Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Sunday, February 28, 2016

We Have to Try: The Case for Bernie Sanders


“We have to try.”

So said the writer of a heavy metal rock anthem for Bernie Sanders titled, “Come on, Feel the Bern.”

Such is the anthem for those of us of all ages, races, faiths, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and every other diverse category in this country who believe our democracy has been hijacked by big money and entrenched power elites.

For close to 40 years, our country has been on a backward trajectory characterized by the failed theory of trickle-down economics—the notion that giving tax cuts and breaks to the wealthy will cause prosperity to “trickle down” to everyone else, a paradigm that failed miserably in the last century’s first decades, leading up to the Great Depression.

Today’s Democratic Party found its direction in the New Deal, a compromise that not only saved capitalism but resulted in decades of prosperity in which “a rising tide lifted all boats.”

In that era, blue collar workers could realize their dreams of becoming homeowners. Children of immigrants could attend college for free in some places and at reasonably low costs at other, public colleges. We had a social safety net that protected the old, the sick, the poor, and the most vulnerable.

We had a government that invested in its infrastructure and in its young people. We had a burgeoning middle class and legislation known as Glass Steagall, passed specifically to assure the American people never again experienced another Great Depression.

And we went to the Moon.

But then, Ronald Reagan came and pushed trickle down on a society that had largely forgotten the horrors of the Great Depression.

And unfortunately, we had a Democratic Party that too often complied with Reagan’s undermining of our social safety net. Eventually, a group within the party led by the Clintons formed the Democratic Leadership Council, a movement that sought to move the party to the right under the erroneous assumption that doing so would win the party national elections.

Over my own reservations, I listened to a good friend and campaigned for Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet at the same time, I publicly expressed the concern that Clinton would buy victory at the cost of the Democratic Party’s soul.

Then we got the crime bill, a tougher “war on drugs” with mandatory sentencing for non-violent offenders, “free trade” agreements that Ross Perot rightfully warned would lead to a “giant sucking sound” of jobs being shipped overseas, and finally, Newt Gingrich’s disastrous “welfare reform”—actually welfare repeal—bill, that consigned millions of working people to extreme poverty.

The Democratic Party did lose its soul, the very reason it captured so much popular support in earlier times, while our middle class faced assault on all sides, and our poorest, most vulnerable people were left to die and the words “liberal” and “progressive” were demonized.

At some point, 50 percent or more of the populace decided that voting between Republican and Republican lite was simply not worth it.

As more and more wealth went to the one percent, and the 99 percent struggled to stay afloat, the beginnings of a progressive movement began to rise. Occupy Wall Street proved a major turning point. Before the 2011 protest, no one would even mention income inequality. After Occupy, the concept of the super wealthy one percent versus the ever more struggling 99 percent entered the mainstream political lexicon and people’s consciousness.

Having a few very wealthy people, little to no middle class, and an overwhelming majority in poverty is one of the defining characteristics of a Third World country. Yet it is exactly what we have become.

It isn’t just our infrastructure, much of which was built through New Deal programs 80 years ago, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, that is crumbling. Our middle class, the backbone of all industrialized, First World countries, is crumbling just as much and just as quickly.

An old line from the 1960s states, “You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem.” Candidates like Hillary Clinton, in whom Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and other corporate polluters have so deeply invested are part of the problem—meaning they cannot be part of the solution.

Their loyalties have already been bought and paid for, and not by the 99 percent.

Bernie Sanders alone is running for president without having been bought by those who are the problem, which is why he alone is free to represent all of us, the 99 percent.

His candidacy was ignored, then ridiculed as a long shot by the mainstream media because it threatens their entrenched interests.

Yet, in spite of having every possible disadvantage, Bernie has defied the odds and transitioned from a protest, “fringe” candidate to a mainstream one.

And polls matching both him and Hillary Clinton against the leading Republican presidential candidates almost all show him doing better than Clinton.

Yet the mainstream media continue to write his political obituary, magnifying his every setback and downplaying his every triumph.

