Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Library Park and Grounds Community Clean Up Saturday, May 8

Library Park and Grounds Community Clean Up

Saturday, May 8, 2010, 10 am – 3 pm

Volunteers Meet at Fountain at 9:45 am

Gloves, rakes, bags will be provided

Contact: Rebecca Williams
Tel: 908-447-6268; Email: rebelwill7@gmail.com
The Plainfield Public Library is a community treasure, and many of you know that I champion the library and its resources all the time. Unfortunately, those of us who regularly use the library and who are its advocates remain dismayed by the lack of concern on the part of our elected officials regarding its exterior grounds. In addition, unprecedented funding cuts have been made at this most critical time for Plainfield’s residents, who depend on the library for Internet access and community meetings.
I used to live right up the street from the library, as you know, and although I no longer use it as often as before (3-4 times a week--lol!), I continue to be a regular patron. I think that the poor condition of the exterior grounds provides a clue to the city's ill-thought priorities. In addition, the disproportionate cuts to the library's budget demonstrate this even more so. The library is at the center of Plainfield, and those of us who use it regularly champion its resources to all of our friends both inside and outside of the city. The Friends of the Plainfield Public Library volunteer organization does a great job as well at raising charitable contributions.
The real problem, in my view, is that not enough pressure has been brought to bear on the powers-that-be in the administration and on the council to redirect their priorities toward protecting and enhancing the cultural institutions that are the life-blood of any city.
When I went to the last two events at the library, the performance of "The Meeting," and the Jean Mattson photo exhibit, I was struck by how great the interior of the library looked (under the direction of Joe DaRold and staff) in comparison with the exterior.
Residents pay for services here—I know that I expect that my taxes go to pay to keep our parks clean and free from blight—gang tags, broken lights, beer bottles, empty cigarette packs, and other litter. Aside from that, though, there is a larger problem of community involvement in not allowing this kind of deterioration to occur in the first place.
The lack of concern for the area around the library speaks to a larger problem having to do with our city's overall appearance. To that end, I will be leading a community clean-up of Library Park and its grounds on Saturday, May 8th, from 10 am to 3 pm.  Volunteers will gather at the fountain at 9:45 am and we will get to work!  
I would caution, however: our grassroots efforts to beautify the city should not be viewed as a way for elected officials to abdicate the responsibilities of their respective offices, as many have done with regard to the appearance of the city outside of their own comfort areas. The larger question of community apathy is a more difficult one to address—I will be posting my thoughts on that topic over the coming weeks.
All best,

Monday, April 19, 2010

BOE Elections: Thoughts

I have been thinking about this year’s school board election all weekend. Some of you already know that I have resigned from my officer role on the League of Women Voters of Plainfield, as well as from my service in helping to prepare forums. I will remain a member, but I can no longer constrain myself from openly supporting the individuals whom I think will best work on the issues facing our district. My choices may not win, but they are my choices. 

I have shared my thoughts on this election with all the candidates collectively as well as individually, and I have told them that I look forward to working with everyone on the goal of making the schools and the city better. I figured, though, that I would pull everything together and do a little blog post for my tiny subscription base (I think there are 35 of you—lol). I will also make a personal phone call on behalf of those whom I support, as is the right of every citizen. Here are my thoughts, edited and modified from the correspondence and commentary from this weekend:

During this election, I served as a volunteer to fill in for the vacant "Voter Service" seat by taking the lead role in organizing and putting together the forum. I remained impartial throughout, in observance of league protocol. I am a private citizen again, and am happy to have my life back. I had hoped that the league forum would allow all interested voters to focus on the issues, not on the personalities.

The climate of this year's school board campaign is unprecedented--actually, I do remember that when one candidate was running a few years ago, a really nasty anonymous flyer appeared attacking him and another candidate—it was really ugly stuff. I thought I had seen it all.

