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Photos courtesy of Teri Brennan
Photos courtesy of Teri Brennan
The crowd reacts to a discussion at the standing-room-only constituent-organized town hall meeting.

A huge crowd of both South Brooklyn and Staten Island residents was on hand on Wednesday evening, April 19 for a standing-room-only, constituent-organized town hall meeting held to address the concerns of the 11th Congressional District. The only person seemingly missing was the district’s representative.

Born out of resistance in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights over Congressmember Dan Donovan’s persistent refusal to host any in-person town halls on this side of the Verrazano, the first-ever NY 11 Town Hall – organized by progressive grassroots organization Fight Back Bay Ridge – brought both local and national issues to the forefront via a panel of experts there to field questions from residents on issues from housing and immigration to women’s reproductive rights and bullying.

Three of the evening’s hottest topics were healthcare, education and the environment. One of the most memorable questions of the evening came from a 13-year-old Bay Ridge student named Althea, who asked, “Is there anything that I can do to help protect the public schooling system?”

She was met by a room-full of applause and a unanimous answer from members of the panel: get involved. Panelist Zakiyah Shaakir-Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, also told the young girl to visit a website called What Is My School Owed.

“My son’s school is owed over a million dollars,” the mother of eight told the room. “There’s something really shameful about that.”

From there, Shaakir-Ansari encouraged Althea to write a letter to her local politicians, and to get her parents, her classmates and her teachers to do the same thing.

“Watch out for the bullying,” added panelist Ally Hack, attorney and board member of the Association of Muslim American Lawyers. “A lot of our students, especially in the Muslim community, are experiencing bullying and it’s a really devastating phenomenon. You’re stifling the human spirit at a very young age, and I think sometimes we forget how devastating it is to be bullied.”

While Donovan himself was also a flashpoint (attendees were greeted at check-in with pre-addressed “Wish U Were Here” postcards, ready to be personalized and sent to the pol’s district office), the evening did not go by without some praise for the pol – one of many reasons, organizers say, they wish he could have been there.

“I want to thank every one of you in this congressional district because you guys took lots of actions together over the last two or three months and, while I don’t think we can claim total credit ourselves, we are a very prominent part of the mix that resulted in Representative Donovan coming out against the Republican healthcare replacement,” said panelist Mark Hannay, director of Metro New York Healthcare for All. “I also do want to thank Representative Donovan for the position that he took. That was not easy for him to take. He stuck his neck out in his conference and he seems to be holding firm on that.

“We may have differences in opinion with him on a variety of issues, but I think that, in this case, we owe him thanks,” he went on.

Furthermore, panelist Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, commended Donovan for sending a letter of support for the Community Development Block Grant, a flexible program that provides communities with resources to address a wide range of unique development needs.

Though, the pol’s absence remained apparent throughout the evening.

Donovan formally declined his invitation to the event, calling town halls “disruptive forums” during a Monday, April 17 tele-town hall during which, his office says, he dialed into nearly 50,000 households and connected with 13,524 people on both sides of the bridge. Since Donovan won a special election to replace disgraced former Congressmember Michael Grimm in May, 2015, the pol has yet to hold an in-person town hall on this side of the Verrazano.

“I find this to be a much more effective way of communicating and having my residents communicate with me, rather than just going to a town hall and having people shout at one another,” he said on the line.

When news first broke of the pol’s decision to decline, Donovan’s Communications Director Pat Ryan said Fight Back Bay Ridge’s goal was “to create a media and fundraising spectacle,” rather than “[engage] in substantive conversations,” stressing also that Donovan “has and will continue to meet with every single person who requests a meeting.”

However, the event was both informative and peaceful (minus a brief period of friction between the crowd and Republican City Council hopeful and former aide to Donovan Liam McCabe, who, acting out of format, first asked for a show of hands of Trump voters, then introduced himself as “maybe the only Republican” in the room and finally followed up with the question, “How do we stop Bill de Blasio’s disastrous policy on homelessness?”)

Keeping with the theme of peace and order, attendees were supplied with double-sided paddles (one side displaying a smiling “emoji” – similar to those that pop up when users chime in on Facebook Live videos – and the other, an angry “emoji”) that they were then encouraged to hold up in agreement or disagreement.

“I think it was spectacular,” said Fight Back Bay Ridge member Sally McMahon, who – alongside fellow member Rebecca Goldberg Brodsky – emceed the event. “The guests, the audience, and seeing how the volunteers pulled everything together – everything was spectacular. There were materials to engage in, people checked in quickly, the speakers were amazing and everybody was so well prepared.”

Co-sponsors of the event included 350 BK, the Alliance for Quality Education, the Arab-American Family Support Center, the Association of Muslim American Lawyers, CAIR New York, the Jericho Project, Metro New York Healthcare for All, the National Institute for Reproductive Health, the New York State Nurses Association, Staten Island for Change and Veterans for Peace Chapter 34.

Other panelists included Jennifer Durkin, partner at Durkin & Puri, LLP; Danielle Castaldi-Micca, director of Governmental and Political Affairs for the National Institute for Reproductive Health; Kit Kennedy, director of the Energy and Transportation Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council; Tori Lyon, chief executive officer of the Jericho Project; and Andrea Shapiro, program coordinator for the Metropolitan Council on Housing.

Since its founding in November, 2016, Fight Back Bay Ridge has been at the forefront of many a local protest, and credits itself for leading “a successful campaign to defend healthcare while forging ties across [New York’s] 11th Congressional District.”

Its goal, organizers say, “is to strengthen the community and ensure that all voices are heard by our government.”

“I’m just so proud today,” said McMahon on Thursday.

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