They have crossed the line from reporting his campaign to sabotaging it, which is why we cannot be influenced by anything their pundits and commentators say.

Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate I can support in this race. I support him because his vision is that of the New Deal, the Great Society, the GI Bill, the policies that brought us decades of prosperity and took us to the Moon.

Bernie never was anything but the underdog in this Democratic race, the candidate running against big money and the party establishment. His campaign isn’t on its last legs. If he does not win the nomination, it isn’t because his movement has declined from its peak; it is because it has not yet reached its peak.

Far from being a “single-issue” candidate, he is one who advocates a broad spectrum of ideas, starting with what amounts to a new New Deal rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. He understands that free college is not a handout but an investment. Today, many young people are going to Europe for low-cost or even free college educations. How many will stay there and contribute their talents to those countries instead of to ours?

Those who object to his single payer proposal likely do not realize that we are already paying to treat the uninsured and under-insured. We are spending more per capita on health care than any other industrialized country, but getting poorer outcomes. What Bernie is really proposing is increasing the efficiency of our health care—more bang for each buck. That turns out to be far less threatening than the mainstream media would lead us to believe.

On “Hardball” the other night, Chris Matthews pressured Bernie as to how he would get the 60 Senate votes needed to pass the legislation that makes up his agenda. Unfortunately, Bernie’s answer did not register in Matthews’ view of the world.

Everything will not suddenly change on January 20, 2017 if Bernie is elected president. The political revolution Bernie points to is a process, a re-awakening of people’s involvement in the political process. It will take time.

Yes, Bernie will face obstructionism. Those taking part in his movement will need to stay active, to keep showing up outside the House and Senate windows. Things will be tumultuous in the beginning; that is always how change is.

Where he can, Bernie will use executive orders to transform our corrupt campaign finance system and undo Citizens United. Meanwhile, the movement will groom and prepare a new group of progressive candidates to run for House and Senate seats across the country in 2018 and fundraise from the same small donors who contributed to Bernie.

We already have major obstructionism in government. With Bernie, the difference is, it won’t just be the Republicans or officeholders who are fighting. It will be us.

Reversing 40 years of trickle down, of having gone in the wrong direction, will not happen overnight. It will not be easy. But it can be done.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. For this country, that step is making a U-turn and heading back in the right direction, much the way an alcoholic who hits bottom commits at that moment to making a change.

We have to try.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thank You, Councilman Bruce L. Kuczynski

Eight months ago today, I was suddenly confronted by a wave of shock and sadness upon opening a newspaper and finding an obituary for a mentor who was close enough to me that I considered him a second father. Former Councilman Bruce L. Kuczynski, one of the most decent and honorable people I have ever known, one of the few holders of public office that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt would never be involved in even the slightest bit of corruption or unethical activity, died on Thursday, March 24, 2011, at age 67, of esophageal cancer.

His death came only three weeks after that of another close friend, community activist Leigh Davis, and the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness is the reason it has taken me the better part of a year to honor him with a tribute on this blog.

Public issues are very personal to me, and after the 1994 takeover of Congress by Newt Gingrich and religious-political extremists who sought to shred what was left of our social safety net, I wanted nothing more to do with the political world. That sentiment did not last very long, as I became determined to do whatever I could to oust this group in the 1996 elections. As a first step in that direction, I joined the re-election campaign of then Mayor James Polos in late 1995, hoping to make contacts that would help me get a campaign position in the next year’s national elections.

That is how I came to meet Bruce. He served as a Borough Councilman from 1993-2001, and from the beginning, I saw him as the antidote to Newt Gingrich. Where Gingrich was extreme, Bruce was level-headed. Where Gingrich was dedicated to helping only the wealthiest citizens, Bruce was committed to the well-being of everyone. Where Gingrich was exclusionary, Bruce included all who sought to participate in government. Where Gingrich was self-centered, Bruce’s first priority was always the community he served.

And I learned that “politician” and “good person” were not and are not, mutually exclusive, even here in New Jersey, so known for corruption that it was later referred to in a documentary as “the Soprano state.”

