Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2161 Fri, 20 Sep 2019 16:22:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8780-7-years-after-sandy-city-resiliency-efforts-since https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8780-7-years-after-sandy-city-resiliency-efforts-since coneyisland wetlands rendering

Rendering of Coney Island wetlands project (photo: mayor's office, Oct. 2013)


This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy killed 43 people and caused nearly $20 billion in damages and lost productivity in New York City. While the city has not seen a storm of that scale in the nearly seven years since, climate change, sea level rise, and the dangers posed by major weather events have continued to accelerate. In the aftermath of Sandy, the city began to implement a number of programs to make the city more resilient, or prepared for another Sandy-caliber disaster.

But elected officials, advocacy groups, and other experts say a Sandy-caliber storm would be nearly if not just as devastating today as it was in 2012. The city and its partners at other levels of government have been far too slow to act, and have not moved with requisite boldness in considering how to truly prepare the five boroughs, with their 520 miles of coastline, for the present and the future, they say. Projects are behind schedule or on too-long timelines, federal money isn’t being spent quickly enough by the city, there’s no real plan guiding it all.

In other words, New York City is nowhere near as resilient as it needs to be, and it’s not clear when the city might meet even a low bar for preparedness.

As the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s landfall in New York City nears, another round of evaluations, oversight hearings, and other discussions is kicking off. To many, what’s been accomplished in terms of resiliency efforts is astonishingly limited given that it’s been seven years and the lessons that were supposed to have been learned in the storm’s aftermath. Some are calling on the city to drastically speed up its implementation of resiliency projects to protect the city’s residents and their property, while a new proposal would mandate the city produce a five-borough resiliency plan.

Beyond the emergency response, the biggest questions from seven years ago remain the same today: what is actually being done to prepare New York City for the next big storm and the climate future, and what else should be done as quickly as possible?

Where Things Stand
In June 2013, the year after the storm hit, the city introduced the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), a $19.5 billion program to reinforce disaster protocols and prevent damage from future climate events. The initiative sought to “ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change,” according to Jainey Bavishi, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January 2014.

The city is especially concerned with climate change, including sea-level rise, hurricanes, extreme precipitation, heat waves, and rising temperatures, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

“Global warming is an emergency, and adapting quickly is an existential necessity,” Bavishi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re investing $20 billion across all five boroughs to help ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change.”

Many of the city’s goals are included in the OneNYC plan, a comprehensive compilation of initiatives that include strategies to improve resiliency and address climate change. By the 2050s, OneNYC estimates that the nearly 1 million residents who will live in the expanded coastal floodplain will be particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, with sea levels expected to rise by up to 30 inches, not including the effects of major weather events. High tides will cause flooding twice a day in some areas, and permanent inundation in others, according to those projections.

Despite agreement on the urgency of the threat, the city has not executed as much as talked about its plans for resiliency, said Eric Goldstein, New York Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The SIRR, first released post-Sandy by the Bloomberg administration in its final year, and subsequently backed by the de Blasio administration, includes more than 250 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. Its focus is five especially vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the east and south shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

A good deal of work is in motion, with dozens of projects completed and others moving ahead, but at an overall pace that is surprisingly slow to many. The city has spent less than 54 percent of the $15 billion that has been funded from the city’s $20 billion SIRR, according to a May report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today, all roads lead to New York being completely shut down,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the new Council Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, at City & State NY’s “Protecting New York Summit” on July 31. “My fear is that if Sandy were to happen tomorrow we’d see the same effect we saw almost seven years ago. That’s what a lot of my constituents feel as well.”

Brannan has been surveying coastal areas of the city, including those in his southern Brooklyn district, and plans to hold multiple oversight hearings this fall, he told the Max & Murphy podcast earlier in July. Brannan also discussed the fact that he and City Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, recently introduced a bill to mandate the mayoral administration create a five-borough resiliency plan, with certain specific guidelines.

“You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape,” Brannan and Constantinids wrote in a recent joint op-ed discussing their bill and plans to assess post-Sandy efforts. “The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years.”

The city’s current efforts to become more resilient -- often called too piecemeal by Brannan, Constantinides, and others -- can be broken down into improved infrastructure, coastal defenses, and community preparedness.

On the coasts, the city has reconstructed boardwalks, built dunes across beaches on Staten Island and the Rockaways, and coordinated to place 4.2 million cubic yards of new sand on city beaches, according to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. The city has intermittently installed flood protection measures at 40 sites, including those most impacted by Sandy, according to the spokesperson. However, these efforts are largely temporary -- they are designed to mitigate flooding until permanent measures are designed and implemented.

In lower Manhattan, the city has advanced the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, an approximately $500 million investment in flood-risk-reduction projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood, The Battery, and Battery Park City. The plan is expected to cover 70 percent of the lower Manhattan shoreline, according to the city’s OneNYC Plan.

For the remaining 30 percent of lower Manhattan’s shoreline, which includes the seaport and the financial district, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency told Gotham Gazette that a two-year master planning process is expected to be completed in 2021.

In terms of creating more resilient infrastructure, the city has focused efforts on upgrading building and zoning codes and investing $1 billion to improve the steam, electric, and natural gas distribution infrastructure of Con Edison facilities. In the aftermath of Sandy, Con Ed agreed to compile a report assessing the effect of the city’s changing climate on its electrical grid. The first chapter of the report (on heat and humidity) was due in 2014. Five years later, the chapter has not yet been delivered, with a new deadline set for the end of this year. And at a hearing last week discussing Con Ed’s response to summer electrical blackouts, Speaker of the City Council called Con Ed’s public response “inadequate and laughable.”

The city has also been working with federal partners, specifically emergency management (FEMA), to create a future flood risk map that can be to be incorporated into building and zoning codes. 

The city has also discussed plans to extend the shoreline of the Financial District and South Street Seaport somewhere between 50 and 500 feet into the East River. Due to the current proximity of businesses to the shore, implementing land-based adaptation measures would be difficult, Bavishi said at the Protecting New York Summit, on a panel alongside Brannan.

“Any land-based protection feature would have to go deep into the neighborhood,” Bavishi said. Instead, the city is planning to build into the water. 

The city will not be able to complete all of its projects without funding and relies on the federal system to receive support for many of its projects, Bavishi said at the summit.

“Funding is a challenge. We have a federal system that funds these kinds of projects in a very reactive way when we inherently want to take proactive action to address these challenges we know are coming,” Bavishi said.

