“This is what Democracy Looks Like!” Thousands Join Women’s March for a Third Year in New York City

“Women belong in the House [and Senate]!” 

by Diara J. Townes

Chants of “My body, my choice! My country, my voice!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” were heard as a wave of pink pussyhats and protest signs marched down Central Park West just before noon on a chilly Saturday morning in January.

The Women’s March has now become an annual worldwide event, sparked after the election of President Donald J. Trump in 2016.

“We need more women at the table,” said Dr. Lori Gersham, 48, of Fairfield Connecticut. Holding a sign with her friend Huge Gervais, 45, beside her, Gersham shared why she was marching for a third year. “We need to make sure that there are women in the room where [the decisions] happen.”

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Lori Gersham and Hugo Gervais of Fairfield, CT share their support of the Freshmen class in Congress with their posters during the NYC Women’s March. Jan 19, 2019. Credit: Diara J. Townes.

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RefuseFascism.org sharing posters and papers with their message of revolution during the Women’s March in NYC. Jan 19, 2019. Credit: Diara J. Townes.

Despite setbacks in policy and equal rights under the Trump Administration, women gathered in the thousands to rally in support of reform. Several groups lined the route, asking people if they were registered to vote in next month’s special election for New York City Public Advocate where nearly two dozen candidates are in the race. The Refuse Fascism protest group passed out newspapers, pushing for revolution.

“I stand for everyone’s rights,” said Samantha Maurice of Bayville, Long Island. The 25 year-old marched in Washington in 2017, the day after the president’s inauguration. “The country felt so divided. But seeing everyone out there really made me feel like we were actually united in this. It was the most incredible experience.”

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Long Island natives Ariel Solomon (L) and Samantha Maurice (R) proudly carry their signs during the Women’s March. Jan 19, 2019. Credit: Diara J. Townes.

Francesca D’agostino, a student at Fordham University, was marching for the first time this year. “It’s emotional, but also empowering,” said the 19 year-old Ohio native. “It’s empowering to see so many kids here with signs.”

Her friend, Isabela Apodaca, shared similar sentiments, who added that she marched in Los Angeles last year. “It’s really important for us to support women and women’s rights.”

In the midst of the government shutdown, immigrant rights’ violations, loss of protections for the LGBTQ community and the environment, protestors had a lot to rally for.

Democratic Darling of the Left, Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined both New York City rallies, sharing strong messages of support and empowerment.

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Freshman Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks at the Women’s March in New York City. Jan 19, 2019. Source: Reuters.

“Last year we took the power to the polls, and this year we’re taking power to the policy because we’ve taken back the House of Representatives. And that’s just step one! ”

Ocasio-Cortez and two dozen other new faces won elections across the nation this past November, bringing optimism, transparency and diversity to Washington. Her constituents live in the Bronx and Queens, two of the most diverse boroughs in New York City.

“It is so incredibly important to uplift all of our voices,” she said to the crowds gathered along Central Park West. “Justice is not a concept we read about in a book. Justice is about the water we drink, justice is about the air we breathe, justice about how easy it is to vote, justice is about how much ladies get paid!”

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Mary Staudt, 54 of Connecticut, with her original poster of Rosie the Riveter. Jan 19, 2019. Credit: Diara J. Townes.

“I’m out here because of, well, everything,” said Kristen Buckley, 28, of Long Island. Buckley decided to dress as one of the principal characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about a dystopian future where women are treated as second-class citizens (and worse), to emphasize her protest. “It’s about everyone’s rights.”

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Kristen Buckley of Nassau County stands defiantly in support of equal rights as a Handmaid during the Women’s March in New York City. Jan 19, 2019. Credit: Diara J. Townes.

While controversy nipped at the heels of the founders of the Women’s March, the  enthusiasm and dedication in support of equal rights were still prominent.

“It’s really important for us to keep going,” shared Minerva Ranjeet, 28, of Brooklyn, who marched last year as well. “We can’t let our momentum slow down.”