It was Bruce and the team of genuine, honorable companions on the Borough Council who first inspired me to consider serving in elected office.

In the spring of 2000, with a contested primary, I expressed my interest in running for council. Bruce and the late Council President Leon Cohen each were willing to step aside so I could pursue one of the two council seats. But when the party chair made it clear he preferred to run incumbents with strong records of public service, I had no problem stepping aside. When Leon got sick, I walked the town with Bruce, with my deepest wish being that I could get others to see him and Leon as I did. But it was not to be. A nor’easter blew in the night before the primary and stuck around all day, an apt metaphor for the political storm of anger that had taken over our town. When the day ended, the better candidates Bruce and Leon were defeated by a two to one margin.

Just a month later, Leon died of a sudden heart attack.

Bruce deserved so much better than that election, and the people of Highland Park knew it. For years, people of all political stripes commented about how he would make a terrific mayor for our borough. I dreamed of serving as a council person under his administration.

During the years of upheaval and controversy that followed, Bruce and I developed a strong friendship. He was always there to listen, to provide moral support, to give advice. Sometimes I would just show up at his house, to find him gardening outside or playing with his several cats indoors.

Every year, he grew a beautiful garden that provided much solace, and tended it with love. Yet no matter how busy he was, he always took the time to listen without judging and to offer whatever help he could.

In the later years of the last decade, he began traveling overseas a lot for his job, and reaching him became harder. But I never doubted his friendship. I also never knew that he was sick.

When Bruce left the Borough Council at the end of 2000, I read a public statement of tribute to him into the official minutes of a council meeting. More than ten years later, so much of what I said then is still true, which is why I choose to repeat it now.

“Once in a great while, somebody comes along who embodies the best in all of us, someone who gives selflessly for the greater good and devotes himself or herself wholeheartedly to serving the community. This type of person, not some overpaid celebrity or sports figure, represents the real essence of a role model. When people of this genuine good character come into our lives, I believe we need to acknowledge them and recognize the strength of their contributions.

…Bruce—there really aren’t any words that do justice in describing this kindhearted man and his myriad contributions to the borough these last seven years (1993-2000). He has been a champion of human rights, someone who always responded to public concerns, someone who took the time to listen to people and find answers to the concerns they raised. He is also a brilliant scientist and a Councilman who saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars through the many grants he brought to our Public Safety Department.

During this last year (2000), I have had the good fortune to develop a close friendship with Bruce. I can honestly say that I have never known a public servant with such strength of character, compassion, and dignity. I have never known a person, much less a politician, as forgiving and as honorable as Bruce Kuczynski.

In his poem “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot says, ‘What have we given…The awful daring of a moment’s surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract. By this and this only, we have existed…’ Giving of oneself, not just writing a check—this is the type of giving that Frank (Reff, former Councilman) and Bruce have done for Highland Park, giving moments, days, months, and years selflessly without expectation of anything in return. It is the kind of giving that cannot be undone by a budget cutter’s axe, a retirement, or the results of an election.

So I want to thank Frank and Bruce for touching countless lives in our borough and renewing my faith in people’s basic goodness and for inspiring so many, including me, to be better people…”

What better day than Thanksgiving to honor this man who gave so much to this community, who embodies all the best of what this country can be?

One holiday season, in the thick of all the political tumult, I gave Bruce a DVD of “It’s A Wonderful Life” because I felt that like Jimmy Stewart’s character, Bruce deserved to know how much of a difference he had made to so many, regardless of the 2000 primary election numbers.

Bruce Kuczynski touched many lives, and in doing so, he changed them for the better. Our community remains diminished by his loss, yet at the same time, we are so much better off for having had his gifts even if only for a short time.

Rest in peace, my mentor and friend.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg of New York City

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

This letter is an urgent, heartfelt plea imploring you to re-consider the scheduled “cleaning” of Zuccotti Park tomorrow morning, which in effect equates to the forcible removal of peaceful protestors who have been exercising their democratic right to assemble and organize in an effort to convey opposition to the current economic climate and advocate for social and political change.