“Our actions will protect Lower Manhattan into the next century. We need the federal government to stand behind cities like New York to meet this crisis head on,” de Blasio said in a March press release.

However, as the city moves ahead with efforts to fortify parts of Manhattan, many have been critical of its work to prevent flooding in the other boroughs, arguing that their risk remains as high as when Sandy hit in 2012.

“My goal with the new [resiliency and waterfronts] committee is to work with the city to make sure folks in the outer boroughs see what the city is working on in their area,” Brannan said at the City & State event. “That the city is focused on them as well, not just lower Manhattan.”

“New Yorkers deserve a mapped-out resiliency plan that protects every community — instead of a single neighborhood,” Constantinides said in a June press release announcing the five-borough resiliency plan legislation he and Brannan were introducing and referencing what some see as the over-focus on lower Manhattan.

However, city administration officials maintain that they are working equally hard to bring resiliency to the other boroughs in addition to Manhattan. Officials point to efforts to bring dunes to the Rockaways and the importation of sand to the city’s beaches. But Brannan and others pan the sand measures as something that might have made sense in 2013 or 2014, but not seven years after Sandy, when stronger and more permanent resiliency measures should either be in place or close to it.

For many of its resiliency projects, the city is working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To date, the partnership has resulted in the construction of around five miles of new dunes across the Rockaway Peninsula.

What More Can Be Done
The city is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers on $1 billion worth of resiliency projects, including the beginning of the construction of the Staten Island Levee in 2020, a measure expected to mitigate flood risks along 5.3 miles of Staten Island’s east shore.

In Southeast Queens, the city and the Corps are working on a plan to create a tapered groin field and “reinforced dune on Rockaway Beach combined with a system of berms, floodwalls, and nature-based features to increase resiliency for bayside communities,” according to the OneNYC Plan. The city also says it will soon begin building the Red Hook Integrated Flood Protection System, which is expected to reduce flooding in the area by installing “tiger dams” along the shoreline -- a system of plastic balloons that inflate with water and fill up to create a flood barrier as water moves inland.

In their 2013 “Sandy Success Stories” report, the Environmental Defense Fund found that wetland restoration was key in preventing serious flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. It appeared to work well in Marine Park and Dreier Offerman Park in Brooklyn, for example. However, few if any of the city’s plans include wetland restoration, and the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency did not include it alongside a litany of other projects they would be undertaking.

Among the wetland restoration recommendations in the Sandy Success Stories study are systems to choose plans for their tolerance to flooding and salt inundation, in conjunction with a slope of 1:3. 

“A moderately steep slope seems to provide the most benefits in terms of supporting plant life and habitat, preventing erosion, attenuating wave action, and ensuring survival in the face of sea level rise. At the same time, this slope is shallow enough to minimize the reflection of wave energy that erodes the wetland area,” the recommendation reads.

Council Members Brannan and Constantinides are trying to look at both immediate needs and long-term planning.

“In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure,” the two Council members wrote in their recent op-ed. “Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.”

The two plan to hold a joint October City Council oversight hearing on issues faced by coastal areas of the city, post-Sandy recovery, resiliency measures, and the resiliency plan bill they are cosponsoring.

“That is a big part of this committee I’m chairing, the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, where we’re going to take a really close look into what has been done and what has not been done to help make the city of New York more resilient,” Brannan said on Max & Murphy. “When we’re dealing with this thing that is literally a race against the clock, we can’t tie our own hands and sort of hold ourselves hostage to this bureaucracy of how things were done in the past.”

In his May report, Comptroller Stringer called for the city to “develop a citywide comprehensive coastal resiliency plan” while also accelerating the pace of investments into resiliency projects, and expanding a homeowner buyout program in targeted vulnerable neighborhoods, among other measures to protect the city, especially its coastal communities, from the effects of major weather events and climate change.

The citywide plan, Stringer says, “should blend data about sea level rise and other vulnerabilities from the latest science, information about the state of good repair of waterfront assets, and a deep level of community engagement and dialogue” and should be developed by the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and other agencies, including the proposed Mayor’s Office of the Waterfront. In June of last year, Council Member Deborah Rose of Staten Island introduced a bill to create such an office, with Rose calling the waterfront “in many ways our sixth borough.”

That proposal could come up again as the Council examines post-Sandy efforts next month.

“[Constantinides] and I are looking at doing an oversight hearing in October,” Brannan said, “to really dig into the seventh anniversary of superstorm Sandy and where we’re at, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Getting New York City Ready for the Next Big Storm - & the Next Heat Wave, Flash Floods & Other Climate Emergencies https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8701-getting-new-york-city-ready-for-the-next-big-storm-the-next-heat-wave-flash-floods-other-climate-emergencies https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8701-getting-new-york-city-ready-for-the-next-big-storm-the-next-heat-wave-flash-floods-other-climate-emergencies cm carlos m cm dan gardonick marine

 (photo: William Alatriste New York City Council)


Billy Joel’s dystopian vision for New York City, laid out in the very upbeat but equally terrifying “Miami 2017,” is coming true. The lights have indeed gone out on Broadway. Perhaps the only difference is that Queens won’t stay. 

This is New York City in 2019: a near 100-degree heat wave shut down power for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, who then trudged through flooded streets once the high temperatures gave way to torrential rain. 

One thing became clear as climate change brought its greatest hits to the Big Apple: we are nowhere near ready for the next big storm. 

Considering we’re quickly approaching the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s decimation to Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, that’s downright shameful. The City of New York needs to move into high gear for both short- and long-term solutions that protect every single neighborhood from the effects of climate change, because this is a public safety crisis. 

Don’t believe it? Clearly you haven’t seen the footage of a straphanger at the Court Square station who was nearly swept onto the tracks by downpours. Twitter is filled with cellphone video of Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue flooded by water from the Gowanus Canal, which is a Superfund site. Or maybe you haven’t heard of instant New York legend Daphne Youree, who got out of her car near Exit 25 on the Long Island Expressway and used an orange traffic cone to clear a clogged drain to alleviate flash flooding. 

These sound like a new version of the stories our parents told of the bad old days in the 1970s, when the Fiscal Crisis turned New York City into a living performance of Mad Max. But, as skyscrapers for the ultra-rich keep cropping up along 57th Street, we can’t shrug at the fact that half of New York City’s 10 wettest years have come since 2003. 

