From Coffeehouse to New, Improved Community

 
 
 

TURNING INADVERTENT ACTIVISM INTO
AN UPDATED DOWNTOWN

David Sabatino

I came to community organizing inadvertently.

As a young man, I was more aware than most people about what was going on in my local government, but I was never an active citizen. Later, when I was in graduate school, learning about urban planning, I began examining case studies of what worked and what didn’t work for communities of all shapes and sizes. I realized that when you connected people to information, you could empower them to be a part of improving their community. So I made the decision to get involved–there was so much we could accomplish, if we did it cooperatively.

About five years ago, I started Envision Valley Stream as a Facebook page where I could post information on local government decisions–or lack thereof. I shared examples of what other communities were doing that I thought made sense for our community of Valley Stream–a village of almost 38,000 residents in Nassau County, bordering the New York City borough of Queens. There are also the hamlets of North Valley Stream and South Valley Stream that combined have over 20,000 residents. It’s an extremely diverse ethnic and racial community, with significant populations of various European ancestries–Italian, Polish, German, Irish–as well as African Americans and Latinos.

I used my Facebook page to encourage conversation, critique and questions. As the page grew, several followers suggested that we begin meeting offline and to establish an organization. My effort at community organizing quickly caught the attention of village officials who were suspicious of my intentions (some still are) and questioned what I had to bring to the civic table. I tried to make it clear that I cared deeply for our community, as many others did, and wanted to be part of improving our hometown.

Early on, the main goal was simply to connect people to information, and people to people. Growing up in Valley Stream, I’ve always felt a strong identity and pride in being a Valley Streamer. I know many other community members share this feeling, but after years of demographic change, I sensed a growing negative perception within our community. The camaraderie and shared stories of being a Valley Streamer were fading; we needed to find ways to re-connect people.

One of the first initiatives of Envision Valley Stream was an “Art in the Park” summer event, which featured local artists, crafts, food and music at our Village Green. I worked with the local schools to have students’ art on display and a music studio owner to have local talent perform at our band shell. After two years, it developed it into a bigger event, the Valley Stream Community Fest, organized by a several local entities, which features the businesses, community organizations, institutions and cultural diversity of Valley Stream. It encourages people to enjoy our downtown and discover (or re-discover) that feeling of being a Valley Streamer.

A few years ago, my best friend, Stephanie, and I became part of our downtown business community when we took over the space of a former neighborhood record store and established a coffeehouse we named Sip This. Throughout our young adult lives, we looked for unique places to hang out with our friends, so we decided to start a coffee shop–we didn’t want to end up in our 50s regretting never having done it. Sip This became an extension of my activism and love for the community, a place we wanted to be comfortable and inviting for a wide variety of people.

While the Community Fest has been our biggest success thus far, Envision Valley Stream has remained a vehicle for connecting people to ideas and information, gauging their interest, and then trying to see it implemented. We participated in a community-led effort to build the Valley Stream Dog Park, which is now part of the daily fabric of our village where people come to interact, not just their dogs. We were involved in efforts to educate and advocate for a “Complete Streets” policy–designed to make roads safer for all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists–which was adopted last year by the Valley Stream Village Board. And our ongoing volunteer opportunities are focusing on cleaning our streets and parks, and continuing to provide service opportunities to people of all ages.

Since founding Envision Valley Stream, I learned that the first person to hold up a new idea is often under suspicion. People say, “What’s their motive?” Our society is so divisive–and this divisiveness is killing us. But I also learned that there are so many people who want to contribute, who are looking to connect and get involved. Deep down, I know that when people can come together around something they care about, and when you make it clear that you all share ownership of project, it will get done. Ultimately, people must believe in the power of their community–because there will be times when we’ll really need it.


David Sabatino is founder of Envision Valley Stream, a community-based organization that aims to create a brighter future for the Village of Valley Stream, N.Y. (www.envisionvalleystream.org). For its efforts last year, Envision Valley Stream received a Smart Growth Award from Vision Long Island, a regional nonprofit group committed to advancing more liveable, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible communities. David is an Associate Planner at the Regional Plan Association and co-owner of Sip This coffeehouse. Contact: sabatino.david@gmail.com.