By Stephen Witt,
Kings County Politics
City Council Members Farah Louis, Robert Cornegy, Jr. and Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte said last night they will work to find another location for a charter school serving about 300 academically at-risk students of color that is slated to open in September in the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Midwood. But the Black lawmakers also emphasized their concerns that students of color are not “criminalized and traumatized by the disparaging comments that only serve to discredit them as individuals.”
The lawmakers’ comments come over the Urban Dove Charter School, currently located in Cornegy’s district at 300 Lafayette Avenue, having signed an agreement with the Conservative Jewish (EMJC), East Midwood Jewish Center, 1625 Ocean Avenue, to lease the former Midwood Jewish Academy building, 1256 East 21st Street, directly behind and attached to the EMJC.
The planned move, starting in September 2020, has brought out scores of protesters from the local Orthodox Jewish community, who now dominate the once-thriving Conservative Jewish community. Many in the Orthodox community argue that with their community bursting at the seams with children, the site would be better served as a Jewish school.
But there has also been a number of resident protesters who have made insensitive comments on the Black and Hispanic student body of Urban Dove at best, and at worst, inflammatory, racist comments. It is through this scenario that Cornegy, Louis, who represents where EMJC is located, and Bichotte, whose district is adjacent to the center, made their comments.
“As elected officials of color, we feel a shared responsibility to protect the students from being criminalized and traumatized by the disparaging comments that only serve to discredit them as individuals and discount their academic accomplishments. We are working expeditiously with our colleagues in the City Council and state Assembly to identify an alternate location where they can learn without being under scrutiny by those who have never taken the time to understand their story,” said Louis, Cornegy and Bichotte in their joint statement.
“In the event that an alternate site is unattainable, it would be our hope that the East Midwood community would afford these young minds the same educational opportunities as anyone else by welcoming and embracing these young potential scholars. Our ultimate goal is for young people to be educated in a place where they are celebrated, not tolerated. We are happy to work with the community and those involved to reach an understanding amongst two communities that share experiences of marginalization – in unity, there is strength,” they added.
The statement did note that education is a right for all, and that all too often, for students of color, it becomes nothing more than political discourse.
“The conversation around the siting of the Urban Dove Charter School in the East Midwood Jewish Center should have focused on the school’s track record, curriculum, programming or personal experiences of parents and students, but was instead focused solely on race and widespread misconceptions that were never verified. The voices of neither the students or parents were never heard, and the community chose to demean their personhood by villainizing them and deeming them a threat to the community,” the lawmakers said.
Meanwhile, sources close to the politically powerful Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition (FJCC), which often speaks for the large and growing Orthodox Jewish community in the Kensington, Midwood, Flatbush and Madison-Marine communities, said the organization played no role in organizing the protest outside the EMJC on Sunday and pointed to concern from the local community as the driving force behind the grassroots turnout.
While the Black and the Orthodox Jewish community, through their local electeds, continue to work on finding an amicable solution in what has become an incendiary situation, both Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Urban Dove Founder & Executive Director Jai Nanda say they are fine with having the school open at the East 21st Street site come September.
“I am happy to support [EMJC] Rabbi Levine and happy to provide leadership when it’s needed,” said Williams, who represented the district in the City Council prior to Louis. “I am looking forward to seeing Urban Dove proving an excellent educational experience at East Midwood.”
Nanda said that Urban Dove has been looking for a suitable, affordable facility for nearly 10 years and were thrilled when they signed a lease with the EMJC for its school in Midwood.
“Our students have struggled academically in high school but have made a choice to attend Urban Dove so they can get back on track to graduation, college and successful futures. We look forward to working with elected officials, community organizations and residents to make sure our school and our students are assets to the community,” said Nanda.