If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today — though we hope it doesn’t — New York would be brought to a grinding halt based on what we’ve seen in the last week. Temperatures caused some 53,000 customers to lose power last weekend, as Con Ed pulled the plug on parts of Brooklyn and Queens, apparently so the grid wouldn’t be further strained. Even after the heat broke, on Tuesday, almost 3,000 customers were still without power and they were overwhelmingly in the outer boroughs.

Add a hurricane’s storm surge to the mix and our electrical grid would crumble. 

Con Edison has failed its duties as a public utility throughout the heatwave, which begs the question: how would they perform if a big storm hit tomorrow? The men and women who worked in the heat should be commended for getting power back up, but they shouldn’t also be responsible for communicating that to those suddenly cleaning out their refrigerators. That’s their bosses’ job — one they didn’t do well enough. All the while, they’re asking New Yorkers for a collective $695 million rate hike. 

Meanwhile, New York City’s streets are starting to look like Venice. You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape. The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years. 

In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure. Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.

But we also have to make sure our kids don’t have to deal with the mess we were too scared to clean up. Earlier this year we introduced a bill requiring New York City to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

Lower Manhattan is great, but asking Congress for $10 billion to protect a single business district when JFK Airport could be underwater by 2100 seems fiscally irresponsible. Failing to protect every neighborhood from Riverdale to Rockaway helps stave off tens of thousands of climate refugees the National Climate Assessment warned of when the seas come to claim our coasts.

We look forward to holding a hearing on this bill in October ahead of Sandy’s anniversary, so we can get to work on doing the long-term resiliency work. In the meantime, our city agencies need to mobilize, assess what’s causing rampant flooding throughout the city, and fix the problems immediately. Lastly, we need to make sure our threats against Con Edison have teeth and give the utility an ultimatum: give us the resilient, renewable grid we deserve or we’ll come for your power lines. 

The status quo is quickly sinking under the floodwaters, and New Yorkers are taking notice. Just like we’ve put our foot down to demand reliable service from the MTA, we need to take a stand on infrastructure. Because being late for work is one thing — being unprepared for a storm is fatal. 

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Costa Constantinides represents western Queens in the City Council and chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection; Justin Brannan represents southern Brooklyn in the City Council and chairs the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts. On Twitter @Costa4NY & @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Getting New York City Ready for the Next Big Storm - & the Next Heat Wave, Flash Floods & Other Climate Emergencies Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Examining the City's Resiliency Planning & Emergency Preparedness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8697-max-murphy-podcast-resiliency-emergency-preparedness-brannan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8697-max-murphy-podcast-resiliency-emergency-preparedness-brannan Justin Brannan

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


July 24, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Evaluating the City's Emergency Preparedness

cm justin brannan 150 wbaiCity Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of southern Brooklyn and is the chair of the newly-created Council Committee on Resiliency & Waterfronts. He joined the show to discuss recent emergencies the city has faced, the upcoming seventh anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, and what he's planning to do with his new committee to help make sure New York City is more resilient and better prepared for the next major storms and other weather events.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Examining the City's Resiliency Planning & Emergency Preparedness Wed, 24 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Dominating Harvard, and Redemption https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8647-dominating-harvard-and-redemption-bard-prison-initiative-brannan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8647-dominating-harvard-and-redemption-bard-prison-initiative-brannan bard prison initiative

(photo: @BPIBard)


One of the oldest and highest-regarded debating teams in the world just got beat by a team of incarcerated New Yorkers. But we shouldn’t be surprised; they’ve done it before. In addition to this most recent match with Cambridge, the Bard Prison Initiative debate team’s 9-2 record includes wins against Harvard, Morehouse, and the University of Pennsylvania.

For 20 years, BPI has been championing the talents and potential of underestimated students, and debate, it turns out, is just one of the things our fellow New Yorkers are really good at.

For too long, we have held low expectations for whole groups of our neighbors: confining people to extended periods of incarceration; inadequately supporting their personal, educational, and professional growth; and then expecting them to return home and somehow overcome all of the barriers put in their way.

As we reevaluate how criminal justice should work in New York City, BPI and its alumni are a powerful example of what’s possible when we invest in incarcerated women and men and support them as they return home as our neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

For 20 years, BPI has operated an ambitious college, now in six New York state prisons. Close individual attention and a vibrant academic community – the same experience students get at leading colleges – propel BPI students into ambitious academic work and, when they come home to New York City, into meaningful professional careers.

A new documentary film, College Behind Bars, produced by Ken Burns, will provide an unprecedented perspective of their stories when it airs nationally on PBS later this year. 

College in prison and support for alumni returning home helps formerly incarcerated people rebuild lives, and it also saves taxpayers money. The RAND Corporation estimates that every dollar spent on education for incarcerated students saves four to five dollars because those students return to prison at much lower rates.

BPI alumni are a model of that: more than 95% of them stay out of prison, in comparison to just 58% of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers more broadly. BPI alumni do much more than stay out of prison: they become our treasured neighbors and colleagues. You’ve probably worked with, lived next to, or passed one of these alums on the street today. 

BPI alumni are having a profound impact across the New York City landscape, changing the face of philanthropy, public health, community service, business, and technology. They work at a diverse array of organizations including the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Harlem United, Bronx Defenders, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, the Center for Court Innovation, the New York City Department of Health, Hugo Neu Corporation, L&M Development – the list goes on. 

It’s not just incarcerated and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who benefit from this type of investment in education and professional development. At the Brooklyn Public Library, an extraordinary new college was launched last year. BPL partnered with the Bard Prison Initiative to launch the Bard Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library, bringing a tuition-free liberal arts college to a group of New Yorkers ages 19-66 ready for the challenge, but without the resume or resources of the typical student at an elite college.

When students finish their AA degrees, they’ll get support transferring into bachelor’s degree programs at leading colleges and universities, for which they will be well prepared.

When we invest deeply in the education of underestimated New Yorkers – in prisons and in communities – we create a generation of powerful leaders who represent the actual diversity of New York. That impact makes our city better. 

A proven pathway to higher education exists, and New York City is better for it. 