Mr. Mayor, this, the people peacefully assembling in Zuccotti Park for nearly a month to live the courage of their convictions, is what democracy looks like.

Democracy isn’t always neat, pretty, or tidy. More often than not, it is messy, time-consuming, and inefficient. Yet it represents the best of who we are as Americans, the proud heritage our soldiers have fought for and died for over the past 235 years.

The First Amendment of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights specifically states that Congress, meaning government, “shall make no law abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Peaceful assembly is what we are about as a country. Along with freedom of speech, press, and religion, it constitutes the radical foundation on which our “experiment in democracy” was built back in the 18th century.

It was peaceful assembly through demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins that ended slavery, successfully fought sweatshops and big business abuses 100 years ago, enabled the rise of labor unions, earned women and African-Americans the right to vote, defeated segregation, established civil rights as law, forced the end of the Vietnam War, and garnered support for health and environmental regulations that have saved countless lives. This is what democracy looks like.

In four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street movement has acted in the lofty tradition of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., refraining from violence while remaining steadfast in advocating for the suffering and struggling majority of Americans. Even now, protestors are working vigorously cleaning up the park, sweeping, mopping, and disposing of garbage. Actions speak louder than words, and these actions speak volumes. This is what democracy looks like.

Please, find a way to negotiate with these people to reach a compromise allowing the protest to co-exist with the City of New York. Give them a chance to clean the area regularly and thus serve the city and the community. This can be resolved peacefully as a win-win situation.

The whole world is watching New York City right now. Those in Zuccotti Park are not embarrassing the city; they are embodying the best of New York and the nation. They are giving new life to the words of poet Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the sacred symbol that greets those coming to New York, the Statue of Liberty.

In 1883, Lazarus wrote, "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This was the beacon that so many escaping from tyranny and oppression first saw as they set foot on American soil. It was the beacon my grandparents and the young girl who would become my mother saw when they arrived in New York in 1949, having survived the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe.

Those tired, those poor, those huddled masses are the people for whom these protestors stand. This is what democracy looks like.

If you go through with the “cleaning action” to evict these people advocating for jobs, health care, economic fairness, and a rising tide that lifts all boats, the world will see something very ugly in New York City tomorrow. Because this kind of government heavy-handedness is what fascism looks like.

Fascism is about rule by the strong over the weak. It is about social Darwinism, survival of the fittest and yes, unfettered capitalism. Fascism throws away those who cannot make it on their own. Fascism is the rule of bullies, whether by the power of the gun or the power of economics.

And that is not who we are.

One hundred years ago, 146 innocent people were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire because people wrongly believed that unfettered capitalism is the American way. Life was second to profits in value. Today, the voices of those sacrificed in this tragedy and of those who risked their lives and took to the streets marching for safe working conditions in its wake are screaming to us from the ground. What have you done? Where are you?

In the final scene of the documentary “Shoah,” depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, the late Simon Wiesenthal placed a note in the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, reading “I am my brother’s keeper.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement is people saying we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We want an equitable system with a strong social safety net, not a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. We want an America that recognizes that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, as we are our planet’s keepers. This is what democracy looks like.

Please do not throw away the best of who we are as Americans and the best of what New York City is. Do not give the perpetrators of 9/11 a posthumous victory by wounding the democracy they hated in a way that they were unable to do. Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Government serves the people, not the other way around, and this “cleaning” action you seek to undertake does not serve the people. It serves a privileged few who hold onto power by force of economics.

It is not too late to change your mind. Please, consider everything that makes us Americans, everything we celebrate with pride each Fourth of July, and decide to work with this expression of grassroots democracy, whether or not you believe in what the protestors in Zuccotti Park are saying.

Because this is what democracy looks like.

Sincerely,

Laurel Kornfeld, writer/actress
Highland Park, NJ

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street | September 17th | Forums, News and Updates

Occupy Wall Street September 17th Forums, News and Updates

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Support Bernie Sanders Serving on the "Super Committee"

Monday, June 06, 2011

Gary Minkoff Needs YOUR Vote for HP Mayor: Councilman's Wife Organizes Against Him!!!