This year, too, my character has been attacked--hate mail is ugly and frightening, and if any of you have ever received it, you know what I am talking about. One candidate did share with me that she had been verbally attacked and has also received hate mail. Another candidate said that this has been quite a learning process, but that she is committed to running again.

I don't know completely where all this anger is coming from, but we need to bring it all down a level. I know that candidates cannot control everything that their partisans do on their behalf and perhaps without their knowledge, but they all bear some responsibility for the overall tone of a campaign. Plainfield resident Alan Goldstein likened the invective to the "tea party" attacks on our president and his supporters.

In all my years on the league, I have only been publicly (verbally) attacked once, by someone for whom the words "New Democrat" are anathema. Aside from that, I have been able to just delete the vicious and anonymous commentary I have received for taking my positions.

I was not originally planning to publicly advocate on behalf of any candidates, but when I see people whom I respect (and with whom I have worked for years on other issues of dire importance to our city) smeared and dragged through the mud in a local school board election, I simply have to set the record straight. I refuse to be intimidated by vicious, anonymous individuals.

Some of the candidates who are running this year have never run for local office before, and I have a feeling that if they knew that they would be the subject of anonymous attacks on their character, they would not have filed petitions--and that is a sad commentary. It will be harder for folks to want to get involved next year.

I requested that the candidates let their supporters (some of whom may have been responsible for the comments directed at me) know that, as a private citizen, I can support and advocate for whomever I'd like. For those who win, I hope that civility and collaboration will reign. For those who don't prevail this year, I hope you will run again next time. I have met some candidates who should certainly consider running next year for one of the 3-year seats.

In the end, though, please know that my choices should not serve as an impetus to demonize me, nor should any of the choices of any of the voters in our city serve to demonize them. We all simply have our own ideas and opinions about which candidates we feel will best serve our children at this very critical juncture. That said, I fully expect to receive more commentary. I will simply delete it, as I have done before.

Many of the BOE candidates whom I have observed over the years don't agree on every issue, nor should they, in my opinion. However, on the core issues that make up their platform, they are able to find common ground and work together to bring their shared vision to the BOE table. 

Whatever happens, however, on Wednesday, I am willing to lend support in whatever way I can to the new board configuration. I will be focusing on my city council run after tomorrow, and if I am elected, I would like an opportunity to serve as the BOE liaison--as an educator, I think I can bring some perspective to the schools (even though I teach at the college level).

All that said, the only incumbent I am supporting for another three-year term this year is Christian Estevez, who has served on the school board for one term. He and I have worked together on a number of local community, labor, immigration, and political initiatives over the past number of years here in Plainfield and in Newark (with the Latino Action Network and the Urban Issues Institute, which operates out of Essex County College, where I teach). Having worked with Chris, I know that he is a good collaborator and that he can be effective. Therefore, I think he deserves an opportunity to serve again. I am also supporting BOE newcomers Mary Burgwinkle and Carmencita Pile—I have worked with them as well. My final vote goes to one of the newcomers to the process. There are other candidates running this year who certainly deserve consideration, and I hope that you will review their respective records and make your choice. Again, I feel that all candidates should be applauded for stepping forward to serve our city.

All best,


P.S. As far as my other affiliations, I am also a member of the New Democrats for Plainfield Democratic Club, the Plainfield Democratic City Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey Education Association, the League of Women Voters of Plainfield, the Newark-based Urban Issues Institute Steering Committee, the Modern Language Association, and the American Studies, Africana Studies, and English Students Association at the Graduate Center of the City of New York. And now I am off to Elizabeth!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holocaust Days of Remembrance: Honoring the Victims and Survivors