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City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Dominating Harvard, and Redemption Sun, 30 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Advancing Efforts to Hire People with Disabilities Across New York's Economy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8439-expanding-efforts-to-hire-people-with-disabilities https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8439-expanding-efforts-to-hire-people-with-disabilities dxej efucaa3uxe

Victor Calise, front-left, is one of the authors (photo: @NYCCalise)


In the fairest big city in America, everyone deserves the opportunity to be employed. Unfortunately, the reality is that people with disabilities in the United States are twice as likely to be out of the workforce as their nondisabled peers.

Data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor shows that the proportion of Americans with disabilities ages 16 to 64 that was employed last year was only 30.4% compared to 74% for non-disabled individuals in the same age group. In New York City alone, 79% of working-age people with disabilities are currently jobless according to the most recent U.S. Census statistics. This staggering disparity is one of the most pressing challenges to full accessibility and independence of the disability community.

New York City is doing our part to increase the employment rate of people with disabilities. The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities’ (MOPD) NYC: ATWORK program is a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership, with funding from Institute for Career Development (ICD), the Poses Family Foundation, the Kessler Foundation, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, ACCES-VR, and The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City that directly connects people with disabilities to prospective employers.

For example, Chelsea Dimond is a person with a disability who reached out to NYC: ATWORK after she was previously unsuccessful in finding employment through traditional job-seeking websites. After getting guidance regarding the search and interview process, she was ultimately hired as a Peer Respite Worker by Transitional Services Inc. New York.

On NYC: ATWORK’s assistance, Chelsea says: “This program took note of exactly what kind of job I was interested in and made a perfect match for me. This job feels like it was meant to be, and now I’m able to make a difference in the lives of those who have mental illnesses like myself.” Chelsea is only one of many examples of successful placement by NYC: ATWORK.  The overall goal of this three-year initiative focuses on connecting 2,100 individuals with disabilities to internships, jobs, and careers in their field of choice.

The City’s proactive approach to increasing employment for people with disabilities is rooted in the understanding that a good job and financial security are crucial to personal and professional independence. Before connecting with NYC: ATWORK, Simon Bondar was living with his parents. After working with MOPD on his resume and interview prep, he was hired by UNIQLO as a Sales Associate. With this new line of income, Simon was able to move into a new apartment with his wife.

New York’s business community plays a crucial role in hiring more people with disabilities, in turn creating a more inclusive workplace that leverages the diversity of its employees. Through NYC: ATWORK’s Business Development Council, the City has fostered relationships with companies across a variety of sectors including finance, hospitality, transportation, retail, and technology.

Additionally, the New York City Council has hired its first-ever liaison to New Yorkers with disabilities. Together, the de Blasio Administration and Council are dedicated to including disability in conversations about diversity in hiring practices and society at large.

Having an employee with a disability can be a catalyst for a cultural shift to a more inclusive workplace. Nondisabled business owners are more likely to think about accessibility and ultimately improve the company for all of its employees and customers alike. These employment opportunities also extend to city government where the 55-a program has paved the way for qualified people with disabilities to get hired without needing to take a Civil Service exam. By obtaining employment, a person with a disability will therefore not only gain the tools they need to live independently but will also make a positive impact on their employer and the community at large as well.

While New York City has made great strides to improve the lives of people with disabilities and many businesses have joined us in hiring members of the disability community, we know this is just the beginning. It is imperative that societal attitudes shift to recognize that disability is an important aspect of a diverse work environment and, indeed, that people with disabilities are productive employees who will positively contribute to a business and the community. All of us must make a conscious effort to recruit, hire, and retain qualified people with disabilities. Only then can we have a truly inclusive society and make New York the most accessible city in the world.

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Victor Calise is the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities. City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @NYCCalise & @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Advancing Efforts to Hire People with Disabilities Across New York's Economy Wed, 24 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Time for the City to Pay Up https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8299-time-for-the-city-to-pay-up https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8299-time-for-the-city-to-pay-up Justin Brannan

Justin Brannan, the author (photo: @JustinBrannan)


Talk is cheap. The city needs to pay up.

We have all been impacted by the important work of hundreds of human services providers across the city, many of which are deeply rooted in our communities. These vital non-profit organizations deliver services to New York City’s most vulnerable – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, our children, our grandparents. The clear and powerful impact of this sector makes it easy for politicians to praise the services these non-profits provide — but such talk is cheap if you don’t back it up with action.

The uncomfortable truth is that these crucial organizations are very much at risk and in direct harm at the hands of the same government agencies and elected officials who praise them. How so?

Human services contracts are registered late by city agencies 94% of the time, forcing organizations to make impossible decisions to bridge massive gaps in their funding. Ninety-four percent!

In fact, most city contracts with non-profit human services providers are registered months or even years after these non-profits begin providing the services they cover. While this money is being held up by a broken and opaque contracting system, critical support for children, the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, those living with HIV and AIDS, immigrants, and individuals coping with substance abuse and mental health challenges are put in direct risk.

This is shocking and unacceptable.

A domestic violence shelter cannot close for months while the city gets its act together. Senior centers can’t stop serving daily meals because of a funding gap due to a late payment from the city. Instead, non-profits are forced to front money, taking on costly loans and lines of credit with high rates of interest that are never reimbursed by the city agencies that held up their money up in the first place.

I cannot believe this has somehow become the status quo. It must change.

There are real human and financial consequences if a non-profit doesn’t start its services on time. Not to mention the corresponding challenges for those who work providing these crucial services.

It is time for those responsible for this crisis to step up. Non-profits have borne the brunt of the city’s delays, putting the financial health of their organizations in jeopardy to ensure communities receive critical services. While no contract should ever force a provider to start delivering services before being paid, at the very least non-profits should not bear the cost! Those interest payments must be the responsibility of those at fault and should be paid, in full, by the city, a requirement that would provide a direct incentive to process contracts on time.

It is also important that there is clear public access to data about which city agencies have the longest delays and why contracts are being held up. This information is vital not only to promote accountability but also to seek the needed remedies to this failure.

Contracts and the procurement process may not be the sexiest topic in this city of headlines, but it has an exponentially reverberating effect on the city and how it functions. If we allow this to continue, these compounding late payments to the human services sector will only get worse and soon every neighborhood will suffer the consequences.

As chair of the City Council’s Committee on Contracts, I have heard dozens upon dozens of devastating stories about how organizations are impacted by these unnecessary barriers built around them by the city. Talk is cheap. Action is long overdue – we must act now to address this crisis.

