by Joel Tolman and Kimball Cartwright

Keeping democracy alive means having conversations.  When New Haven activists Greg Grinberg  and Aly Heimer asked if they could use Common Ground to host a community conversation with New Haven area legislators, we said, “Of course!”

When nine state legislators and about 150 people from across the region filled the community room in Common Ground’s new Springside Center, we thought, “Better put out some more chairs.”

Pat Dillon addressing the crowd early in the meeting while waiting for more people to arrive.

Neighbors from inside and outside New Haven showed up seeking answers to a pressing and challenging question: What now? As inauguration day approaches and a new state legislative session is coming into focus, how should we work together to create the community we want to live in?

 

View from the first community conversation held in November, co-facilitated by community leaders Hanifa Washington and Greg Grinberg.

Last week’s community conversation was the third time since election day that our neighbors have asked to use our space to gather, talk, and organize.

At the earlier conversations, community members needed space to share their fears and questions about election results, what those results say about our country, and what the next four years will hold. The people who showed up in the days and weeks right after the election discussed a range of actions they were feeling called to take: from preventing the inauguration, to making changes in the electoral college, to pushing for state-level policy actions, to organizing local efforts to shore up New Haven as a sanctuary city.

Last week, our community came together with a more singular focus: What is the outlook the upcoming session of the Connecticut General Assembly? And how can we get organized to support state policy that strengthens our community?

To be honest, it was a tough conversation.

State Senator Gary Winfield put the size of the state budget gap in perspective: While the total state budget may be over $20 billion, the part that the state legislature can actually control — that is, the part that funds critical social services like education, transportation, housing, economic development, and child welfare — is between $9 and $10 billion. Given that the current deficit stands at more than $1 billion, the legislature is facing the real possibility of cutting more than 1 of every $10 spent on these core state services. And these cuts sit on top of those made over the last several years.

When pressed for answers to the organizing question of the evening — what New Haven residents can do now — our legislators spoke from their own experiences. Several of the legislators asked us to show them that we are paying attention — thanking them when they do the right things, letting them know when they don’t — because a few voices can have a real impact on the decisions they make, and strengthen their resolve to do the right thing.

Legislators responding to questions.

State Representative Robin Porter encouraged us to have courageous conversations, and to intervene when we hear hate-filled or unconsciously discriminatory remarks. State Representative Roland Lemar said that there’s a real challenge finding candidates to run for potentially competitive seats — and asked those who would consider running for office to raise their hands.

Halfway into the three-hour-long conversation, Common Ground had the opportunity to ask about an issue that hits especially close to home for us: As we consider a nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education who seems open to dismantling public education, and as we face a looming state budget deficit, how do we keep our state’s public education system strong? And, what is the role for a public school and community organization like Common Ground in the midst of this really challenging moment?

In response, Representative Roland Lemar reminded us of the critical role that schools like Common Ground can play in building powerful, discerning, critical citizens.

We agree with Roland that this is part of the answer — and we find ourselves ready and poised for more. Common Ground students and staff are called to action in ways we haven’t been before. At the same time, we aren’t yet sure of all the ways that our community organization, and our public school, can step up to this uniquely challenging moment. 

Read more about Common Ground’s commitment to action in an article from our Executive Director Melissa Spear — and please share your feedback on how Common Ground should continue to build a safe, healthy, connected, powerful community, today and into the future.