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OLA Celebrates 20 Years of Advocacy on the East End

OLA staff members are celebrating 20 years of working for a more equitable East End for Latino immigrants. Here they are pictured at the organization's annual Pachanga, held for the past two years at the Parrish Art Museum.

By Michelle Trauring

July 26, 2022

Every Monday morning at East Hampton Town Justice Court, Erika Padilla sits, listens and waits — her presence offering a familiar face that the Latino community can rely on to always be there.

In practice, she is a legal administrative assistant, available to help defendants without attorneys navigate their cases and translate law jargon, and often give emotional support.

But her presence represents so much more than that.

By consistently showing up, Padilla serves as a reminder that Organización Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island, where she works, is in their corner.

It is a tool she wishes she’d known she had after emigrating from Ecuador in October 2003, she said, and one she never intends to let another immigrant go without — at least not on her watch.

“Serving my Latino community is like, it feels good because I didn’t know when I came to this country, I didn’t know I had rights, even though I came documented — that’s different,” she said. “But at a certain point, I needed help and I didn’t know the help existed. I didn’t know about OLA.”

At that time, the nonprofit had just gotten on its feet — founded in October 2002 by a group of concerned citizens — and, in the two decades since, it has evolved into the only Latino-focused advocacy organization that serves residents of the five East End towns, including non-Latino community members, as well.

“It feels good to give information to people so they can have power,” Padilla said, “because that’s what the information gives you, power — power to defend yourself, power to protect your family against injustice. And that’s something that OLA fights for, and giving people tools for them to fight.”

OLA’s work centers on not only advocacy and crisis management, but also health and wellness, education in English and Spanish, and art and culture — all in the name of inspiring systemic change. That includes mental health support, access to food through a pantry and grocery delivery, transportation to medical appointments, assisting and training law enforcement, sex education for teens, legal advice on housing, immigration and employment, and more.

To celebrate its 20th year, OLA will host a fundraiser, “Sabor,” on Thursday, July 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. at The Church in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $300 and proceeds will support the organization in its efforts to build a “safer, healthier and more equitable East End for Latinos and all community members,” according to its website.

“If OLA were not here, I think a lot of basic systemic issues would not be being addressed — and would not only not be addressed, but not even be recognized by certain institutions, whether it’s government, schools, health care institutions, et cetera,” OLA Associate Director Sandra Dunn said. “One big thing that OLA does is makes sure that the issues get out there and the issues get put front and center, and the issues get addressed, as much as we can address them being a tiny organization — but a growing one.”

Small, But Mighty: Addressing A Critical Need

In 1990, the East Hampton year-round population was nothing short of homogeneous — about 94 percent white, with the Hispanic and Black communities comprising 5 and 4 percent, respectively.

A decade later, that picture had shifted.

The Hispanic population had sharply jumped, to 14.8 percent, representing about a 260 percent increase townwide, and the leadership on the East Hampton Town Board was struggling to bridge the gap between them.

In response, they formed the East Hampton Town Hispanic Advisory Board and appointed members to serve as liaisons, who soon found themselves in tricky, uncharted territory, according to Isabel Sepulveda-de Scanlon.

As more and more members of the burgeoning Latino community came to them with their concerns — which ranged from where they could play soccer to where they could live — they felt powerless to make real change, she said.

And, so, eight of them left.

“We couldn’t be independent,” Sepulveda-de Scanlon said. “So that’s when we decided to resign. We all resigned at the same time.”

Together with Chini Alarco, Jacqui Candemir, Julio Correa, Luis M. Yanez, Jorge Armijo, Diana Weir and Jorge Kusanovic, she co-founded what would eventually become OLA — an organization devoted to serving the needs of the Latino community and celebrating its diversity across the East End.

At the start, in 2001, it revolved around them: All meetings were conducted in Spanish and closed to non-Latino populations. Members hailed from Ecuador and Colombia, Puerto Rico and Argentina, Mexico, Chile and beyond, and while they shared much in common, discord eventually erupted over whether they should speak in English at meetings, too, and welcome in the general public.

The latter won out and, in October 2002, OLA hosted its first open meeting at the Bridgehampton National Bank. And to Sepulveda-de Scanlon’s surprise and delight, it was standing room only.

“Oh, it was packed. There weren’t enough seats,” she said. “It was so cool, looking at all the faces.”

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and then-Southampton Town Councilman Dennis Suskind attended the meeting as guest speakers, allowing the Latino community to meet their elected officials and connect with them, Sepulveda-de Scanlon said. As she learned more about their needs — from starting a business and acquiring a driver’s license to navigating immigration and health insurance — she invited key people to speak on these topics, including representatives from the State Department of Labor to the AFL-CIO.

In time, the volunteer-led group hosted English as a Second Language and computer classes, and even started a film festival, which continues today, to help break down stereotypes surrounding the Latino community, just as anti-immigration sentiments exploded across Long Island. According to OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez, there was no bigger bully than former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy.