***
City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of southern Brooklyn. On Twitter @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Time for the City to Pay Up Thu, 21 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
After Parent’s ‘Gut-Wrenching’ Testimony, Next Step in City Council School Bus Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8254-after-parent-s-gut-wrenching-testimony-next-step-in-city-council-school-bus-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8254-after-parent-s-gut-wrenching-testimony-next-step-in-city-council-school-bus-reform council mem just brannan irish

Council Member Justin Brannan (photo: John McCarten\City Council)


Sally Kabel was diagnosed with infant leukemia at ten months old, the treatment for which led to seizures, three broken bones, and a weak immune system. She developed epilepsy, and after her third bout of pneumonia she required continuous oxygen support. None of this stopped her from going to school more than complications with her school bus, according to her mother, Nicole Kabel.

After missing the first day at Manhattan Star Academy on the Upper West SIde because she was sick, 5-year-old Sally was ready for her own first day. But, her assigned nurse did not show up to accompany her to school. Three days later, Nicole was informed Sally’s nurse had been reassigned, so Sally couldn’t go to school until she had a new nurse. It took two weeks. After persistent, unfruitful calls to the Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT), a division inside the city’s Department of Education (DOE) responsible for providing transportation by yellow bus and public transit for all students in New York City, Nicole found out Sally’s nurse could not accompany her on the bus, as the bus was only designated for one passenger.

Nicole, who has two other children, took Sally to school herself before a bus with a nurse finally showed up. But then there was no car seat for Sally. Nicole tried calling the DOE, but there was no fix. Sally had an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a personalized plan for the education of children with special needs, which meant she had her own school bus and a supposed shortened commute time. Finally, the bus matron convinced the bus company to put a car seat on the bus, uncleared by the DOE.

“School was her happy place. Psychologically she needed it to stay positive and keep going,” Nicole said during testimony at a City Council hearing of the education committee in October 2018, discussing the many challenges their family faced in trying to get Sally to school at the hearing, which was dedicated to oversight of the Office of Pupil Transportation and a suite of bills to reform it.

Throughout the entire 2017-2018 school year Nicole made consistent calls to the DOE and OPT trying to address the long commute time and the lack of car seat. Sally began at a private school that summer, but the summer bussing company would not give her a car seat as it still violated code. Nicole tried to address the issue, but in the absence of a car seat, the nurse was forced to hold up Sally’s head and body to avoid breathing issues while Sally napped.

In late August 2018, Nicole attempted multiple times to contact the DOE to again address the incorrect coding and the small nurse staff. Sally didn’t start school on time that year either.

“She thrived [at school], whatever pain was happening to her, she forgot about it at school,” Nicole said in an email. “It was her happy place. It breaks my heart she was not able to go to school the first week of September. Her teacher whom she had previously and was going to have again texted me every day hoping busing/nursing issues would be sorted. The school missed her, and she missed them.”

On September 15, 2018, four days after her sixth birthday, instead of going to school Sally was brought into the NYU Langone emergency room where she went into septic shock. She died four days later, on September 19.

“I spent countless hours and days the last month of our daughter’s life battling to get her back to school where she could be happy. Those are hours wasted that should have been spent with her that we can no longer have back,” said Nicole.

Nicole was among the parents and education advocates who testified at the City Council hearing last year, pushing Council members to address problems with the city’s school transportation system, including more transparency from the Department of Education and more efficient bus times.

On January 9 of this year, the Council passed a series of bills designed to update the school bussing system of New York City. The package was spearheaded by Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos and Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger, the chair of the Committee on Education. Legislation dealing with the city’s school bussing system has been kicked around the Council for over 15 years, primarily driven by former Brooklyn Council Member Michael Nelson, who called for tracking capabilities as early as 2005 and two-way radios in buses as early as 2000, but has never made it out of committee.

Most notably in this block of bills known as the School Transportation Oversight Package (STOP) is a bill, Intro. 1099, that mandates that each school bus used to transport students to and from school must be equipped with a GPS tracking device and a two-way radio allowing communication with the operator of the school bus. Furthermore, parents must have access to the real-time location of their child’s school bus.

(According to the City Council Finance Division, about 6,000 out of the approximate 10,000 school buses used for pupil transportation already have GPS technology compliant with the legislation.)

The suite of bills, which Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to either sign or allow to age into law, also mandates that the DOE must report to the Council twice a year specific information regarding bus transportation duration times, detailed information on complaints about school bus service and ensuing investigations, as well as the number of compliant buses, vendors, and students using the system.

The DOE will have to share with parents their student’s bus route, scheduled arrival and departure times, as well as a school bus ridership guide with detailed descriptions of the system and the complaint protocol process. DOE will also be required to share daily if their child’s bus is late arriving or departing their school.

The ridership guide is required to be sent to authorized parents and guardians of general education and special education students.

The Department of Education and the Office of Pupil Transportation have long been criticized for complications in the complaints process and for leadership turmoil. Public criticism reached a height this past November when multiple school buses, including students with special needs, were stuck in the snow and could not deliver some students until past midnight. While getting stuck was apparently not the bus company or drivers’ faults, the lack of ability to communicate with parents or for parents to track their children’s whereabouts was frightening and troubling to many, including parents and City Council members.

But while the package of bills passed by the Council do a lot, they do not address all of the issues faced by Nicole and Sally Kabel, and other families with similar challenges. A new bill is in the works to more directly address those situations.

Nicole said that the doctors at NYU Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital “gave their hearts, they gave their hours, they supported us in every way, shape, and form. And although they could not save her life, I have no anger to them whatsoever.”

“I do, in fact, have anger towards the Department of Education and the Office of Pupil Transportation,” she said.

Council Member Justin Brannan, whose Southern Brooklyn district the Kabels live in, said Nicole’s “testimony at that hearing was just gut-wrenching. I knew the story because I had lived it with her but really hearing her lay it all out in front of everybody was really eye-opening and really moving. I wanted to become an elected official for moments like this.”

“Most people would think [testifying at the Council] would be an insane thing to do after losing a child but there’s so many things that are out of your control that doing something on things you can control makes me feel better,” Nicole said in a phone interview.

The STOP bills most directly address the aspects of Kabel’s testimony dealing with communicating with the Office of Pupil Transportation and lodging complaints against the Department of Education and the OPT. However, the bills don’t really deal with issues related to how parents directly manage Individualized Education Programs and transportation.