This week marks the Days of Remembrance, commemorating the Holocaust. Today, April 12th, is Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day. I observe this day in a very personal way—I remember Mrs. Pearl and Miss Rosencrantz.
When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Pearl, introduced us to the story of Anne Frank, whose World War II memoir, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was part of our curriculum. Since many of the girls in our class kept diaries, we identified with young Anne’s adolescent struggles. Mrs. Pearl provided us with the broader historical frame of the Holocaust to contextualize Anne’s story. 
As we read the diary, Mrs. Pearl would have us imagine what it was like to live in a space for over two years, having to live in utter silence all day, always fearful of being discovered. I remember clearly the images from the camps that accompanied our reading, the awful devastation and unspeakable suffering.
I identified deeply with Anne, especially as she grew older, and the entries began reflecting challenges that I knew I soon would be facing as an adolescent. Anne also wanted to be a writer, which was my future goal as well. I still remember reading the final entry of the diary, dated August 1, 1944:
Believe me, I’d like to listen, but it doesn’t work, because if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks I’m putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke, and then I’m not even talking about my own family, who assume I must be ill, stuff me with aspirin and sedatives, feel my neck and forehead to see if I have a temperature, ask about my bowel movements and berate me for being in a bad mood, until I just can’t keep it up anymore, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if…if only there were no other people in the world.

Yours, Anne M. Frank

Of course, we now know that this final entry was written three days before the Frank family (along with the Van Pels family and Fritzs Pfeffer) was betrayed by someone who knew they were hiding in the attic space at 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. They were arrested by the German police, and all perished in the Nazi death camps except for Otto Frank, Anne’s father.
The summer after I read the diary, my mother took my brother and me to Europe. We arrived in Amsterdam late in the evening, and I remember my mother asking the hotel clerk where Anne Frank House, meaning 263 Prinsengracht, was located. It was within walking distance. The next day, we began our journey. We headed through the streets, which I believe were cobblestoned. I recall feeling a sense of apprehension when we turned onto Prinsengracht. 
When we arrived at the house, I was struck by how nondescript it was. When I got inside, however, I saw everything preserved/restored as it would have looked when Anne was there. I looked out the window and saw the tree she wrote about; I scrutinized the wall where Anne had plastered the photos of famous movie stars—it was just as I had read in the book. 
Many other people in the room, men as well as women, were in tears—as a 12 year-old, I was unused to seeing adults cry—it was disconcerting. And I remember staring hard at everything so that I would not cry. When I returned home later that summer, I read the diary again—this time, every line seemed to take on a profound significance. I had been to the house—I could see Anne’s life in the annex unfold in high relief.
Two years later, when I was in high school, I had another English teacher, Miss Rosencrantz, a somewhat intense and serious woman in her forties who always wore dark-colored clothing with long sleeves. I viewed myself as a wit back then (Read: occasionally amusing, but more likely just obnoxious), and I liked to verbally spar with my teachers. 
One day, when we were studying The Iliad, she asked us a question about modern day products we could associate with Greek mythology. Ever the smart aleck, I called out “Trojan condoms.”  As my classmates snickered, Miss Rosencrantz looked at me as if she were giving serious consideration to my answer. She then said, deadpan, “Hmmm…I wonder about that. The Trojans failed.”
The class laughed hard—Miss Rosencrantz had, for the first time, made them laugh—they were laughing at me and, although I was red-faced, I had to laugh, too. She smiled at all of us, and even at me, a warm, wise smile. She then raised her arm to write down my answer on the blackboard, and that is when I noticed the numbers inked into her forearm. 
I was stunned and deeply unsettled, because I knew what those numbers meant. She had been in the Auschwitz death camp. I stared at Miss Rosenkrantz for a long time, trying to imagine how she could be standing before us, teaching us, given what she had been through as a young girl. I became quiet in her classroom after that day. I never made another joke. Today, when I reflect on that day, I still cannot articulate that feeling, that emotion—it remains beyond my ability to process.
So, during this week, part of my observance will be to remember Mrs. Pearl and Miss Rosenkrantz, two teachers who helped to shape my understanding of the world around
For more information on Anne Frank House, click here: Anne Frank House
For more on the Days of Remembrance, as well as on how you can assist in preventing genocide, click here: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
All best,