didn’t want to acknowledge that Long Island had poor communities and had communities of color. Now working with the population of young people that I do, I think it’s an important message making sure that they understand that their conditions don’t have to define or doesn’t necessarily predict a negative outcome.”