Staten Island has a Black population of only 9.67 percent and has never elected a Black person to a political office to represent the borough. Dora Berksteiner is helping fix that, as well as giving a voice to a sometimes voiceless community on Staten Island. Berksteiner,43, is president of the Staten Island African-American Political Association (SIAAPA). The organization was created 15 years ago to educate Blacks on Staten Island about politics and get more Blacks involved in the political process in the borough. Berksteiner has held the position for a year.
Born and raised in West Brighton, Berksteiner is the daughter of a single mother who died when Berksteiner was only 9 years old. Her grandparents took over her care and she moved to Port Richmond. Despite living amid the racial tension publicized today on Staten Island, Berksteiner said she grew up in an environment around all races. “As a young girl, I never really was cognizant of the prejudice out here,” she said. “There was a lot of diversity in my community. We had Blacks, Latinos and whites, and we all lived in the same community. I had a great childhood that was surrounded by community service.”
She later attended Queens College and earned her bachelor’s degree in urban studies, which is also the field of study for the master’s degree she is working on now at Queens College. Currently Berksteiner works for the Department of Social Services, where she works on special projects.
She joined SIAAPA in 2000 after working on a campaign for a Black candidate in Staten Island who recruited her to join the organization. After serving as a member for seven years, she decided to run for president.
She said, “Over the last seven years I have been awakened to a whole lot of people’s prejudice and as to why there are no Black candidates in Staten Island. New York is supposed to be a liberal place, but Staten Island holds this middle-America idea. We just elected a Black president and we can’t get one Black person in office in Staten Island.”
While Berksteiner said she was so elated about Barack Obama’s win as president that she was brought to tears, the face of racism in Staten Island began to show following the election. Staten Island has been riddled with hate crimes and tension because of the election of America’s first Black president.
To deal with the problem, Berksteiner has held forums on racial tolerance thinking of programs to implement to curb tension in the borough that votes mostly Republican. “As an individual, I plan to speak up about things that aren’t right,” she said. “Children don’t come out of the womb knowing white and Black. These are things that are taught.” But on any issue Berksteiner said that she is sometimes the underdog and while she admits it’s not the best feeling, she knows that regardless of how other people view the world, she believes in fair treatment and common decency.
“Politics, community organizing and activism are part of my life,” she said. “I just don’t like injustice and I always believe that when the little guy gets picked on and can’t stand up on their own, someone should be there.”