Brannan told Gotham Gazette that as a direct result of the Kabel family’s ordeal, he is currently writing legislation to address the school bussing system for students with special needs.

“I’m a big believer in the constituent marching in the office and saying there should be a law and you doing everything you can do to make a change,” Brannan said in a phone interview.

“The idea that came out of her testimony was to find a way so that no other child with additional needs or an IEP has to deal with this type of insanity ever again,” he said.

The Council “listened to a lot of families and have given it a lot of thought on how to make the process better,” Kabel said in the interview.

Brannan’s planned bill, which is being drafted by the Council’s staff, would require the Department of Education to name specific caseworkers for parents and guardians of children with both an IEP and some type of special needs transportation assistance.

“One of the problems Nicole speaks about is she got someone on the phone with a heart and who cared but then was rerouted and had to tell her story again while she should have been playing in the park with her daughter who was dying of cancer,” Brannan said.

Furthermore, Council Member Kallos told Kabel at the October hearing that the OPT “may need a position just focused on special education” and a way to enhance “interoperability in the DOE for the different departments and to share information,” both of which could potentially be part of further legislation.

“I was so angry about the time I wasted in bureaucracy and the amount I had to do to give her a meaningful life in a world in which a child can go to school and have friends and learn,” Kabel said in the interview.

She added she would still like to see the DOE implement a program to assign someone who knows the IEP, is assigned year around, and “makes sure everything is done correctly without putting it back on the parent.”

“This is where bureaucratic dysfunction was impacting real lives,” Brannan said. “When your daughter is sick, and her life hangs in the balance then bureaucracy isn’t just frustrating, it’s life affecting.”

Brannan’s bill will be introduced in the City Council once Council lawyers finish drafting it. He said he expects it to pass the Council quickly, becoming the next step in efforts to improve both the city’s school transportation system and its services to students with special needs, and where the two meet.

“It should not be so hard to send your child to school,” Kabel said.

***
by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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After Parent’s ‘Gut-Wrenching’ Testimony, Next Step in City Council School Bus Reform Mon, 04 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Brooklyn Girl Scouts Find City Isn’t Fully Implementing Menstrual Equity Law https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8163-brooklyn-girl-scouts-find-city-isn-t-implementing-menstrual-equity-law-seek-redress https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8163-brooklyn-girl-scouts-find-city-isn-t-implementing-menstrual-equity-law-seek-redress de Blasio menstrual equity

Mayor de Blasio signs menstrual equity laws (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


When a few Brooklyn Girl Scouts realized their middle school had no sanitary bins to dispose of menstrual products in the bathroom stalls, they sprung to action.

Putting their demands into a petition, they garnered 32 signatures from students during morning recess and presented the list to their principal. Before, girls had to throw away their wadded up menstrual products in a trash can outside of the restroom. After presenting the petition, however, their principal installed new sanitary bins, according to the girls.

“Girls didn’t feel comfortable coming to school on their period because there was no safe or secretive way to dispose of it,” said Arushi Kher, 14, of Bay Ridge.

“We realized this isn’t something that’s very hard to put into action,” added Skyler Kim-Schellinger, 14, of Park Slope. “It’s just that people aren’t realizing that it’s a problem.”

Over the next two years, these Girl Scouts of Troop 2653 focused on menstrual equity – or the accessibility of menstrual products and a fair surrounding culture – for their Silver Award, a Girl Scouts award promoting community service. They launched an investigation including public middle schools in school districts 15 and 20, which collectively cover neighborhoods in Brooklyn’s upper west and southwest corners, including Boerum Hill, Park Slope, and Bay Ridge. They found that only 18 percent of these schools met the standards of providing both sanitary bins in each stall and free menstrual products in the bathroom, the latter of which was mandated by a 2016 package of city laws aimed at menstrual equity.

To collect data on the public schools’ restrooms, Kher and Kim-Schellinger, along with a few other Girl Scouts who later dropped out of the project, called, emailed, and – when those two methods produced little – physically went to the schools. After contacting Department of Education Director of School Facilities of North Brooklyn Joseph Lazarus, they were also accompanied by Deputy Director Alea Stormer in their search.

Although some schools did not answer their requests, they found that most schools they were able to investigate failed to meet one or both of their standards. Five schools also had menstrual product dispensers that charged money, despite the city law stipulating that these products would be free. Kher and Kim-Schellinger presented their efforts to ensure that local schools were both following the law and meeting other important needs of young women during a December interview at the district office of City Council Member Justin Brannan, who helped connect the Girl Scouts with journalists when he learned of their findings and wanted to bring attention to the problems they identified.

After a September meeting with DOE officials from the Brooklyn North Field Support Center, officials said they would follow up with the schools in the district, according to the girls. One way the DOE officials said they could provide more oversight, the girls said, is by adding a section about feminine hygiene protocol to the schools’ janitors’ checklist.

“Every building with a middle or high school has dispensers, receptacles and sanitary product, as well as allocation in their custodial budget for supplying and re-stocking," said Department of Education spokesperson Miranda Barbot, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "We have followed up with all of the schools in these districts to ensure they have the resources they need, and thank the Girl Scouts for their advocacy and partnership in the work.”

It’s unclear if all the schools have been brought up to compliance with the law or with the girls’ dual standards, which Gotham Gazette asked the DOE about. It's also unclear whether there are major gaps in implementation at other schools around the city.

The girls’ project comes at a time when menstrual equity is having an important extended moment in the national, even international, spotlight. Multiple states have moved to eliminate a controversial “tampon tax,” the sales tax often attached to feminine hygiene products despite the fact that other ‘basic-necessity’ products are exempted. The state of New York ended its tampon tax in 2016.

Just before the state ended its tampon tax, New York City enacted its package of menstrual equity legislation, which officially passed after Kher and Kim-Schellinger’s initial middle school petition. The legislation, spearheaded by then-City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, required certain public facilities, including public schools, homeless shelters, and jails, to provide free feminine hygiene products to students and residents. Earlier this year, New York State also passed a law mandating public schools to provide free menstrual products in restrooms.

“When New York City passed the historic law to ensure all public school students had access to free tampons and pads two years ago, we celebrated. But what's the point of fighting to pass laws if they ultimately aren't being implemented or enforced?” said Brannan, a first-term Democrat who represents souther Brooklyn’s 43rd Council District, in an emailed statement. “I applaud the Girl Scouts for doing this important investigative work which will force the DOE to finally comply with the law. We adults can all learn a lesson from their example.”

