As civil unrest raged across the country, the predominantly white community of Gardiner wondered what it could do to offer support to its Black and minority citizens. The Town Board passed an Aug. 11 resolution affirming that Black Lives Matter along with a commitment to fight systemic racism, as well as oversaw the creation of a BLM mural in Majestic Park by New Paltz High Schoolers, but felt that there was more work to be done. To prove its ongoing commitment to establishing equality, the board created a new position dedicated to the cause, the Ambassador of Peace and Justice, and swiftly appointed board member and longtime activist Councilman David Dukler on Sept. 9.
“Talk is cheap and we wanted to do something, so this is a first step,” said Dukler.
The role was created and introduced by board Deputy Supervisor Laura Walls as a way to hold the board’s feet to the fire following the passage of their resolution, which committed the town to take “actions necessary to create meaningful and measurable change.” Recognizing that larger towns and cities have commissions dedicated to human rights initiatives, she wondered how Gardiner could implement a similar role.
“In a town where there’s little uprising or signs or hate oriented activity, what can you do?” Walls said of her brainstorming that ultimately led to the creation of the Ambassador of Peace and Justice. The role would ensure that incidents of bias, hate, bigotry and extremism are reported to the appropriate authorities, namely the state police, Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center, the latter two of which track racist-inspired incidents across the country.
Though the position was a response to progressive demonstrations across the nation, the vandalism of Majestic Park acted as a catalyst. Stickers depicting hateful messages and anti-Semitic verbiage from a group called Patriot Front were found strewn throughout the public space and nearby locations in August, the same time the high school art students were erecting their mural. The messages were captured and spread via social media, prompting Walls to respond. She introduced the role, along with a nomination for Dukler to assume the position, at the first September Town Board meeting, both of which were solidified a week later.
“The first thing that I did was share the Patriot Front information with the appropriate agencies,” Dukler said on taking over the position. The incident, labeled as a white-supremacist incident, was the only one in Gardiner reported to the Anti-Defamation League since 2003, the year of its inception. The organization labeled it as a white-supremist incident. By reporting to the four departments, the town hopes to establish a record of racially charged incidents to compare to other locations across the state and country, which will provide the community with the tools to implement effective educational programming and other preventative measures.
“It’s an initial first step, and we’re going to keep looking for more to do,” Dukler continued. “My job is to do more exploring, liaising with other towns, other groups to see what could be next for us,” which, he said, would be educating the nearly 95 percent white community on ways to dismantle systemic racism.
Dukler himself is White, but doesn’t believe his race would affect his ability to fulfill the position, despite it being created as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. With a long history of activism that began in the 1970s, when he protested the Vietnam War as a college student, Dukler is confident his desire to create change and work for progress is more than enough of a qualifier. In fact, he said that in some cases his whiteness may help his cause.
“Sometimes it’s easier for some White people to hear things from other White people. And sometimes having a speaker of color is more effective, but the reality is we obviously don’t have a large African American population he said, referring to data from the 2010 Census that recorded only a 1.7 percent Black demographic for the region. “There are positives and drawbacks .. but we have to go with who we are and the tools we have … I’ll try and maximize my strengths as a White person who’s lived in the community for 33 years.”
As the role continues to grow, Dukler and Walls hope to establish more concrete initiatives, such as altering zoning code laws that regulate the amount of affordable housing allowed in the community. They also hope to lead educational programs that encourage the residents of Gardiner to reach out to its minority members. One idea Walls mentioned was a program that teaches English speaking residents how to communicate with migrant farm workers who hail from Spanish speaking countries in order to make them feel more welcome during the harvesting season. For now, however, they are taking the process slowly.
“My MO is always to expect the best, treat people the way you want to be treated. It seems like there’s been already enough evolutionary time to be beyond this situation … It’s hate versus love, right versus wrong. The inability to accept another human being as another human being is something hard to process,” said Walls.
Dukler pointed out that though the Ambassador of Peace and Justice was created to support the Black Lives Matter movement, he will work to tackle all systemic inequalities and bias incidents, such as misogyny, anti-Semitism, domestic abuse, and more.
“This was a response to what had happened in the moment, but there’s not a limit to it,” he said.
To report a bias or hate incident, contact the Ambassador of Justice and Peace at peace and firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Town Board for more information.