Anyone who plans to stay home and not vote tomorrow, Tuesday, June 7, needs to know that the Democratic mayoral race is not uncontested anymore. Gary Minkoff, Democratic Mayoral candidate, needs your votes, our votes. This IS very much a contest--a contest resulting from subterfuge and deceit.

Unfortunately, those of us who thought the days of polarization and division have been left in the past are dead wrong. Why? Because Anne Sherber, the wife of a sitting Democratic council member, is waging a midnight last-minute write-in campaign against the party's mayoral candidate, Gary Minkoff. Talk about being underhanded!

While publicly professing support for the entire Democratic line, Line A, a hardcore group of Meryl Frank supporters is still working at extending her "tentacles" (Frank's own choice of words) into our community and sabotaging a candidate with a strong record of public service to this town, a soft-spoken decent man who is a uniter, not a divider--Mayoral candidate and current Borough Council member Gary Minkoff, who won the support of his own Democratic Municipal Party Committee and who is running with the support of current Mayor Steve Nolan.

Even worse, Sherber and her fellow conspirators, who want to bring back the days of Frank's divisiveness, are inappropriately using email lists designated for purposes such as child care or religious services to promote their secret write-in campaign.

The messages below were sent to these four groups: HPbackyardfriends@googlegroups.com , hpnjplaygroup@yahoogroups.com , gesher@yahoogroups.com , and hpminyan@yahoogroups.com , all inappropriately. The first two are non-partisan parents' play groups, which are geared toward parents who want to promote activities for their young children. The third is to a progressive Jewish school, and the fourth is to the Highland Park Minyan, an egalitarian religious group that has been holding religious services for about 25 years. In 1999, after the Minyan list was hijacked by Frank supporters to campaign and spread political messages, the Minyan leadership issued a new policy against any using the Minyan email list for any political communication, meaning these messages sent against Gary Minkoff by two individual Minyan members working with Sherber equal a violation of Minyan policy.

Here are the textsof the messages trying to divide our town and politically stab Gary Minkoff in the back. I plan on sending them to the chair of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization:

Message 1
From: Elizabeth Estes

Subject: [hpnjplaygroup] Write-IN Candidate for Mayor FW: Tomorrow's primary
To: "Playgroup" hpnjplaygroup@yahoogroups.com 

Date: Monday, June 6, 2011, 6:25 PM


Playgroup friends,


Just wanted you to know that Elsie Foster Dublin, who has served for years as Borough Council President for Highland Park, has decided to run as a write-in candidate for mayor.

There is more information in the posts below, in case you are interested.


You can also email elsie directly at Elsie Foster-Dublin fosterdublin@optonline.net

Elizabeth Estes

lizestes78@hotmail.com 


Message 2
Date: Mon, 6 Jun 2011 14:07:04 -0700

From: embs_08904@yahoo.com
Subject: Tomorrow's primary
To: HPbackyardfriends@googlegroups.com ; gesher@yahoogroups.com ; hpminyan@yahoogroups.com

Friends,

Below are 2 messages from friends who are supporting Elsie Foster-Dublin as a write-in candidate in tomorrow's primary election for Mayor of HP.

For what it's worth, Muffin and I have know Elsie for many years and have worked with her on many community endeavors---we will enthusiastically be writing her name in. Please pass this message along.....


Best,
Muffin and Ellen



Message 3
Highland Park friends,


Tomorrow, tuesday June 7, is the time to vote in the official primary elections. Polls will be open from 6am to 8pm. Check your sample ballot--my polling place for district 9 has changed temporarily from the congregation Ohav Emeth to RCHP.


I am writing to let you know that my dear friend Elsie Foster Dublin has decided to run a write-in campaign for mayor. As Ann Sherber notes in her email below, Elsie has dedicated 10 years of service on the borough council to making our town a great place to live. More than anyone I know, she has especially worked to create one Highland Park -- unifying the Woodbridge Avenue and Raritan Avenue sections of town. She worked 10 years to get the new traffic light on Woodbridge by Dubois Lane -- it's such a dangerous place. (Editor's note: The last reference should read "Duclos Lane"; the traffic light resulted from the collective efforts of all council members and administrators).