Just prior to the fatal stabbing of Marcelo Lucero — killed in 2008 by seven teenagers, who hunted down Latinos as a weekly sport in Patchogue — the then-county executive had tried to stir up white voters with fear mongering and rousing hatred, Perez said. That is around the time when she got involved, she said — first as a volunteer, flooding the Suffolk County Legislature alongside her like-minded community.

“When I was hearing a lot about his ways of garnering votes and creating lots of fear, that’s how I reached out and said, ‘Who’s doing work in this area?’” she said, explaining that she was directed to OLA. “I was able to go to these legislative meetings and speak out against these proposed bills.”

The East End chapter of Minutemen Civil Defense Corps — called a “right-wing militia” by its critics at the time — disrupted at least one early OLA meeting, recalled Dunn, who started volunteering with the organization in 2003 before working as its part-time executive director until 2007 and returning as associate director in 2018.

“There was still a lot of very vocal anti-immigrant sentiment and that has not disappeared completely,” Dunn said. “But I think that OLA’s voice is louder and stronger than those voices that are still out there somewhere.”

Changing Times: East End Feels OLA’s Impact

Today, nearly 37,000 Latinos call the East End home — comprising about 23 percent of the local population — but the struggles they face have largely remained the same over the last two decades, according to Dunn.

“With any social justice work, it’s not something that gets resolved easily because you’re working for systemic change,” she said. “And while OLA has increasingly provided direct services to people … OLA’s mission was always rooted in systemic change.”

On an average day, Padilla’s work covers a wide breadth of issues, from food and rent crises to wage theft and avoiding scams to sexual assault, domestic violence and illegal evictions.

“We have so many people that when they call, they call almost sobbing or about to cry because they’ve been living in this house for so many years and out of nowhere, the landlord says, ‘Hey, I’m going to sell my house, you need to be out by the end of this month.’ And when they call, they call so scared,” she said, adding, “When I tell them their rights, they change. You give them power, and I like to see that on my people. And that makes me happy.”

At the height of the pandemic, OLA helped create vaccine pods and organized one of the first clinics in East Hampton. They educated Spanish speakers about the virus, started a food pantry and assisted with grocery drop-offs. They also partnered with Quail Hill Farm to distribute fresh produce to clients experiencing food insecurity due to unemployment or underemployment caused by the pandemic — a collaboration that continues today.

The nonprofit also joined the Project Hope effort, a COVID-19 emotional support hotline that offers confidential, anonymous, free counseling in English, Spanish and Portuguese, and can connect callers to local resources. OLA will continue to address mental and emotional health support for adolescents in the community, Perez emphasized, not just Latinos.

“We’re almost like the canaries in the cage,” Perez said. “When some of the most vulnerable members of your community are experiencing certain things at a really high level, you look at that, you want to answer that as a Latino-focused organization, but then you can’t turn your face away from that and say, ‘Well, mental health is really affecting Latino students in a ridiculously horrible way, so let’s only focus on Latino students.’ Of course not. You expand out from that.”

On August 15, OLA will host its inaugural Youth Summit, which will focus on emotional and mental health — what is lacking, the resources that currently exist, what solutions might look like, and where accountability lies. The participants will then create an “Action and Accountability Statement” that OLA will present to institutions selected by the participants.

“Students need this in the way that they need it and if they don’t get it the way they need it, they are the ones that are gonna be looking at damaging things like suicide or like drugs,” Perez said. “They need it the way they need it and we ask the right questions to learn what that is.”

After working as director of The Retreat in East Hampton for six years, Perez returned to OLA in 2016 as its first-ever paid executive director and, under her leadership, she quadrupled its staff — paying nine core employees full time — and exponentially expanded the reach of the once entirely volunteer-run organization.

“She really has transformed the organization and made it what it was meant to be, which is a broad organization advocating for the rights of Latinos and Latino immigrants,” Dunn said, “and making sure that we have a more equitable stand.”

While Padilla is in East Hampton Town Justice Court every week, OLA now sends representatives to courts in Southampton Town, Southampton Village, Sag Harbor and Riverhead, she said. By and large, and especially in East Hampton, “they are doing the right thing,” she said of the judges, who often allow two-week adjournments for defendants to hire attorneys and offer advice. But there is still work to be done, Perez said, inside the courts and out.

“The needs out here are not Hamptons needs,” she said. “These are seriously critical needs that are life-and-death type of scenarios and I’m just glad that we’re here and I’m glad that we have the support we have, and that we have people looking at the future for OLA — what are the next 20 years, and not just 20 years of crisis, but 20 years of building out systems and working in community, in partnership with institutions.

“My God, we can address some of these things and they can be 80 percent better than they are right now,” she continued, “and I think that’s the vision for the next 20 years — and I think we can get there.”

In hindsight, Sepulveda-de Scanlon said she never expected OLA to grow into the organization it has become. “Wow, it was worth it,” she said of the early years. One day, she said she hopes the nonprofit will have its own cultural center, a place for education, art, lectures, support and more.

This much is certain, though, Dunn said: “I see OLA as growing. I know it will never go back to the beginning days. It will only grow.”

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