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Minerva Ranjeet holds up the powerful fist as she poses for photos with her original sign on Central Park West. Credit: Diara J. Townes

 

More Photos from the Women’s March in NYC. Credit: Diara J. Townes (and her iPhone 7).

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Lucy Loveless, 31, poses with a sign her mother made in support of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bade Ginsberg. Jan 19, 2019.

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Francesca D’agostino, 19, of Ohio (L) holds up her pro-feminist poster alongside her friend, Isabela Apodaca, 19, of California (R). Jan 19, 2019.

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Brenda Koller, 53, of Michigan, marches down Central Park West with hundreds of other women. Jan 19, 2019.

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Mary Doff, 50, of NYC joins the Women’s March with her original poster. Jan 19, 2019.

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Beverly Wells, of New York City, uses a historical image of women marching as her protest poster during the Women’s March. Jan 19, 2019.

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Activists Push for Carbon Emissions Bill to Curb Climate Change Inequality in New York City

Environmentalists and Community Organizers Lobby City Council Members for a Green New Deal

January 3, 2019

By Diara J. Townes

Environmental and community activists are pushing for a new bill that addresses the city’s largest source of CO2 emissions: buildings.

“It’s simple,” said Rachel Rivera. “Unless the world radically slashes climate pollution, New York City will cook while slowly slipping underwater and drowning.”

The dangers associated with climate change for millions of people in the Big Apple range from extreme flooding to intense heat waves, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I can tell you the consequences first hand,” shared Rivera in a statement read by a colleague during a hearing at the Committee on Environmental Protection on December 4.

“I was in my apartment with my little daughter during Sandy. She was sleeping when I heard a loud crack from the roof. I grabbed her just before the roof collapsed on to her bed. We ran into the night with nothing.”

Rivera is a board member for New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a membership organization committed to helping low and moderate-income families by promoting economic, racial and climate justice. The East New York mother has worked with NYCC for three years, sharing her personal experiences on the real impacts of climate change for people like her in low to moderate-income New York City neighborhoods.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing city leaders to approve a proposal that seriously addresses the existential threats of climate change.  According to a report from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, nearly two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas pollution is due to electricity and heating in buildings.

The bill, nicknamed the GreenNewDeal4NYC, aims to cut the city’s carbon pollution by 40 percent by 2030 and over 80 percent by 2050. The bill mandates the first round of energy efficiency to be met by 2022 for buildings between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet, by far the boldest move of any city in the world.

The proposal addresses the city’s impact on a warming planet by eliminating building energy waste, reducing emissions, and creating cost-effective energy infrastructure.

Additionally, the bill would keep building owners from offsetting expensive retrofits, such as repairing windows or replacing boilers, on tenants via rent hikes, a condition that protects New Yorkers who reside in the city’s 990,000 rent-regulated units.

“This bill protects our most vulnerable from paying the costs of the crisis,” said Patrick Houston, 25, of the Bronx in an email. As the climate and inequality campaign organizer for NYCC who read Rivera’s testimony on the Dec 4 hearing, Houston is dedicated to helping council members understand the benefits of passing the bill. He’s been organizing community members and addressing city council during public hearings for over a year.

More than 30 climate and equality groups have joined NYCC since the bills’ introduction by Queens City Councilman and Chair of the Environmental Protection Committee Costa Constantinides in September. This united coalition called Climate Works for Life have held rallies, lobbying events and made phones calls to residents of impacted communities in the outer boroughs and to council members advocating the benefits of the bill.

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Climate activists Dana Affleck (L) and David Mahler (R) speak with Brooklyn Council Member Mathieu Eugene outside city council offices on Broadway across from City Hall. December 11, 2018. Diara J. Townes.

“New York’s various stakeholders generally agreed this bill is a bold, necessary target to make real change,” said Council Member Constantinides. “While I’m open to how New York City hits that mandate, we cannot miss hitting this threshold of 40 percent by 2030.”

The bill, similar to freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, still faces a few political hurdles.

