Sag Harbor Initiative Celebrates 30 Years

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A scene from a panel dubbed “Intellectual Wasteland” during the 1987 Sag Harbor Initiative, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. C-SPAN image

By Christine Sampson

In 1980s Sag Harbor, even though African Americans residents and white residents here had been living in the same village for many years, they hadn’t quite figured out how to interact or live together in full harmony. An effort called the Sag Harbor Initiative, which marks its 30-year anniversary this week, began to change that.

In a parking lot one day in 1986, a group of Sag Harbor residents began casually talking about a way to bring the community together while also addressing political, social and cultural issues of the time.

It took a year to put together, but the end result was a three-day conference, held over Columbus Day weekend at Pierson High School in 1987, that brought together famous writers and educators, ambassadors, well known businessmen and other luminaries for panel discussions that began to break down barriers and inspire change. Betty Friedan, Angier Biddle Duke, E. L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut and many more signed on to make it happen.

According to a summary of its mission, the Sag Harbor Initiative aimed to bring together “black and white thinkers and activists, women and men asking new questions about our eroding American values of equality, freedom and community that has aroused intense and new commitment.”

The Initiative started out not politically affiliated, but as the writer and educator Amitai Etzioni was quoted as saying, “We need to back up the ideas we have with a political movement.”

The event was recorded by LTV, the Wainscott-based public access television station, and was broadcast by C-SPAN and other channels as well. It attracted local and national media coverage. A total of three Sag Harbor Initiatives were held in consecutive years; the third took place at Southampton College.

WATCH: C-SPAN coverage of the Sag Harbor Initiative available here

According to William Pickens, 81, a Sag Harbor resident who along with his late wife, Pat, was among the event’s planners, the “enlivening, ennobling, inspiring” conference was standing-room only.

“It opened up social connections that would not have opened in the ordinary course of events,” Mr. Pickens said. “The Initiative was a can opener, and from the can poured new ideas and new friendships — which America needs today.”

The issues addressed 30 years ago, he said, would resurface should another Sag Harbor Initiative be held today: Race relations, governmental integrity, environmental conservation and more.

“We’ve got to maintain and sustain the America we’d all like to see,” Mr. Pickens said. “It’s hard work, not easily done. We’d better not let the negatives push us backwards.”

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