Kher and Kim-Schellinger officially received their Silver Award from the Girl Scouts in October, after the completion of their two-year menstrual equity project, although the effects of their work are just beginning to be felt.

“I know in my eighth grade year, some girls were talking about getting their periods and how it sucks to have cramps and whatever,” Kher said. “But, then I just remember someone saying, ‘But, we have those bins which is really nice. No guy ever has to see us throw out our pads.’ And I was like, ‘That was me.’”

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by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated with comment from the DOE, provided shortly after the story first published.

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Brooklyn Girl Scouts Find City Isn’t Fully Implementing Menstrual Equity Law Fri, 28 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8106-without-chair-council-committee-hears-bills-aimed-to-help-discharged-military-veterans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8106-without-chair-council-committee-hears-bills-aimed-to-help-discharged-military-veterans Council Member Chaim Deutsch

Council Member Deutsch (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


A bill that would require the New York City Department of Veterans Services to help veterans discharged from the military solely for their LGBTQ status to upgrade or change the narrative of their discharge status and “extend all city benefits and services” to them was introduced to the City Council’s Committee on Veterans at a hearing on Monday.

Introduced alongside it was a bill that would require DVS to create a unit to assist veterans with discharge characterization upgrades and offer legal advice for those pursuing meritorious appeals. Almost all of the activists, city officials, and other members of the veterans community who attended the meeting supported the sentiment of the bills — but almost none of them supported them as written.

Other than retiring, most people leave military service through the discharge process. When a veteran is first discharged, they can be given one of five statuses: honorable, general, other than honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable. Discharge status is given at the discretion of the commanding officer. A less than honorable discharge, often referred to as a ‘bad paper discharge,’ can be given for any number of reasons — including being injured or ill — and results in a veteran being disqualified for certain federal Veterans Affairs benefits.

President of the American Veterans for Equal Rights’ New York Chapter Denny Meyer stated in his testimony that between World War II and the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” 100,000 LGBTQ American soldiers were less than honorably discharged for being gay. During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, another 14,000 were involuntarily discharged for the same reason, and although most of these veterans received honorable discharge paperwork, the narrative of the paperwork listed their homosexuality as the reason for being discharged.

The bill related to LGBTQ discharge and reparations, Intro. 479, was proposed by Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Democrat from Queens and chair of the Council’s LGBT Caucus. The bill would seek to address discriminatory practices by requiring the city’s DVS to offer assistance to those less than honorably discharged solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity in upgrading their status or changing the narrative of that discharge.

This effort complements Intro. 1218, a bill sponsored by Council Member Chaim Deutsch, the chair of the Council’s veterans services committee, which would require DVS to create a unit with the sole purpose of giving legal advice to any veteran seeking discharge upgrades.
Deutsch did not chair the hearing on the bills, despite not only being the committee chair but also having one of his own bills on the docket. A conservative Democrat from Brooklyn, Deutsch did not provide an on-the-record explanation of his absence from the hearing despite repeated inquiries by Gotham Gazette. The City Council speaker’s office did not provide comment for this article when asked. Council Member Dromm’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Deutsch’s absence. It is rare that a Council committee will hold a hearing without the chair.

The hearing was chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the committee. Council Members Dromm and Alan Maisel, another member of the committee, were also in attendance at the beginning of the hearing, though Dromm left for state Senator Jose Peralta’s wake shortly after discussing his bill, with Maisel leaving not long after as well. Council Member Mathieu Eugene, a committee member, came for a short time later in the meeting, leaving after asking a few questions concerning the logistics of discharge statuses. The only other member of the veterans committee, Council Member Paul Vallone, was not present at all.

Testimony on the two bills was first given by DVS Commissioner Loree Sutton, who in part responded to Dromm’s discussion of his bill.

During the testimony, Sutton brought up two major issues with the bills that would be echoed throughout the hearing by advocates.

First, although the language of Dromm’s Intro. 479 implies that some city benefits depend on discharge status, this is not the case, according to Sutton.

“Discharge status and LGBTQ status are not identifiers used to screen out applicants for city resources,” Sutton said.

The bill states: “A veteran with any discharge status less than honorable, for example, cannot access the full range of benefits offered by the VA and, often, are denied benefits by the state and local veterans affairs bodies as well.”

Dromm said that part of the intention of the bill was to codify LGBTQ veterans’ rights into law. Mentioning how the Trump administration has set back LGBTQ rights, he said that this bill would prevent a similar occurrence at the city level.

“One of the reasons why we put this legislation forward is because while we recognize Mayor de Blasio's commitment to LGBT rights and [Sutton’s] personal involvement in it as well, we don’t know what the next mayor’s going to bring,” Dromm said. “We’ve seen an administration in Washington D.C. that is already attempting to take away our rights and God forbid something like that should happen here in New York City, and all the work that either [Sutton has] done or the Council has done could be lost if in fact we don’t codify it.”

When it came to the bill proposed by Deutsch, Sutton and others mentioned that it would have DVS provide a service already provided by non-profits, some of which had representatives at the hearing. The service of providing legal advice and guidance in regards to discharge status upgrades is somewhat specialized and requires intricate knowledge of the legal system, according to Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project Coco Culhane, whose non-profit provides said legal advice.

“We do not believe that a unit within DVS would be an efficient use of city funds or city employees’ time,” Culhane said, going on to note that DVS was not originally intended to be a service-based agency, and so should not be advising veterans even if it had the legal expertise. The original mission of the still-new agency is to educate veterans about the services they are applicable for, largely federal, and help connect them with the resources they need.

Sutton agreed with this sentiment.

“DVS is not a subject-matter expert on evaluating the legitimacy of discharge upgrade claims,” Sutton said. “This bill would require that DVS provide what is actually legal advice and counselling, which is beyond its capacity and is inappropriate because city agencies do not provide direct legal counsel to members of the state.”

Systems DVS already has in place to assist veterans seeking discharge upgrades mainly rely on reaching out to attorneys for their advice, and helping link veterans to appropriate legal services. VetConnect, an online website that seeks to connect veterans with services they need, is also part of these efforts.

Ashton Stewart, coordinator with SAGE Vets Program, an LGBT veterans advocacy group created for the purpose of helping veterans who had been less-than-honorably discharged due to their sexual orientation, supported the legislation.