The Real Estate Board of New York is the largest lobbying organization for the biggest landlords in the city. In conjunction with the international environmental advocacy group Natural Resource Defense Council and the building workers union SEIU 32BJ, the three groups released a statement criticizing aspects of the legislation, stating it was unfair to apply such stringent rules to buildings that may consume and release emissions at different rates.

The statement also points out that there wasn’t a feasible way for building owners to comply with the 2022 and 2024 energy efficiency goals, indicating that the retrofits would need, at a minimum, two years to be “planned, financed, implemented and assessed.”

The NRDC’s statement took many environmental and climate activists by surprise. The organization is generally supportive of policies that promote the curbing of carbon pollution. Considering the actions of President Donald Trump that are negatively impacting the environment and rollbacks the progress of the Obama Administration, activists are worried about the impression the NRDC’s joint statement with the real estate lobby could have on the remaining 19 council members who have yet to support the proposal.

“[Their position] undermines the bill by attaching credibility to the real estate industry’s position,” shared Pete Sikora, the director of climate and inequality campaigns, in an email. “It sends a message to elected officials that if they come with a bold plan to address climate change and inequality, the NRDC, a big, deep-pocketed blue-chip environmental group, will undercut them.” 

Donna DeConstanzo, the director of the NRDC’s climate and clean energy program for the eastern region, said the real estate and labor communities “provide key perspectives” for energy efficiency methods.

“The NRDC does not oppose this bill,” stated Fabiola Nunez, the organization’s strategic communications manager when asked for comment. “ This bill is a landmark building energy efficiency framework that can put New York at the forefront of fighting the biggest environmental challenge of our time, and we are supportive of it.”

As the co-sponsor of the bill, Council Member Constantinides acknowledged the importance of hearing various opinions on the issue, given the broad and centuries’ long impact this law could have across the low-income communities, the country and the world. 

“If New Yorkers were not awoken to the realities of climate change when Sandy decimated the Rockaways, Coney Island, and Staten Island, they certainly were by the recent IPCC report and National Climate Assessment. This City Council recognizes we have to do something now, because there is no more ‘down the road.’”

The first city council meeting of 2019 is slated for Wednesday, Jan 9. It is unclear if the bill will receive a vote.

New York’s Free College: Promising at First Glance

May 1, 2017

By Diara J. Townes

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Jan 3, 2017—Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (L) and Governor Andrew Cuomo (R) unveil the first proposal of the governor’s 2017 agenda: making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families at all SUNY and CUNY two- and four-year colleges. (Photo credit— Kevin P. Coughlin, governor’s office)

New Yorkers in the Class of 2021 could be the first college graduates to leave school debt-free, thanks to a new law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Excelsior Scholarship program, passed by state legislators on April 10, allows families earning less than $100,000 a year to send their kids to state and city universities tuition-free, beginning this fall.

That limit will increase to $110,000 in 2018, and capping at $125,000 in 2019. And while New York is the first state to allow free tuition at public four-year institutions, the scholarship is facing some criticism.

This first-in-the nation program was supported by Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, who appeared with Cuomo at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on January 3rd.

Enthusiasm for the proposed legislation spread throughout the auditorium that day, as reported by the Huffington Post. And three months later, on April 10, the excitement reverberated on social media when the proposal became law.

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Twitter users Stevie Wong (L), a New York film journalist, and John Sassone, a teacher in New York City, both express their appreciation of the Excelsior Scholarship program. Source: Twitter.

“Eighty percent of the households in this state will qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship,” stated Cuomo in his address to the state assembly.
“You want to talk about a difference government can make? Every child will have the opportunity that an education provides. It’s time to think about the student first, and that’s what this is going to do.”

The cost of higher education in the United States has risen to worrisome levels. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported student loan debt at $1.3 trillion, compared to just over $400 billion in 2006.

Income plays a large role in determining the affordability of higher education. The largest percentage of New York state families that made between $10,000 and $100,000 in 2015 was 60%, with New York City families within this income range at 62%.

Meanwhile, a four-year degree from a city or state university can cost between $17,200 and $26,000. To rise above these costs, Cuomo introduced the Excelsior Scholarship program, with hopes of free tuition for New Yorkers.