Elsie succeeded in placing HP banners on Woodbridge, the Welcome to HP sign, the solar-powered bus stops, TREES lining Woodbridge, just as they do Raritan Ave. She has worked tirelessly on our human rights commission. She worked hard on Governor Corzine's Immigration Panel and she provides hands-on help and support for our most disenfranchised residents--people with immigration problems.


I will be writing-in Elsie Foster Dublin's name on my ballot. I hope you will consider doing the same. If you feel strongly about Elsie as a candidate, you can help her run as an independent in November by signing her petition.


There is a copy of the petition on my front porch: 311 N. 4th Avenue. Please help get the word out about the write-in campaign. Also, if you live near a polling place, and would like a lawn sign, send me an email.


Instructions for Writing IN are on the sample ballot, go to the PERSONAL CHOICE column and press the button next to WRITE-IN across from the office you wish to write-in, then use the alphabetical keyboard to type in the name.


Thanks for your time and consideration,


Liz Estes

Message 4 (written by Sherber, wife of a sitting Democratic Borough Councilman)

---------- Forwarded message ----------

F


Hi all:


As you probably know, primary elections are being held this Tuesday. If you are registered to vote in Highland Park, you've already received your sample ballot.


I am writing to let you know that Elsie Foster Dublin has decided to run a write-in campaign for mayor. If you are disappointed by the candidate who is running on the Democratic line for mayor, as I am, I would like to suggest that you consider writing Elsie in as an alternative.


Elsie has served on the borough council for more than a decade and has deep connections with every part of our community. She has demonstrated over and over her passion for public service and Highland Park. I feel certain that she would be an excellent mayor.


Although Elsie is already on the ballot as a council person, I am asking you to write her name in for mayor. The instructions on how to write in a candidate are on your sample ballot. You can also ask a poll worker for help if you need it.


Thanks for your consideration.


best,
anne
250 Grant Avenue

Highland Park, New Jersey 08904
(732) 247-1740


What exactly disappoints these people about Gary Minkoff? No one on the Borough Council has worked harder in support of efforts to make our town green. Minkoff has served as liaison to many borough boards and commissions, and his years of service to our town are as long as Foster Dublin's.  This is not in any way to disparage Foster Dublin. She is on the ballot, but as a candidate for Borough Council, not for mayor. I hope she has nothing to do with this last minute write-in effort against Gary Minkoff, who has worked side-by-side with her on the Borough Council since 2002 and deserves equal credit for all the accomplishments Sherber credits to Foster Dublin. To run on one ticket and then secretly plot to run against that ticket in November would not speak well about anyone's character or fitness for public office.

The organizers of this subterfuge already have lawn signs! Clearly, this is not a spur-of-the-moment effort but something planned well in advance by a group that will stop at nothing to hold on to power.

Maybe the disappointment is really in the genuine openness and transparency that have characterized borough government since January 2010, when Mayor Steve Nolan took office--an openness and transparency Minkoff is committed to continuing.

Or maybe it is a reaction by hardcore Frank supporters to having lost the iron grip they had on borough government and on the Democratic Committee before Frank's resignation as mayor.

Or could the objection be due to the fact that Minkoff is an Orthodox Jew, taking advantage of the fact that the primary occurs on the eve of a Jewish holiday?

What Highland Park least needs is a return to the days of closed government, exclusion of anyone who doesn't blindly follow one person, cults of personality, and subversion of our weak mayor/strong council form of government.

Tomorrow, in huge numbers, let us reject the politics of division and exclusion. Vote Line A all the way, from Barbara Buono for State Senator to Gary Minkoff for Highland Park Mayor to all the people running on Line A for Democratic Municipal Committee. Our town's future is at stake. This is not an election to sit out.