“SAGE wholeheartedly supports the discharge characterization upgrade assistance legislation.” Stewart said. “We believe that taking this step will bring profile to the important issue of LGBT service members wrongfully discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation.”

Vadim Panasyuk, Senior Veteran Transition Manager at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, added to the concerns about the bills, saying that if DVS were to provide legal advice concerning discharge upgrades it may complicate things for veterans and nonprofits.

“There are already processes in the nonprofit sector that will help veterans upgrade their discharge status free of charge,” Panasyuk said. “IAVA is concerned that passage of these bills could create confusion among the nonprofit and veterans community. DVS may be better served to complement these existing services rather than competing or duplicating them.”

The larger problem, according to both Culhane and Kent Eiler, Project Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project, is the lack of qualified lawyers in the field of veteran law.

“The demand for able, experienced accredited representatives is vastly outstripped by the demand of veterans who need assistance,” Eiler said.

According to Sutton, so far in 2018, 105 veterans contacted DVS about discharge status. However, both Eiler and Culhane expressed that this number is not representative of the actual need. Eiler mentioned that those who come to the City Bar Justice Center are often put on an eight- to ten-month waiting list, while Culhane said that the Veteran Advocacy Project has had as many as 650 veterans waiting at a time just for the non-profit to investigate the merit of their case. Culhane said in just under two years, 500 veterans had contacted her association seeking assistance with a discharge upgrade.

With only two members of the Council remaining by the time the last panel of activists testified, Brannan brought the meeting to a close, with the fate of the bills unclear -- they can be voted on by the committee at a future meeting, amended and reheard by the committee, or laid over indefinitely.

Meyer, who was the last to give testimony, representing the American Veterans for Equal RIghts’ New York Chapter, expressed that having heard the testimony given at the meeting, his thoughts on the bills had changed. However, his feeling that LGBTQ veterans needed to be repaid for their service even in light of unjust treatment, remained.

“Someone is going to have to decide who is going to help them, who is going to rectify this, it’s as simple as that,” Meyer said.

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Fostering Feeder Schools Will Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7841-fostering-feeder-schools-to-improve-diversity-at-the-specialized-high-schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7841-fostering-feeder-schools-to-improve-diversity-at-the-specialized-high-schools students

students (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The public education system in New York City remains one of the most segregated and unequally resourced school systems in the country, reflective of segregation and inequality in other areas of our civic life.

That segregation is starkly obvious in our specialized high schools. In a city where two out of three public high school students are black or Latino, it is unacceptable that they comprise only 10% of the student body across all eight of our elite high schools.

Much has been made recently of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, from the admissions process. The plan is to replace it with a more holistic assessment of achievement based on students’ classroom grades, scores on state standardized English and math tests, and potentially other criteria yet to be determined. But the lack of diversity in our specialized high schools is not a function of the admissions process alone.

The city’s specialized high schools draw from just 21 of the nearly 600 public middle schools citywide. The two Brooklyn City Council districts that we represent factor into this discussion in important ways, and help us draw a path toward improvements to our school system and more diversity at our elite high schools.

Three of these 21 feeder schools are located in the city’s 43rd City Council District in south Brooklyn, with nearly a quarter of all students admitted to specialized high schools coming from School Districts 20, 21, and 22. The schools in these communities are exceptionally diverse, with a majority of students coming from first and second generation immigrant families -- white, black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.

District 16 in central Brooklyn, where schools are 77 percent black and 18.5 percent Hispanic, is a different story. There is not one feeder middle school in District 16, which decades ago had enhanced academics that sent hundreds of students of color to the specialized schools. In fact, until 2015, District 16 schools did not offer the advanced level courses and programming known as “gifted and talented.”

It took pressure from local elected officials forced the Department of Education to provide many majority-minority school districts access to the kind of enhanced academics that provide a pathway to the specialized schools. Despite representing over two-thirds of our public school population, black and Latino students make up only 27% of those enrolled in gifted and talented programs. But even now, the enhanced academics are poorly resourced.

To be sure, improving the admissions process to ensure greater diversity in our specialized high schools is critically important. Expanding access to a great education for minority communities already facing obstacles to their achievement is necessary if we are going to provide equality of opportunity for all New Yorkers.

High-stakes, standardized tests like the SHSAT are poor indicators of students’ potential for success. However, the test is not in itself the problem, and need not be eliminated in order to increase opportunity and diversity. But even with additional methods of assessment, the reality of unequal resources and underinvestment in certain schools would mean improving diversity at our elite high schools will still be a significant challenge.

When you consider that nearly 60% of the middle schools that sent students to specialized high schools were in districts that had gifted and talented schools that required a test for admission, it is evident how decades of unequal investment in enrichment for students of color might be the most significant contributing factor to the city’s problem of diversity in specialized high schools.

Barring state intervention, the students who receive a qualifying score on the SHSAT will continue to be those who have access to test prep and other educational enrichment that most black and Latino students do not.

Today, the National Society of Black Engineers offers test prep to youngsters in District 16 schools to prepare them for tests like the SHSAT. This programming should be expanded, not just to succeed on a test, but to teach how to succeed in life. We must give students enriching experiences that make them connect with learning and foster critical thought and engagement. And we have to do more to create parent awareness and interest in gifted and talented programming.

But it is not enough simply to offer gifted and talented programs and call it a day. The programming provided must be adequately resourced and targeted at the students who are currently underrepresented.

Our colleagues in the City Council agree that the city must restore the funding for enhanced academics in black and Latino communities. As recently as 1989, Brooklyn Tech, for example, was 51 percent black and Latino. As enhanced academics for high-potential students was eliminated in those communities, the percentages of students of color decreased to the point we are at today. We know students, whether in southern or central Brooklyn, can compete successfully if given the resources. They have done it before. They can do it again.

Ending the SHSAT without providing adequate funding and a commitment to educating all students equitably will do nothing to adequately resolve the lack of diversity in our schools, specialized or otherwise.

***
Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. represents the Brooklyn communities of Bedford Stuyvesant and Northern Crown Heights in the New York City Council. Justin Brannan represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst in the City Council. On Twitter @RobertCornegyJr & @JustinBrannan.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

Note: this column has been corrected to reflect that in 1989, Brooklyn Tech was 51 percent black and Latino, not 67 percent as originally stated.

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Fostering Feeder Schools Will Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000