The law was not passed without challenges from state legislators, however, who adjusted the terms of the program. Students must attend school full-time, earning 30 credits in a year (for bachelor’s degrees), and maintain a certain GPA (still to be determined) to remain qualified.

The program doesn’t cover room and board, or books and fees from the university. The student is unable to seek a second degree either, associate’s or bachelor’s.

Additionally, students will be required to stay in New York for the same amount of time they are covered by the scholarship. If they choose to relocate they will have to repay the amount rewarded as a loan. These caveats could still make attending college in the Empire State a hurdle for many. But it wasn’t always a huge ordeal. Graduates like Dadriane Davis, 53, remembered a time when school wasn’t a big drain on the finances.

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Table 1 (L): The median income for New York families was estimated around $72,000 in 2015. Table 2 (R): The median income for New York City families in 2015 was estimated at less than $62,000. Source:Â U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey.

“I started as a design graphics major at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in September, 1982. I got to live off campus in a student housing apartment in Freeport, [Long Island] for pretty cheap. And while my parents had to take out a loan to pay for it, they never complained.” Tuition, room and board at her private, four-year institution averaged $3,400 a year. The average income per person in New York during that time was estimated at $40,000 per household (Gulino, 1983).

After completing one and a half years of school, Davis left NYIT to begin a family. It would be near twenty years before she returned.

College has grown into a necessity since the 1980s, and many Millennials are starting to feel the pains of not attending. “A lot of kids my age just couldn’t pay for it.” The lack of affordable education for the city’s middle and low income families is a personal experience for 30-year-old Ruben Castro Jr. of the Bronx.

The oldest of four siblings, Castro spent his teenage years helping his mother at home while attending the Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts in Manhattan. “I wish my parents had encouraged me to be more creative when I was a kid. Latin families are like ‘you’re going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or work in a bank.’ So by the time I finished high school, I didn’t want to have anything to do with college.”

But the introduction of the Excelsior Scholarship program inspired a change of heart in the Millennial. “I think it’s a great thing. It’s been working well for other countries for a really long time. America is just very hustle-oriented.” Castro’s hesitance in 2005 was also due to the overwhelming task of understanding the process on his own.

“Trying to figure [college] out by yourself can be stressful, anxiety-inducing, and a little depressing, but that’s how it is, you know? I wish it didn’t take me this long to realize that, but at least I’m doing it now.”

Community outreach and advocacy organizations like the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC) are also reviewing how this new law will impact their efforts.

The non-profit focuses on individuals and families in the northern region of Manhattan island, and the west and south Bronx. One of their many programs that creates and increases the standards of living in the community focuses specifically on college services.

“We help students decide whether college is the right choice right now. And if it is, we help prepare them by finding the right school, assist them in getting in and [finding ways] to pay for it,” NMIC explained in a statement on the non-profit’s website.

 

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Their services include one-on-one college counseling to narrow down school selections as well as college tours. One of their higher demand services is financial aid planning.

“Oh, this is so great!” Anna Martinez, a 32 year-old resident of Washington Heights in northern manhattan, reacted happily to the scholarship program. “One of the girls I used to babysit messaged me on Facebook the other day, saying she’s graduating in May and going to college in September. She told me I inspired her to go. That actually made me cry! She was going to babysit like I did to help cover the costs, but now I don’t think she needs to. I am so happy for her!”

While the terms are viewed positively by rising freshmen and their friends and family, graduated students are reflecting differently. Davis viewed these stipulations as a bigger hurdle than necessary.

In the 1980s, Davis wasn’t aware of financial aid and federal grants. Armed with this knowledge, she returned to NYIT as a full-time student in 1999. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in advertising in May of 2002. She relocated to southeast Virginia with her academic credentials and upwards of $30,000 in student debt.

