Sisters in advocacy

Sisters in advocacy

Better Together … combating hate, one word at a time

Virginia Norfleet, left, and Andrea Winograd smile together outside Pearl River High School.
Virginia Norfleet, left, and Andrea Winograd smile together outside Pearl River High School.

“I can’t tell my story without her — and vice versa,” Virginia Norfleet said.

Ms. Norfleet is the founder and CEO of Haverstraw, New York’s African American Connection and Memorial Park in Haverstraw, N.Y. She was talking about her Better Together counterpart, Andrea Myer Winograd, the executive director of the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education, housed on the campus of Rockland Community College in Suffern.

“The beauty of our relationship is that together, we remember, celebrate, and commemorate events that many people choose to forget,” Ms. Norfleet said. “We aim to embrace history and chisel away at hate.”

At a recent Better Together presentation at Elmwood Park High School, Ms. Winograd introduced her partner, Ms. Norfleet, as her sister in advocacy. The term of endearment was an example of the way in which they present their shared truth. “I am white and Jewish,” Ms. Winograd said. “Virginia is black and Christian. But hate is a problem for all of us. It doesn’t discriminate.”

Ms. Norfleet and Ms. Winograd do most of their teaching through storytelling rather than lecturing. Each year, through their evolving Better Together curriculum, they touch the lives of more than 40,000 students, members of religious and civic organizations, and residents of local communities.

Better Together was formed in 2021; its goal is to teach students to be curious, recognize bias and embrace their neighbor. “Jews and Blacks are often put in the same category,” Ms. Winograd said. “Both groups have faced oppression for years.”

“Our goal is for students to understand the ramifications of hate and by the end of our program, to have a change of heart, in an effort to make the world a better place,” Ms. Norfleet said

“We do our best, throughout our presentations, to meet student audiences where they are,” Ms. Winograd said.

Back at Elmwood Park High School, “Virginia has a passion for telling the truth,” Ms. Winograd told the students, turning the talk over to Ms. Norfleet, who casually took the mic and walked down the steps to address them face to face.

“In 2005, I decided to build my mother a new home on Clinton Street in the Village of Haverstraw, New York, where generations of my family had lived for years,” Ms. Norfleet continued. “An old, unstable wood-framed house on a brick foundation was being knocked down. I bought the property for my mother. During the demolition, the land gave way and a wall came down at the cornerstone of the property. Luckily, I was outside, and help was nearby when one of the builders accidentally fell into a pile of brick rubble at the excavation site. The foreman instructed the crew to use a bucket loader to pull the worker to safety. Out from the rubble he came — covered with dirt, bricks, and tons of debris.”

It was in that scoop of earth that Ms. Norfleet discovered a brick with a cross on it. “That brick became the way by which I uncovered a piece of Haverstraw history that most people in the community did not know,” she said. An 1846 business directory listed the site as the home of the first church for free African Americans in Rockland County. The brick she found was the church’s cornerstone.

“We’d learned during our school years that there was slavery in the South,” Ms. Norfleet said. “But a 1790 census revealed there were 238 slaves right here in Haverstraw. People in the area believed the bricks had been laid by white workers, but 60% of the bricklayers in Haverstraw were African American.

This old cornerstone brick was found in the rubble as workers rebuilt Ms. Norfleet’s mother’s house in Haverstraw.

“When I shared all I’d discovered with my mother, she insisted that someone had to do something about it. When I asked her, ‘who’s someone?’ she said, ‘YOU.’”

Ms. Norfleet has worked to uncover the untold stories of these Black brickyard workers, as slaves and after they were free. The Haverstraw African American Connection has since built a memorial park to honor and respect those whose voices were silenced, whose history vanished from Haverstraw. HAAC aims to strengthen public engagement to fight racism, antisemitism, and all kinds of hate through community building and open discourse.

Ms. Winograd and Ms. Norfleet met more than four years ago when Rockland County’s executive, Ed Day, suggested they work together on a state grant to build an enhanced historic district. “Working with Virginia was an opportunity to learn about this incredible local American history that I was ignorant of,” Ms. Winograd said. “It was the spark that ignited our friendship — we knew right away that our stories could never be mutually exclusive.

“Andrea and I thrive on collaboration,” Ms. Norfleet said. “We understand what it feels like to be called ‘you people.’”

The student audience at Elmwood Park High School reacted to some of the questions that both Ms. Winograd and Ms. Norfleet pointedly asked them while referencing a slide from the Anti-Defamation League’s database showing symbols of hate. “How many people have heard black people being called monkeys?” Ms. Norfleet asked. “Hate speech like this dehumanizes people. It categorizes them as animals.