Polls are open 6 AM-8 PM.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Leigh Davis: A Champion for Justice

Many people talk about our needing to be the change we want to see in the world, but very few actually live the part. For a brief time, Highland Park was fortunate to have Leigh “Prairie Fyre” Davis, a citizen for whom ecology and fairness were a way of life.

I had the good fortune to know Leigh from her work on the Board of Health Annual Health Fair, a project to provide screenings for blood pressure, blood sugar, vision, hearing, cholesterol, and other crucial services such as nutrition counseling, especially focusing on those residents who, due to lack of health insurance, might never receive these at all.

The Health Fair was only one of many community projects in which Leigh was involved, a list so long one wonders how she remembered her many public service commitments. She was a founding member of the Edible Gardens Project, through which individuals and organizations, including the Highland Park school system, learned about and started growing their own food through gardening via raised beds, sharing seeds and information at regular meetings. The project’s goal is for people to eat locally grown food, thereby lessening reliance on long distance transportation for fruits and vegetables from around the country and the world, reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global climate change.

During the summer, Leigh would bring fresh produce from local gardens, vegetables and herbs, to the Senior/Youth Center every Saturday, where it was distributed, sometimes in conjunction with the Food Pantry. On those Saturdays when the Food Pantry was not open, she would still be there at the Center with fresh produce, which was distributed to people in nearby senior housing, patrons of the Food Pantry, and anyone else who wanted it.

Leigh wrote grants to fund the Edible Gardens Project and spent many hours active in her own home garden across the street from Highland Park High School. She also assisted high school students in watering their garden, even finding money to pay them during the summer. Last year, after the growing season ended, she held a dinner at the library honoring all participating students.

“Being green” has become a popular cliché politically, and politicians often attempt to cloak themselves in a green mantle. In most cases, that mantle is superficial. Leigh could easily see through such disguises, and when the former mayor proudly touted her renovation of the borough recreational facility at the high school with artificial turf, Leigh raised the alarm about the potential dangers posed by this turf. She did extensive research on the risks to students, noting that the turf can become as hot as 140 degrees F during the summer, and that abrasions from turf burn could potentially put students at risk from MRSA.

Last year, she did an extensive presentation to the Board of Health on the dangers of artificial turf and ways to mitigate these dangers until we can replace the turf with real grass. She distributed a detailed CD and handouts to all members and also shared these same concerns with the Board of Education and Borough Council. As a result of her efforts, signs will be posted at the recreation site advising those who use it on proper health precautions, and a water source and port-a-john will be available to all who use the site during the summer months.

She could be funny as well as serious, as she demonstrated in managing the protest mayoral “campaign” of A Ficus for Mayor, in which a group of activists protested the unopposed campaign of one candidate and its inherent undermining of democracy by running a ficus plant for the office in imitation of a Congressional “campaign” done several years earlier for similar reasons by Michael Moore.

Leigh worked on many projects with Sustainable Highland Park, the borough committee appointed to study and implement ways for residents and borough government to become more environmentally friendly, including energy audits of borough buildings and schools, to yield recommendations on reducing their carbon footprints. That is the focus of the group’s current project, “It’s In Our Power,” funded through a grant received by the borough through the group’s efforts.

“It’s In Our Power” will be a central focus of this year’s free Earth Fair/Health Fair, to be held at the Highland Park High School cafeteria and gym on Tuesday, May 10, from 6-9 PM.

This event is, for the second year in a row, being co-sponsored by Sustainable Highland Park along with the Board of Health. In February of this year, Leigh attended the first planning meeting of the committee on the Board of Health side.

Only one week later, I received a Facebook invite for a memorial that I assumed must be for soldiers killed in the Iraq war, as the war’s eighth anniversary approached. I cannot describe the shock and unreality when I clicked on the link and found out the memorial was for Leigh herself, who died suddenly on March 3, only days before her 53rd birthday.

This year’s Earth Fair/Health Fair will be dedicated to Leigh Davis and Vickie White, both of whom served as examples in promoting the health of our residents, community, and planet.