“While I was really happy to hear about this program in New York, it wouldn’t have worked for me,” she shared. “I had a job waiting for me in Virginia. It’s been 16 years since I graduated with my degree and I’m still paying for it. If kids nowadays have to choose between staying in the state for four years or moving for a better job and paying it all back, then it’s not really a good choice, is it?” Davis believed the decision to stay should be up to the student, not the state.

Castro, on the other hand, took these stipulations in stride. “I know the fine print is a little nitty gritty, and the expectations are high. [But] it takes off that stress of having to work two jobs and go to school for a lot of people. Maybe it’s a sign, you know? I’ve been thinking about getting my degree for a while. Maybe this is the time, and this is my moment.”

This Op-Ed’s Attempt to Redirect the Dems is Laughable

By Diara J. Townes. July 8, 2017.

Everyone knows the Democrats are expericing some serious turbulence on the port-side of their political fleet. Failing to win special elections and struggling to hold ground against questionable nominees for Trump’s Cabinet are some of the most recent disappointments for Dem leaders.

This week, The New York Times printed an opinion piece by Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, aiming to redirect the flagship. In reality, it only showed the importance of media literacy in the post-election world.

Of all the craziness of 2016, one thing can be said for sure: the right-wing had a good year. The House, the Senate, the White House and the Supreme Court, all under Republican control? If I was a Dem party leader (or just like, a person living in the world) I’d wonder what the hell happened, too.

So many explanations have been provided to explain Trump’s win in November. Repeating them here would turn this article into a Buzzfeed-esque list of “ha-ha, yeah, that sounds about right,” and “what? That’s some bull” so let’s cut to the short of it.

The authors of the op-ed stated that the only chance for the Democratic Party to come back from the brink of obsoleteness is to navigate to the center. The next question shouldn’t be, “well, how do they do that? Don’t the Republicans have the center on lock with the whole, we ‘run the government’ thing?”

The real question Dem leaders should be asking themselves is, “didn’t that already happen?” Quick answer? Yup.

Slightly longer answer? Not only did the Dems move to the center, but that shift totally blew up in their (and the world’s) collective faces.

The primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was a healthy necessity that excited the base. Millions of democrats and moderates came out for their preferred candidates. To keep that momentum going, the obvious move would’ve been to include the popular issues at the forefront of the democratic platform.

But for many liberals, that’s where the excitement ended. Once Clinton won the nomination and took on a more conservative democract as her running-mate, she and the party chose to step away from Sanders’ winning progressive messages. And the decline in leftist enthusiasm echoed throughout the social media waves.

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The opinion piece in the Times chose to explain how Dems can make a comeback in future elections by navigating towards the ideology that put Trump into office, rather than sailing harder to the left.

The failure in media literacy was right on the surface of the article. Not one of their arguments is sourced to a statistical report, policy or official statement. Every data point they used to represent their opinions went unattributed.

“A little more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves liberals, while almost three in four are self-identified moderates or conservatives.”

This statement is missing something important. Where did they get this number? Who did they ask? How can we verify this? In other words, where is the source?

After looking up a Janaury 2017 Gallup poll not referenced in the article, a few interpretations of the data provided could be made.

First, it’s true that 25% of Americans identified as liberal in 2016. But Penn and Stein failed to note that while 40% of Americans identify as conservative and the remaining 35% as moderate, the percentage for liberals actually rose from 17% as polled in 1992. This chipping away at the percentage of moderate Americans went unmentioned in the article.

So what could actually be concluded is that there IS a push, away from the center and to the left, while the conservative party has only managed to maintain its numbers.

So when looked at from that perspective, almost 60% of Americans identify as liberal and/or moderate with a little more than 40% identifying as conservative. Kind of changes the feel of their op-ed, no?

That’s bias. While the numbers are true, it’s interpretation is skewed. And that’s just one instance of many that constitute this treasure chest of fool’s gold that Penn and Stein dug up against the liberal wing.

Opinions are good to share and do have a place in the media. But if not properly reviewed, a biased representation of data can and does lead to misinformation.

Be a captain of your own ship. Read the facts for yourself and steer how you deem fare. Freshen up your media literacy skills. Don’t let someone else take the wheel.