Category Archives: Politics

Avi Kaner Hopes To Kick This Can Down The Road

Avi Kaner is a poster boy for civic involvement.

He’s chaired Westport’s Board of Finance, and served as 2nd selectman. He and his wife Liz are active members of Chabad of Westport, and lead philanthropic efforts in this town and Israel.

Now, Avi Kaner is a poster boy — and cover subject — in a battle against expansion of a New York law.

When Crain’s New York Business ran a long story on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to expand the state’s nickel-deposit law to include plastic and glass bottles containing juice, coffee and tea concoctions, plus sports and energy drinks, they illustrated it in print and online with a photo of a less-than-pleased Kaner — holding plastic bottles.

(Photo/Buck Ennis for Crain’s New York Business)

This issue has nothing to do with the Westporter’s civic work. His day job is co-owner of Morton Williams. That’s the family-owned chain of supermarkets, primarily in Manhattan, focused on fresh, organic, specialty and international foods.

Crain’s says Kaner “isn’t relishing the thought of folks bringing in a lot more bottles and cans” to his West 57th Street location. Morton Williams recently spent $10 million, turning the ground floor and lower level into retail space.

“We keep this place nice and clean, in fitting with the neighborhood,” Kaner told Crain’s. “The last thing we need is people bringing more of their garbage here.”

Customers can return up to 240 items a day. They are first stored near a street-facing window, then in the basement.

“It’s not an optimal use of space in a store where rent is $200 per square foot and every inch of shelving counts,” Crain’s says. Workers who sort the returnables earn $15 an hour.

Kaner is not anti-environment.

“Anything that can be done to prevent waste and help the planet is a good thing,” he told Crain’s. “But the economics of recycling don’t work for a business like ours.”

To read the full story — including its possible impact on curbside recycling — click here.

(Hat tip: John Karrel)

Since Parkland

Yesterday was the 1st anniversary of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman massacre. Across the country, we remembered the 17 students and staff members murdered in their Florida high school.

Survivors — and countless others with no connection to the school — believed that finally, something would change. At rallies, online and in legislatures, calls for new gun regulations grew stronger.

Yet in the year that followed, 1,200 children and teenagers have been killed.

Far fewer people know their names, or where they lived, than know the Parkland students. Their stories have never been told.

Until now.

Since Parkland” is a powerful media project. With the help of the Miami Herald, McClatchy publishing company and The Trace — an independent, non-profit news organization — 200 journalists set out to profile all 1,200 people 18 and under killed by guns. Since Parkland.

The Since Parkland home page.

Sophie Driscoll is a proud participant in this important effort.

Like many Staples High students, she’s busy. She’s an editor-in-chief of Inklings, the school’s award-winning newspaper. She’s president of the Young Democrats.

But she made time for “Since Parkland.” And she helped make it a stunning piece of journalism.

A year ago, Sophie published a story in Ms. Magazine. It started as a piece about Reshaping Reality — the Staples club that helps middle schoolers and their parents deal with body image, eating disorders and social pressures. But it soon became much more.

Sophie’s piece highlighted teenage feminists who started clubs at their high schools. She interviewed students in all over the US. It was “interesting and exciting,” she says. She worked with an actual editor, Katina Paron.

Sophie Driscoll

Last summer, Sophie joined 83 other rising seniors for a 5-week journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. While she was there, Katina called. She was looking for students with “good research skills,” for a project she described only vaguely.

In early August, Sophie and dozens of others participated in a video conference. They learned a bit more about “Since Parkland.”

Sophie was assigned 6 stories. There was Nicholas Glasco, 18 of Stone Mountain Georgia, shot accidentally by a friend a month before his high school graduation.

Christopher Jake Stone, 17, was one of 10 killed and 13 injured at Santa Fe (Texas) High School, 3 months after Parkland. He was trying to block the door to his classroom to prevent the gunman’s entry.

Tahji McGill, 17, was shot outside an Illinois club.

Chavelle Tramon Thompson, 17, was murdered while walking with friends to a store in Union City, Georgia.

In Virginia, a 2-year-old died when his 4-year-old brother accidentally shot him in the head. The very same day — also in Virginia — another 2-year-old was killed. He shot himself with a handgun he’d found.

The story that resonated the most with Sophie was Xantavian Pierce’s. She wrote:

The Brunswick High School athlete played basketball and football. The numbers on his jerseys were 15 and 28, respectively. Throughout his athletic career, the 17-year-old worked to make his mother proud. She said he succeeded.

“He was amazing,” his mother said. “He was wonderful. He was a loving, God-fearing child. He  was just a wonderful person. He was my heartbeat.”

Xantavian “Tae” Pierce was helping someone move when a gun went off inside a box he was carrying, accidentally shooting him in the stomach at the Eagles Pointe Apartments in Brunswick, Georgia, on March 25, 2018.

“He was a straight arrow, close with his family,” Sophie says. “He was just like someone I’d know at Staples.”

Xantavian Pierce

The process was wrenching. Sophie tracked down news reports, and scrutinized Facebook pages. She read what family members, friends and teachers said.

“They seem like such vibrant, alive, regular kids,” she notes.

Each profile is 3 paragraphs long. The first 2 give life to each young person. The 3rd describes his or her death.

That was hard. “I had to take a step back, and write as if he was alive,” Sophie says. But they were not.

The research itself was arduous. Sophie was stunned to discover there is no national database to track gun deaths. State records might list a date — but no name. Sometimes, there was not even a local news report.

It was a truly collaborative process. The 200 young writers — from across the nation — used the Slack app and Zoom video conferencing to work together. They helped find information, and supported each other through tough times.

Still, they did not realize the scope of the project — or how it would appear online — until nearly the end.

And “the end” was, literally, 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13. Just as they had every day — Since Parkland — young people were killed that night.

The project drew immediate attention. The New York Times highlighted it. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy — a staunch gun regulation advocate — tweeted about it.

Sophie — who hopes to pursue journalism in college, and beyond — notes, “this was journalism, not activism.” But — like all good journalism — she hopes it will force people to think about an issue in deep, different ways.

Her goal — and that of every student journalist — was to humanize all 1,200 young people lost to gun violence Since Parkland.

“The statistics are staggering,” Sophie says. “But each statistic is a human being.

“These kids are not statistics. They’re athletes, artists. A lot were college bound. It’s so hard to think about the people they were, and could have become.”

It is hard. But — thanks to Sophie Driscoll, and scores of other determined high school students across America — right now we are doing just that.

(Click here for the 6 stories written by Sophie Driscoll. Click here for the “Since Parkland” home page.)

Word

Daria Maya is a sophomore at Staples High School. But the teenager sure has a way with words.

The other day, she was chatting with her parents. Casually, Daria said that American politicians and the media engage in missuasion.

Daria’s parents, Joseph and Susan — both lawyers — looked at each other. They’d never heard that word. They asked her what it meant.

“There’s misinformation that politicians and the media are trying to persuade me to believe,” she replied. Then she gave Mom and Dad that oh-my-god-everyone-knows-what-I’m-talking-about look.

The Maya family (from left): Daniel, Joseph, Daria and Susan.

So Joseph did the natural thing: He emailed Merriam-Webster.

The dictionary folks were all over it. Associate editor Neil Serven wrote back that they found no previous use of “missuasion” anywhere in their citation database.

It wasn’t in the LEXIS-NEXIS periodicals database either.

There was one hit on a Reddit Bernie Sanders forum — “Cult-like powers of missuasion” — from June 2017. It described another politician.

Digging deeper, Serven discovered that the OED includes the verb “mis-suade” (labeling it “obsolete, rare”). Google Books found examples too, including 2 from an early 20th century Scottish writer.

“At a glance it strikes me as a useful and relevant word that could catch on,” Serven concluded.

“But since we only enter words in the dictionary once they’ve demonstrated established use (particularly in edited media), that work of getting other people to use it is up to you and your daughter.”

So what do you think, “06880” readers? Can we persuade enough people to use the word so that it earns a spot in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary?

Or would that simply be missuading them?

Merritt Parkway Work: The End Is Not Near

Construction work on the Merritt Parkway — from before Exit 41 to beyond Exit 42 — has been going on, it seems since dinosaurs and Studebakers roamed the earth.

The $56 million project includes upgrades to pavement, guardrails and drainage, and restoration of “historic concrete.”

It’s bad enough for drivers (who must navigate frighteningly tight concrete barriers, including on- and off-ramps) and residents (who have endured noise, dust and the destruction of acres of woodlands).

Concrete barriers and no shoulders make driving on the Merritt Parkway a life-in-your-hands experience. (Photo/Bob Mitchell)

But right now, work seems stalled. What’s happening? When will it resume? And how long will it take?

I asked Jonathan Steinberg, Westport’s state representative. He sits on the Transportation Committee, and lives not far from the endless mess.

A Department of Transportation representative told him that right now, there’s a restriction: Work cannot proceed after 11 p.m.

Because of that, the contractor — Manafort Brothers — has stopped work altogether. They say that with just a 3 1/2-hour night window, the project is not feasible. (Work cannot begin until 7:30 p.m., after rush hour.)

“It’s a tough spot,” the DOT rep wrote to Steinberg. “Everybody bought houses there due to the woodland setting and close proximity to a major travel way. The Parkway is over 75 years old and a project of the magnitude may come only once every 30 years. It’s safer if we cut the rock back for all of the travelers.”

However, the DOT official continued, “I agree that the noise we are making now is probably the worst, and this is only Southbound there is another opposite in the Northbound shoulder.”

DOT is “looking at various options that include reducing the amount of rock removed and beefing up the guide rail. Compensating the Contractor for his lost production. Utilizing day time lane closures. Allowing full shift work but on limited nights.”

However, he concluded — ominously for all — “as of today we do not have a solution.”

[UPDATE] The Next Big Thing In Education: Regionalization?

NOTE: The story below has been edited to reflect that Senator Looney’s bill refers to municipalities with fewer than 40,000 residents — not “40,000 students.”

Westport’s education leaders are experienced at multi-tasking.

That’s good. They’ll need those skills in the coming months.

Besides figuring out next steps for Coleytown Middle School, and grappling with next year’s budget, there’s a new issue coming down the pike: a bill in the Connecticut State Senate to regionalize school systems.

The proposal — SB 454, introduced by Senate President pro tempore Martin Looney, a Democrat representing New Haven, North Haven and Hamden — would combine state school districts with fewer than 40,000 students residents into regional ones.

Looney says the bill would “create a more efficient educational system.” In addition to schools, regionalization would include boards of education and central office staffs.

A different bill — filed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat from Norwalk — would require only those districts with fewer than 2,000 students to regionalize. Governor Ned Lamont supports that proposal.

Westport has approximately 5,692 students. Weston has around 2,399. Neither would be affected by Duff’s legislation.

“I have a ton of respect for Senator Looney,” says State Senator Will Haskell. “I understand where he’s coming from. There’s unbelievable inequality in Connecticut education.”

The 1st-term legislator adds, “I was so lucky to go to Staples High School. I had the highest quality teachers, smartboards in every classroom, the amazing Staples Players program after school.

“Fifteen minutes away, they don’t have all that. Students fall behind. Equal opportunity is important.”

Staples High School — well funded by Westport taxpayers, and supported by a strong school district — offers opportunities that many other schools and districts do not.

But, he says, Looney’s bill is “the wrong approach to that problem.” If that legislation passes, Haskell foresees “mammoth districts, increased bureaucracy, and students traveling far from home for school.”

The state senator prefers to focus on ideas like reforming the cost-sharing formula for state aid, “to make sure students with the highest needs are getting state dollars.

“We need to find greater efficiencies to save tax dollars and improve the quality of education. But we have to do it with the participation and consent of the towns.”

Looney’s proposal has sparked quite a debate. Haskell has heard from hundreds of constituents. He will bring the concerns — of parents, teachers and students — to the Democratic caucus.

“We’re a big tent party,” Haskell says. “I work well with Senator Looney. But we disagree on this. There are other ways to reform education that don’t involve creating massive school districts.”

TEAM Westport Teen Essay Contest Targets Micro-Aggressions

You might not see it in Westport. But the US is fast moving toward becoming a “minority majority” nation. The Census Bureau says that Americans identifying as “white” only will be in the minority by 2042. Since 2014, most students in this country are part of the formerly minority “of color.”

Meanwhile, the number of racial, religious, ethnic and gender identity bias incidents is increasing.

That’s the background for this year’s TEAM Westport Teen Essay Contest. The town’s diversity committee — in conjunction with the Westport Library — asks students to explore the concept of micro-aggressions towards marginalized groups.

This prompt says:

As defined by Derald Wing Sue,micro-aggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults — whether intentional or unintentional — that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in marginalized groups.” 

 For example, an African American is told, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.” An Asian-American — born and raised in this country – is told, “You speak very good English.” A person of color accepted at an Ivy League school is told, “You must be grateful for affirmative action.” 

In 1000 words or fewer, describe your experiences witnessing, delivering, and/or receiving micro-aggressions focused on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and describe the likely impact that such statements have upon the recipients. Consider steps that you believe organizations, schools, and/or individuals could take to greatly reduce or eliminate such behavior. In particular, what can students do to address incidents of micro-aggressions when they occur — whether as initiator, recipient or witness?

The contest is open to students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High or another school in Westport, or reside in Westport and attend school elsewhere.

 

Applications and more information about the contest are available here. Essays are due February 28. Winners will be announced at the Saugatuck Church on April 3. Subject to the volume and caliber of entries received, and the discretion of the judges, up to 3 prizes will be awarded: $1,000 (first place), $750 (second) and $500 (third).

Individuals or organizations who would like to help sponsor the contest can contribute via the website, or by emailing info@teamwestport.org.

Fortunately, Westporters Can Get Flood Insurance Discount

Floods are a fact of life in Westport.

Fortunately, homeowners in certain areas can buy flood insurance.

Unfortunately, it’s expensive.

Fortunately, FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — offers discounts. They’re based on rankings of each community. #1 offers the highest reduction; #10 the least.

Unfortunately, Westport is #8.

Fortunately — thanks to efforts implemented by the Planning & Zoning Commission — that’s up from #10.

The high water mark on an “06880” reader’s garage is very high. This was last October.

Fortunately too, the Westport Progress Report on Floodplain Management is available online. It enables residents to receive a 10% reduction on their flood insurance.

Unfortunately, the report itself is not available online. You’ll click on the town website, and see that the online document merely tells you the next step to complete to receive the information.

Fortunately, I’ve cut and pasted the relevant information:

A copy of the CT South Western Regional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan (2016) is available either in person at the Westport Planning and Zoning Office (Town Hall, Room 203), or by clicking here.

Unfortunately, the link above does not bring you where you want to be. I think this is the relevant document: https://westcog.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/HMP-2016-WestCOG-South-Plan.pdf

Fortunately, there are no floods in the immediate forecast.

Students Build On Women’s March; Local Event Set For Saturday

Last weekend, the 3rd annual Women’s March drew millions of Americans (of both genders) to over 100 other cities. Attendees protested against President Trump’s policies, and advocated for the rights of women, immigrants and marginalized groups.

But not everyone in Westport could get to Washington, New York or Hartford.

So an afternoon of activism is planned for this Saturday (January 26, 12 noon to 2 p.m.) at Toquet Hall.

And it’s being organized by a pair of Staples High School juniors.

Kaela Dockray and Audrey Bernstein were 2 of the driving forces behind last year’s gun violence protest at Staples, following the Parkland shooting.

Last year, (from left) Parkland survivors Sarah Chadwick and Delaney Tarr, and actress Rowan Blanchard, joined Staples High School students Kaela Dockray and Audrey Bernstein in New York. The hashtag was the motto of International Women’s Day, emphasizing the power of women and the importance of them taking charge.

Now, their goal is to keep the Westport community engaged and passionate.

The teenagers came up with the idea after hearing about a number of students who wanted to attend the Women’s March, but could not get there. A local event, the girls realized, could keep students involved and civically engaged.

Speakers include senior Lydia Donovan, who interned for Will Haskell during his state senatorial campaign. There’s an open mic too, along with singers and a voter registration booth.

It’s youth centered — but the entire town is invited.

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

The Immigrant Experience Comes Home

As Americans debate a slew of important items, immigration stands at the top of any list.

Here in Westport, we’re far removed from our southern border. The Wall is an abstraction — not a reality — to most of us.

But — for one reason or another — the immigrant experience resonates with nearly every Westporter.

This month, several events shine historical, artistic, literary and nuanced lights on a variety of immigration stories.

On Friday, January 18 (6 to 8 p.m.), Saugatuck Congregational Church opens an intriguing exhibit.

“Art Across Borders” features the work of 18 area artists, from Guatemala, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. All migrated to the US. Each will share his or her own story, through art. The bold, emotional exhibit is curated by Rene Soto, owner of a gallery with the same name in South Norwalk.

One of the pieces on display at the Saugatuck Church — by Jose Munoz, from Guatelama.

“Lots of people come to the US — and to this area — for better lives,” says Saugatuck Church Arts Committee member Priscilla Long. “And many of those people express themselves through art.”

Saugatuck Church has long been concerned with social justice. This show is a natural outgrowth of that commitment. The exhibit will remain up for a month. Click here or call 203-227-1261 for more information.

The following week, a different house of worship offers a different program, on a different immigrant experience.

In June 0f 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi terror on the SS St. Louis were within sight of Florida. Heartbreakingly, they were denied safe haven by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Canada also refused entry.

Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis.

The captain returned the ship to Europe, where countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and France accepted some refugees. Many, however, were later caught in Nazi roundups of Jews in occupied countries. Historians estimate that a quarter died in death camps during World War II

Three passengers who survived — Judith Steel, Sonja Geismar and Eva Wiener — will be in Westport on Thursday, January 24. At 7 p.m., Chabad on Newtown Turnpike will screen “Complicit” — a film about the SS St. Louis’ ill-fated journey. The trio will participate in a post-film Q-and-A, led by its creator/producer Robert Krakow.

Click here for more information. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for students.

Meanwhile, all month long — and into February — the Westport Library sponsors WestportREADS. This year’s book is Exit West. Novelist Mohsin Hamid follows 2 refugees who — against all odds — find life and love while fleeing civil war.

WestportREADS activities include book discussions, a conversation with migration experts, art exploration, world dance instruction, storytelling, music, genealogy research, and a presentation by a Syrian refugee family sponsored by members of the Westport community.

Click here for a complete calendar, and full details.