During Black History Month, we often reflect on the Black Americans who have made life-changing impacts on our country. From Martin Luther King Jr., to Rosa Parks, and even to the lesser-known achievers like the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and the African American female mathematicians who helped us get to space.
While all of these figures are inspirational, I find that more often than not, role models for Black youth are more personal connections. For me, it was always my parents.
Growing up as a Black boy in the Bronx, my parents always taught me and my brother that anything was possible. Through both their words and actions, they taught me the value of hard work, determination, and perseverance. Both my father and mother instilled a sense of civic duty in my brother and I by dedicating their careers to public service—my father as a warden at Rikers Island and my mother worked for the New York City Board of Education. In addition to their dedication to civil service, both my parents inspired me to never stop learning. When I was young, both of my parents went back to school to pursue higher degrees. In the same fashion, as an adult I received my bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and eventually a doctorate. Through their example and through their support, my parents always helped me strive for better in my career and to never let any obstacles hold me back.
When I became the first African American sheriff in Suffolk County, I knew it was my turn to inspire and empower others—especially our young people.
When I began my first term, I made it a goal to visit every school district in Suffolk County—from Amityville to Amagansett. Beyond meet-and-greets, I strived to make strong connections with young people, aiming to dismantle the barriers that sometimes curb young people from confiding in and trusting law enforcement.
I opened up to young people about my personal story—my career at Rikers Island, my two battles with cancer, and all the other ups and downs in between. And I always opened the floor for them to discuss topics that affected them. I was surprised when they would open up about topics they don’t always want to share with adults—especially not law enforcement—focusing on things like drugs, bullying and vaping.
I saw barriers between youth and law enforcement begin to break down, and I wanted to take it a step further.
I expanded my youth outreach to include a new initiative, the Student Ambassador Program, which launched in select schools last year. In this program, I offer young men and women a seat at the table to have candid conversations with Suffolk County’s sheriff. These meetings are always student-driven and do not generally focus on academic topics, but about the things happening around them every day. I’m happy to say that this initiative has successfully opened dialogue about hard to broach topics, like police reform, racism, and current events. And the young men and women who participate are entrusted to carry the messages and discussions to their peers.
Earlier this month, I met with the students in the Central Islip program, and they spoke to me about the horrific murder of Tyre Nichols, in Memphis. These emotionally fueled discussions with our young people are difficult, but vital. Opening a dialogue shows them they are respected and valued. We either lift them up to succeed or leave them to fail.
I aim to be the role model to Suffolk County’s young men and women that my father and mother were for me. I wish to encourage bright young men and women to strive to be leaders, critical thinkers, and the change they want to see the in the world. And I strive to do work that reminds all residents that they can trust law enforcement and other public servants who aim to make our county a better and safer place to live by showing everyone, young and old, the decency, respect, and compassion they deserve.
This year’s theme for Black History Month is resistance. While I understand that it can be seen as a negative word, it has so many profound implications. I want young people to resist adversity, resist status quo, resist limitations. And in turn, to embrace law enforcement and authority figures, embrace serving the communities they represent, and welcome mentors and role models into their lives.