Like many Brooklynites, I knew the late Frank Mickens mostly by his reputation and good works. He turned Boys & Girls High into a place that, more than any public school I have known, genuinely welcomed the outside world.
Countless panel discussions, political town hall meetings, community celebrations and other gatherings were held there, notably the African Street Festival (now the International African Arts Festival).
Prior to an expensive upgrade of the school’s track, it was where you could find a broad cross-section of Bed-Stuy residents jogging, sprinting and speed-walking on any given morning.
But the real place Mickens made his mark was inside the building, where he insisted on discipline, banning boys from wearing caps and girls from overdoing it with earrings and other jewelry. Long before iPods were invented, Mickens forbade kids from bringing Walkman music players to school.
Along with the “tough love” came an insistence on excellence, notably the set days when students were required to dress for success, arriving in corporate attire.
The formula worked. When Mickens took over at Boys & Girls in the mid-1980s, the graduation rate was a hair over 24%, far below the citywide average. When he retired 18 years later, the rate had nearly doubled, to 47.5%.
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This year’s City Council races, which will effectively be decided when primary elections are held in September, will provide the public with a chance to kick some of the political deadwood off the government payroll.
Selecting honest, energetic and reliable representatives now – and weeding out the bums – is the only way to prevent a repeat of the deadlock that recently paralyzed the state Senate.
In plain language, we need better people in office.
The good news is that several Council incumbents who have abused their constituents’ trust face vigorous challenges from newcomers this summer.
On the West Side of Manhattan, Councilwoman Christine Quinn has drawn a spirited challenge from civil rights attorney Yetta Kurland, who is hammering Quinn for ramming through the law overturning term limits.
“This is not an issue of term limits, it’s an issue of democracy,” Kurland told me. “The people in this district feel it is a fundamental breach of public trust.”
That’s putting it mildly.
In 2007, Quinn said: “I am today taking a firm and final position. I will not support the repeal or change of term limits through any mechanism, and I will oppose (aggressively) any attempt by anyone to make any changes in the term limits law.”
Quinn changed her tune a few months later after a scandal botched her plans to run for mayor. Investigators from the federal Justice Department and the city Department of Investigation are still probing how and why Quinn’s staffers parked nearly $5 million worth of public funds in nonexistent charities.
The slush fund scandal has claimed several casualties already. Miguel Martinez of Upper Manhattan has resigned in advance of an expected federal indictment. Martinez reportedly steered $1.4 million to a small nonprofit where his sister served on the board of directors.
In Brooklyn, two aides to Brooklyn Councilman Kendall Stewart recently pleaded guilty to stealing $145,000 earmarked for a nonprofit run by Asquith Reid, one of the staffers.
Scandal isn’t the only reason incumbents are in trouble. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, longtime incumbent Al Vann is being pressed hard by my friend and neighbor Mark Winston Griffith, who recently left his job as executive director of the Drum Major Institute think tank to run for office fulltime.
Griffith, who is being backed by the Working Families Party, is a nationally known community organizer and a certified member of the Obama generation: Way back in 2004, he traveled around Illinois in a car with the then-state senator, chatting about political activism.
Vann, who has been in state and city offices for 34 years, is entrenched – too entrenched, says Griffith, faulting Vann for not doing more to head off the scourge of predatory lending.
Figures from 2007 provided by the Furman Center shows that Brooklyn’s Community Board 3, the heart of the district, has been harder hit by foreclosures than anywhere else in New York City.
“A historic loss of community wealth has occurred under the watch of the current political leadership,” Griffith says, a message likely to resonate with Bed-Stuy homeowners.
Other Council members facing stiff challenges include Darlene Mealy of Brooklyn, who flip-flopped on term limits and now faces activist Tony Herbert, and Maria Baez of the Bronx, who has the Council’s worst attendance record.
If we’re lucky, these and other contested races will become the norm in our town as voters decide to turn over the levers of power to fresh, talented newcomers.
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Join the NAACP
After years of putting it off, I went ahead and bought a lifetime membership in the NAACP, signing up with the Brooklyn branch. It’s the smartest $750 I’ve spent in a long time – a long-term investment in fairness and social justice.
It’s also a bet on the ability of the group’s new, hyper talented, 36-year-old president, Benjamin Jealous, to raise the profile, power and prestige of the NAACP. Jealous says he’s going to reinvigorate the organization and focus it on pressing social challenges of the moment – chief among them sky-high incarceration rates among African-Americans and predatory lending practices.
Back in the 1970s, when I was growing up, the NAACP was seen as stodgy and standoffish, a bit past its prime and far removed from hot political issues of the day. Youngsters today are, if anything, even more dismissive of traditional civil rights groups.
How wrong they are.
From that first day a century ago, when a group of black and white reformers gathered to
Jealous says modern evils like substandard education, predatory lending, racial profiling and mass incarceration make the NAACP as necessary as ever. The NAACP is a long-term player that, decade by decade, led a transformation in American law and culture that made last year’s election of Barack Obama possible.