A Conversation With Lisa Votino-Tarrant

Lisa Votino-Tarrant. Brian Downey photo

The well-known community organizer, who has been involved in numerous civil rights and social justice issues on the East End, will receive the Long Island NAACP’s Delano Stewart Award at the organization’s annual award luncheon at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury on Saturday. She talks about the award, how she chose her career path and the need to find common ground.

Who was Delano Stewart and how did you receive this award?

Delano Stewart was a Long Island activist who gave up his insurance business and started a paper in the 1990s called Point of View to counter the stereotyping of African-Americans in the media. The only African-Americans he ever saw in the news were the people who were getting arrested or were the victims in some of kind sob story, so he started Point of View so that news from an African-American perspective would be available. Unfortunately, he passed away last year, and the NAACP created an award for journalism and communications. Communications and networking are my strong points. It’s for all the work I’ve done is really what it boils down to.

You have been involved locally in political campaigns, the NAACP, OLA and many other organizations. Where does your commitment to social issues come from?

I’ve always had a big heart. Like in sixth grade I started a club called the Styrofoam Patrol. I was upset because they didn’t recycle, so I would bring the containers home, much to my parents’ joy.

My mom was always a Democrat and big on doing the right thing. She wanted me to experience different things, but I experienced those things in her little bubble. My dad was a mechanic. He was blue-collar and conservative. He always liked to help people and was a big volunteer. He took me to the Special Olympics every year. On Christmas Day, after we opened our presents, he’d drive around and pick up homeless people and bring them to community dinners. My father, who is diametrically opposed to 90 percent of the work I do, is the core reason I do this. My harshest critic is my dad because he wants me to succeed. When I am working on something, we debate, and he’ll harp on my weak points and help me make them stronger.

Was there any particular galvanizing moment for you?

What prompted the move into being an organizer was when I met my husband, who is a Shinnecock. We were still dating when Native American remains were found on Shelter Island. My husband’s family is very into sacred site protection. To me, it was simple. You take them and rebury them. It was the only time my husband ever called me naive. He told me, “My ancestors don’t have the same rights as your ancestors.” That changed my perspective and I made a conscious decision to move into organizing.

So, has Donald Trump been good or bad for your business?

He has kept me very busy. There is no shortage of work these days. I have a very visceral response to him, and I think the answer to Trump is not the most progressive candidate we can find. The answer to Trump is someone who can bring back some sanity to this country.

Our political life is so fractured today. Do you have any strategies for bringing people back together?

I took a bystander intervention training with the Hollaback Foundation, and one of their founders started “the people’s supper.” The idea was to have seven or eight people from all different backgrounds come together. If you have a meal, it’s harder to be polarized. Last year, we did it on a larger scale on the reservation. There were Shinnecocks and other Native Americans and people from the community. We did it right between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. Everyone contributed something and we had some basic ground rules. It was a success, and we plan to do it again this year. It seems to be one way forward. If we want to get beyond this head bashing, we can’t stay in our own bubble. We have to have dialog.