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June 10, 2013

Voting Limits

Few people consider voting subversive activity. In fact, we think of it in quite opposite terms. In Black urban communities, where we are used to aggressive voter registration drives every election cycle, voting is an opportunity to join the mainstream and get your civic responsibility ticket punched.

If you use voting as a measure of civic engagement, Central Brooklyn is over engaged. According to the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, North Crown Heights had a higher voter turnout than Brooklyn as a whole. And Bed-Stuy’s voter registration rate is in the nineties, almost 30% higher than the rest of Brooklyn.

black_people_voting

And yet who would argue that this has translated into the ability of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights citizenry to flex muscle, much less challenge the status quo?

If you just take public education as an example, Central Brooklyn is home to some of the City’s most underperforming schools, as well as parent associations with anemic parent participation, and Community Education Councils (CECs) that struggle just to meet quorum, much less drive policy change.

Voting never leads to social change – if all you do is vote.

In 2009, in a hotly contested eight-candidate race for the 36th Council District, there were a grand total of two locally held debates open to the general public. Neither of these debates was held between the primaries and general election. And not one Central Brooklyn organization or neighborhood newspaper offered a rigorous analysis of the candidates.

Unlike national, statewide or citywide elections, local campaigns are not transmitted over television or radio, nor are Central Brooklyn candidates hardly ever distinguished by policy positions. Unless Central Brooklyn voters are aggressively educated at the grassroots level by civic institutions, unless candidates are challenged to speak to local concerns, and unless elected officials are actively held accountable, year after year, then local elections become lazy beauty pageants.

Similarly, voting without knowing the candidates or without getting together with your neighbors after the election to tell your elected officials what issues to champion, is a bastardization of that voter “right” that we so jealously protect.

Voting shouldn’t be an isolated spectator event, but an act of coordinated collective power. It is a single pivotal moment along a trajectory of advanced social action that continues long after the voting booths are unplugged.

For instance, the BMC, which is non-partisan, issued a questionnaire to candidates from the 36th Council District. Today we present their responses as a part of the Power Lever Project where you will also find basic information about the candidates and their campaigns, like campaign fundraising and expenditures. Over the next few months we will ask these candidates follow up questions that correspond to issues that the BMC is working on.

The BMC has already co-sponsored a meet-and-greet with Brooklyn D.A. and Brooklyn Borough President candidates, as well as candidates from the 35th and 36th Council Districts. And we will be co-sponsoring at least one more debate for the 35th Council District and organizing two more for candidates of the 36th Council District, in partnership with several other organizations. Along the way, we will be asking you to weigh in.

At the BMC’s annual membership meeting on September 28, 2013, we will invite all the party nominees for the 35th, 36th and 41st Council Districts, deliver our organization’s platform, and then over the next four years actively hold the eventual City Councilmembers accountable to it.

As quietly as it’s kept, elected officials work for us, not the other way around. It’s time to hold job interviews, hire the most highly qualified applicants, and then show them who’s boss.

About this author

Mark Winston Griffith

Mark Winston Griffith

Prior to coming on staff at the Brooklyn Movement Center, Mark was on the Faculty of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and was most recently the field organizer for the MOVE NY campaign. A Central Brooklyn native, Mark Winston Griffith is the former Executive Director and Senior Fellow for Economic Justice at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, and the former co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. In the early nineties he co-founded the Central Brooklyn Partnership and Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union. He currently serves on the boards of the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union, Center for an Urban Future, the Center for Working Families, Little Sun People and Free Speech TV. Mark loves spending time with his family, running the streets of New York like a steeplechase, and describing how he acquired the 18 inch scar that runs the length of his spine.

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