“How many people have heard people tell Black men and women to go back to Africa?” she continued. “When I hear that, I marvel at the irony in this foolish statement, particularly since generations of my family have lived in Haverstraw for 120 years.”

Ms. Winograd said that she began a presentation in Orange County recently by asking students: “How many of you have ever met a Jewish person?” Learning that few had, she told stories of the Holocaust and how the Nazi regime planned the systemic genocide of the Jews. “Human life was devalued,” she said. She discussed the harm caused by drawing a swastika on a bathroom stall as she explained the power of defamatory words and symbols of hate.

Detailing her own personal experience with racism, Ms. Winograd said, “When I was just 18, I learned that in 1980, China’s government implemented the one-child policy to limit families to one child each in an effort to control population growth. Parents were encouraged not to have a second child.”

Girls were disposed of,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom people getting rid of their children. I was determined, once I was married and ready to start a family, to adopt a child from China.”

In 2000, she and her husband, Robert, adopted a 9-month-old baby from China. They named her Carmyn. Later, when she was a student at New York University, a stranger spat on Carmyn, accusing her of being responsible for the so-called China virus.

“I asked myself how it was possible that I was teaching tolerance while my own daughter was being discriminated against?” Ms. Winograd said. “Sadly, it was and is possible. Words really matter. They’re embedded in people’s hearts forever.”

When Ms. Winograd and Ms. Norfleet showed the signs of hate the ADL had gathered, they asked students if they knew what the first symbol meant. It was a hand gesture that is most recognized as a sign for “OK” or “All good.”

Ms. Winograd said that although that gesture once was innocuous, now it has become a symbol of white supremacy. Students asked Ms. Norfleet if it was acceptable for a black student to say the n-word to another black student without it having a derogatory or prejudicial connotation.

“At Better Together, the n-word is unacceptable,” Ms. Winograd said. “We have a zero tolerance for dehumanizing people.”

“If it’s a word that can’t be said anywhere, it shouldn’t be used at all,” Ms. Norfleet said.

“Groups either come to us in Rockland County or we travel to them,” Ms. Winograd said. “We are either proactive — scheduling presentations to educate students on combating racism, antisemitism and hate — or we are reactive — responding to incidents that may have occurred at school or within a community.”

Better Together programs are gaining traction in schools by word of mouth; the women have addressed close to 25 groups throughout the area. “We want people to come to the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education,” Ms. Winograd said. “We want people to visit the African American Connection Memorial Park and Museum.”

At the end of the Elmwood Park High School program, students asked about Israel and Gaza. Ms. Winograd strongly criticized the brutal and reprehensible Hamas terrorist attack resulting in 1,200 deaths on October 7.

She also acknowledged that innocent civilian lives have been lost in Gaza. “When students ask questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, we hope they will visit our Center for Tolerance and Education to understand the history behind the conflict.”

The center was founded in the 1980s. “Holocaust survivors and educators came together to ensure that the public learned the significance of the Holocaust genocide’s blight on humanity,” Ms. Winograd said. She has worked at the museum, one of the first of its kind in the United States, for 13 years.

Students at the Elmwood Park High School’s Better Together program appreciated the open dialogue they had with Ms. Norfleet and Ms. Winograd about the ways people can hurt one another — with words and symbols, actions and inactions. Through authentic and honest conversation and illustrations, students learned the different signs of hate, how one word can lead to discrimination, and how essential it is to “mind our language.”

“When a class is studying World War II, it’s an opportunity for us to educate them about the genocide that occurred during the Holocaust and how a systemic hatred of Jews was propagandized by the Nazis,” Ms. Winograd said. “We can show how through the years, this hatred has evolved into acts of antisemitism in today’s society. When a class is studying the civil rights movement, it’s an opportunity for us to talk about the injustices of slavery, lynchings of innocent Blacks in the South, the cross burnings and killings of African Americans planned and executed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Current events reveal the evolution of racism through the years.

“Any genocide is a blight on humanity,” Ms. Winograd continued. “We want students to learn that a genocide can begin with a word — we all need to mind our language a little bit more.”

“Our goal is to remind people that strength lies in doing our part to fight racism, antisemitism, and prejudice. We walked together during the civil rights movement in protest marches. We want to continue, decades later, to show our solidarity in the way we treat each other.

“We hope that students walk out of our presentations with a little more understanding, a little more knowledge, and a little more empathy toward people who might look, speak, act and live differently.”

To learn more about Better Together, go to

read more: