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Category Archives: Politics
Jim Naughton is not sleeping well.
The Tony Award-winning actor is haunted by images of children kept in horrifying conditions in detention centers on our nation’s southwest border.
He is surprised and distressed that Americans are not rising up in protest over the separation from family members, lack of access to basic sanitary conditions — and deaths.
So he’s taking action.
Naughton — a longtime Weston resident — enlisted the help of fellow humanitarian Ken Bernhard. The former Republican state representative, 3d selectman and volunteer board member helped found the Syria Fund, which aids refugees; the Tree of Life Orphanage in Haiti, and the Soles4Souls shoe drive.
This morning, they arranged for a protest march this Saturday (June 29, 10 a.m.) on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge in downtown Westport.
“If our neighbors in Westport and Weston have been waking at night, as I have, horrified by the news of the way our country is mistreating children, and would like to do something, please meet, demonstrate and march with us on Saturday,” Naughton says.
“We hope to bring attention to what’s going on. We need to let our representatives know that we want this situation addressed now. It can’t drag on.
“This is a humanitarian problem. People of every political stripe who find this abhorrent are welcome.”
If you want to know what kind of town Westport is, consider this:
On a Sunday morning — the most beautiful day of summer (so far) — 1,000 or so men, women and kids turned out to celebrate the re-opening of our library.
Plus this: The multi-year project came in on time.
And within budget.
There were brief speeches by Governor Ned Lamont and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.
A band played. Dozens of kids jumped in for the ribbon-cutting.
Then everyone clambered up the very new stairs, to the great new entrance. As Marpe noted, the library — originally a gift from Morris Jesup — now embraces Jesup Green, named for the founder’s family.
It’s a spectacular building we can all be proud of. It will evolve and be used in ways we have not yet even imagined.
Today was a great day for Westport. If you haven’t seen it yet: The festivities continue until 4 p.m.
To all who made today possible — especially our amazing library director Bill Harmer — thank you!
Tomorrow’s fun, festive Westport Library Transformation Project ribbon-cutting ceremony just got more high-powered.
Governor Lamont has agreed to do the honors.
The event starts promptly at 11 a.m. Everyone will gather on Jesup Green, at the new “Grand Staircase.”
Andrew Wilk will introduce First Selectman Jim Marpe. He’ll say a few words, and introduce the governor.
After the ribbon-cutting, the Hartford Hot Several Brass Band will play. They’ll lead the crowd into the new Library. The Forum will be the site of the first official event: a few short words from Library board president Iain Bruce, project architect Henry Myerberg, and executive director Bill Harmer.
Then comes 5 hours of interactive fun. Bands, artists, live podcasts, a performance by world-renowned/Westport neighbor pianist Frederic Chiu, children’s music, discussions, acoustic guitar, dance, exhibits, MakerSpace demos — that and much more is in store.
See you at the Grand Staircase!
As debate over US immigration policy rages, the focus is on Central American refugees arriving at the Southwest border.
But many other refugees seek asylum here too. In 2017, “06880” highlighted Ratatouille and Company.
That’s the upscale, Westport-based catering company. They train women to become high-level chefs and catering wizards.
And they do it with a strong social mission. They work with women from all backgrounds, but they’re particularly proud of their refugees and immigrant women.
Ratatouille empowers them, offering cooking, presentation and management skills, along with opportunities and encouragement.
But the women give back plenty in return. They share local recipes and inspire co-workers, clients, and anyone else fortunate enough to enjoy their mouth-watering meals.
Since that “06880” story 2 years ago, Ratatouille has trained over 30 women in culinary arts. They gain both front and back of the house experience, and learn to collaborate with fellow team members.
“It’s a great skill set — a lot more than dishwashers and waitresses,” says co-founder and Westporter Evelyn Isaia.
“We put on events in places these women would never have access to. And they appreciate all those opportunities.” Two women have already gone on to work for the Jean-Georges Group.
An immigrant from Vietnam is typical. Her life is hard. But she is showcasing her cooking talent. Recently, she organized a 5-course tasting menu in Greenwich.
Ratatouille caters everything from small cocktail parties to large events. The other day, they set up a tent in New Fairfield and provided wedding guests with lobster rolls, gazpacho, barbecue, tarts, puff pastry (with ratatouille!), and 3 desserts. Seven servers, and a kitchen crew of 5, worked for 11 hours.
This is no charity organization. After one year, it turned a profit.
Ratatouille chefs earn $20 to $25 an hour. With tips, a server can make $200 an evening.
But the women work hard — learning how to communicate in a kitchen, operate a business and serve. Always, they work on their cooking.
“Our clients’ eyes open wide when they see the food we put out, and the level of service,” Isaia says.
The food comes from Syria, Kazakhstan, Honduras — wherever the women come from. Menus are adaptable to each client’s needs.
Cooking is done in a kitchen in Bridgeport. Isaia is looking for a second kitchen in the Bronx. Ratatouille caters events throughout the tri-state area.
One woman hired Ratatouille for a cocktail party because she believed in its mission. She’ll hire them again, because “the food was inventive, delicious and generous, and the staff was well-trained and gracious.”
Another says the women are “pleasant, professional and warm, and the food is sensational.” She calls “the added plus” of helping female refugees support themselves and their families “a delicious and soul-satisfying combination.”
Women come to the company from trade schools, community colleges and non-profit organizations focused on workplace development. All are vetted and documented.
“We never discuss politics,” Isaia notes. “But we all realize this is another side to all that talk about caravans, and immigrants taking jobs from Americans.”
Alert “06880” reader, historian and preservation advocate Morley Boyd writes:
In April, I raised environmental and safety concerns about the appearance of a large pile of fill at Baron’s South. The mysterious mound, estimated at roughly 5,500 yards, was discovered in what had once been a meadow dotted with mature trees.
Upon closer inspection I noticed that material in the mound included asphalt, jagged shards of metal, tires, pieces of what appeared to be asbestos cement pipe, plastic containers and the shattered remains of a toilet.
While erosion prevention netting had been placed across one side of the mound, gullies had formed anyway, and the entire top was exposed. Runoff was visibly headed to drains connected to nearby Deadman’s Brook, a tributary of the Saugatuck River.
After learning that the fill had been excavated from a nearby construction site associated with the now completed Senior Center expansion project, I wondered what else might be in the fill. Had it been tested? And why was it there in the first place?
First, I reached out to those whose homes abut the park to see what they knew. After learning the homeowners had been told by the Senior Center project manager that the giant mound was permanent, I made private inquiries about the fill with town officials.
When that inquiry went unanswered, the story appeared on “06880.” Shortly thereafter, in reaction to public outcry, the town retained the services of Steve Edwards, recently retired director of public works. He was charged with having the fill professionally tested for the presence of toxic substances.
My concerns proved valid. The recently released toxicology report indicates that the material contains DDT, traces of petroleum byproducts, and a level of arsenic that exceeds state standards for human exposure.
Because of the toxicology report and public pressure, the town has now agreed to remove all of contaminated fill (ideally within the next few months, according to the current director of public works), and restore the meadow to its previous condition.
At Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, town officials said the tree warden has prepared a replanting plan for the site, including new trees.
In the meantime, residents hope that the toxic pile, which remains fully exposed in the midst of a public park, will be cordoned off to safeguard the health and safety of visitors.
On the whole, this is good news. The town deserves credit for taking responsibility. Still, a number of unanswered questions remain — notably, why did this happen?
The approved site plan for the construction project did not permit the area in question to be disturbed, and the project’s contract included a specific line item for hauling away any excess fill.
Further, many question the wisdom of the town’s proposed plan for reusing the contaminated fill: a parking lot project at the Greens Farms railroad station.
Although the toxicology report — consistent with state guidelines — recommends that the contaminated fill be buried beneath several feet of clean fill if it is to be moved and reused, there is an apparent regulatory conflict.
While state standards for the use of fill are more relaxed, Westport’s are quite stringent. They specifically do not allow the use of fill containing “petroleum based products or materials.”
Since the Baron’s South fill has been shown to contain — in addition to other toxins — chunks of asphalt, it remains unclear how the town can use the fill at the Greens Farms train station and also comply with its own regulations.
If there is any doubt as to whether or not this contaminated fill can be safely remediated for reuse in a public space, wouldn’t the wisest solution be to just dispose of it at a proper facility?
Whatever ultimately happens to the toxic fill, the good news is that a quiet corner of Westport’s “Central Park” will soon return to its natural state. And that’s in large part due to the vigilance and concern of the “06880” community.
In 1965, Connecticut was at the forefront of an important battle on women’s privacy and reproductive rights. The US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut paved the way to legalize birth control for unmarried couples — and then for Roe v. Wade, which guarantees safe and legal abortions.
Nearly 5 decades later — as abortion and women’s reproductive rights are under assault in parts of the nation — Connecticut stands on the other side. State legislators follow citizens’ leads in protecting — even strengthening — abortion laws and reproductive health choices.
It’s easy to sit here and tsk-tsk places like Alabama and Georgia, where women’s rights to abortion — and personal choices, and ultimately their health — are under attack.
It’s another thing entirely to live there, and be on the front lines of those battles. Westport native Janet Lefkowitz does, and is.
At Staples High School, she enjoyed a broad range of activities: Players, WWPT-FM, senior class vice president.
After graduating in 1983 — and 4 years later from Sarah Lawrence College — Lefkowitz did children’s theater. She temped.
She did not — immediately — follow the career path of her father, orthopedist Dr. Larry Lefkowitz.
But her family, and Temple Israel, had imbued in her a strong belief in Tikkun Olam: acting as constructively and beneficially as possible, for as many people and as long as possible.
Eventually, Lefkowitz found her way to medical school. During her residency in obstetrics and gynecology in Hartford, she realized that field was perfect for her.
“I was working with generally healthy women. There were emergencies, but I could help them help themselves,” she explains.
Her personality — “formed in Westport,” she says — was perfect for that specialty. “I could talk to people,” Lefkowitz says. “As an OB-GYN, you spend a lot of time building relationships with patients.”
She joined a busy practice in Rhode Island. She counseled women, performed surgeries, and taught at Brown University. Her husband — former Staples classmate Jonathan Leepson — was in banking. When his job took him to Atlanta. Lefkowitz moved too.
Though Atlanta is a young, thriving and cosmopolitan city, it’s still in Georgia. Schools teach abstinence-based sex education. Lefkowitz was stunned.
The wife of a rabbi was past president of the local Planned Parenthood chapter. She encouraged Lefkowitz to get involved.
Realizing that women’s access to reproductive health care was at great risk, she soon became chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Southeast. The organization provides reproductive health care, along with advocacy and education, throughout Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Those states are ground zero in the current national abortion debate.
Officially a part-time job — she was hired to work 21 hours a week — it is actually much more. Yet it’s a “labor of love,” Lefkowitz says.
It’s also very frustrating.
“We’re having constant conversations about things that are should-haves — access to cervical and breast cancer screenings,” she notes. “It’s eye-opening, and scary.”
For a while, she worked behind the scenes. But when Alabama passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws — it would permit abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus cannot survive, but not in cases of rape or incest — and Georgia and Mississippi pursued legislation that would ban abortion as soon as a physician detects a fetal heartbeat, the national Planned Parenthood office asked her to speak out.
The video “sort of outed me,” Lefkowitz. Previously, some neighbors did not talk to her because of her work. Now, many more people knew what she does. And where she stands on perhaps the most controversial topic in the region.
“There’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of misconceptions,” Lefkowitz says of the current debate.
She sees the issue as “protecting a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body, for the good of her family and herself. It’s fundamentally a health issue.”
So I wondered: After spending time on the front lines, is she optimistic or pessimistic? Proud? Worried?
“All those things!” Lefkowitz says.
“I’m super-proud to be engaged in this work. Women are being denied their rights. If I can help people understand that abortion is safe — and that it’s not a choice made lightly — that’s good.
“I’m angry that politicians don’t see women as responsible decision-makers. They feel they need to make choices for us.”
They’re also forcing doctors like her, she says, “to choose between providing ethical care, and breaking the law.” If the new wave of legislation is upheld, she believes most doctors would follow the law — or leave the area. That would worsen the already poor state of health care for women.
Yet Lefkowitz is also hopeful the laws will be stopped in court. She’s heartened that what’s happening in the South has spurred activism around the country. States like Connecticut, New York and Vermont are trying to widen — rather than restrict — women’s reproductive rights.
And she is heartened that people are now talking about the issue.
Personally, Lefkowitz says, one good thing has come out of her recent activism.
“This has helped me become a more compassionate physician. Women are being forced to make heartbreaking decisions. But I’m glad to be with them, taking care of them during a very important part of their lives.”
(Hat tip: Emily Silverman)
Final exams loomed. But Staples High School’s Students Demand Action club was all-in to participate in this past weekend’s national Wear Orange event, to raise awareness of gun violence, and promote a future free from it.
Club members put up many signs, including a big banner in front of the school. They chalked the sidewalks and staffed an information table during lunch, where they handed out information, signed up teachers and students for the Connecticut Against Gun Violence email list, and gave away orange pens, bracelets, pins, stickers and shirts.
They also created a poster wall, where anyone could write about “Why I Wear Orange.”
Final exams began today. But members of the Students Demand Action club have already earned an A+ in civic engagement.
(Hat tip: Elana Atlas)
When a prominent Westporter dies, it’s not unusual for the family to set up a scholarship in his or her name.
What is unusual — at least in Westport — is for that scholarship to be at a place like Howard University of School of Law.
But that’s exactly where the Michael Koskoff Scholarship has been established.
And it’s exactly in keeping with the way the nationally known, socially conscious Westport lawyer lived his life. Koskoff died in April, age 77.
As his children Josh, Sarah, Julie and Jake write:
As you know, our father had a lifelong commitment to civil rights. He represented members of the Black Panthers, he helped integrate the police and fire departments in Connecticut. He idolized Thurgood Marshall so much he wrote a movie about him.
One of our father’s final cases took on Harvard University. He spoke of their $40 billion endowment with disdain. Harvard, he believed, denied its racist past and used its great wealth to cherry-pick the best students, remove them from their communities, and indoctrinate them in a culture that served Harvard’s own interests.
A scholarship for Howard Law students, in contrast, will represent who our father has always been: unpretentious, egalitarian, unintimidated by powerful institutions, and a passionate believer that character determines success, not pedigree.
The people at Howard asked us: Do we want a minimum GPA required to receive the scholarship? We said, “Absolutely not!” Our father didn’t believe in limiting opportunity to those who are already on the path to success. He believed that what makes a great advocate isn’t good grades or high test scores — it’s a boldness to take on the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable, armed with the tools that the constitution provides.
Please consider giving to this scholarship — it will carry his name for generations, providing opportunities to future lawyers who will fight for civil rights, criminal justice, equal opportunity, environmental protection, public health and safety, and all else that we, as a society on the brink, depend on great legal advocates to achieve.
The endowment goal is $1 million. Click here to donate online. Checks can be made out to “Howard University School of Law,” with “Michael Koskoff Scholarship” written in the memo line, and sent to: Howard University, Box 417853, Boston, MA 02241-7853.