Leigh’s activities were not limited to environmental issues. At a time when our country seems to inexplicably be going backwards in terms of protecting our most vulnerable citizens, she swam against the current, serving on the board of A Better World Café, a café where patrons can either work for food prepared by students in the Culinary Project sponsored by Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen, or pay what they can and make up the rest with volunteer work. A Better World Café is organized through the Reformed Church of Highland Park.

She also took part in another Reformed Church project, “Bring Them Home,” through which Reverend Seth Kaper-Dale converted an old church to housing for veterans in need.

On the first Saturday of 2010, Leigh hosted a 1960s party complete with music and peace symbols, a celebration of not just a decade but of a timeless value system. It was a wonderful night I will personally never forget.

Along with Vickie White, Leigh took part in the New Orleans Freedom Ride after Hurricane Katrina, raising money, organizing, and doing actual physical work rebuilding New Orleans’ devastated lower ninth ward. Through this project, young residents from Highland Park, New Brunswick, and other local towns met the victims of the disaster and actually took part in rebuilding their neighborhoods.

At Leigh’s memorial service, friends and acquaintances spoke of her efforts on behalf of labor unions and civil rights. One remembered attending a memorial anniversary vigil at the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with Leigh, a tragedy whose centennial was commemorated only weeks after Leigh died and done so with warnings that the lessons of that fire are being forgotten in today’s political climate of deregulation and government favoritism of big business at the expense of the people.

But Leigh was about so much more than a list of activities. She lived and breathed a new world, a new age in which many have long since lost faith. She understood the inevitable change that will come and sweep away an exploitive system that has plundered our planet and is quickly heading us to becoming a Third World country. And she saw beyond that coming crisis, to a new world with a bottom line of love for one another and for our planet, a world of local, community-based economics, of living in harmony with the Earth, a world where the ultimate value and worth are no longer based on profit, but on life.

Within the last year, Leigh began organizing a local barter network for exchanging items and services, including  a "neighborhood university" where individuals could teach a subject or skill they know and then attend classes on other subjects by other people, all free, as first steps towards creating a world without money. Such a world has been a personal, deep-seated dream of mine since I started reading L. Frank Baum's Oz books at age 11. Actually knowing someone in our hometown who not only believed in such a society, but was willing to lay the groundwork for it, instilled in me a powerful sense of hope and promise.

When a new, transforming world begins manifesting itself in the 2020s and beyond, we will look back and understand the gift our community had in a woman who was so ahead of her time, someone who not only envisioned the future, but spent every day making it happen.

A year ago, friends of mine who are not political tried to convince me that it is more conducive to mental health for people to accept the world as it is, injustices and all, than to spend so much time and energy fighting those injustices. One wrote, “Personally, I think it's mentally healthier to accept what is, sometimes as bad as it is. The general consensus says you make lots of money and you are famous. Ok, fine. I personally think it's stupid but I accept that, that's what the majority view as what fame and success is about. Do I agree with it. Heck no. Do I think sports figures and actors/actresses should get paid millions and millions of dollars. Definitely not. But the reality of it is that they do get paid ridiculous salaries and I accept that as a fact.”

Leigh made a very different choice. She understood that accepting injustice means enabling it to continue. She understood that fighting injustice and unfairness may be the more difficult choice, but for the health of ourselves, our community, and our planet, it is the only choice. And she also knew that to change the world, we need thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions and hundreds of millions of people to join together in making that choice every day of our lives.

Without her, we will all have to do more, but giving up is not an option. A verse from the anthem “Solidarity Forever,” a celebration of the power of labor unions, can be extended to encompass all who cannot just accept what is, who want and need something better.

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of atoms, magnified a thousand fold;
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the Union makes us strong.”

--written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin

Some like to say the Golden Rule means "he who has the gold makes the rules." Others, like Leigh and Reverend Kaper Dale at Leigh’s memorial service, still believe in the real Golden Rule, of which Leigh posted versions from seven different religions on a wall in her home. "Put the poor first," Reverend Kaper Dale urged.

Which future will it be? The answer is in our power.