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New Yorkers will be asked if the state should hold a Constitutional convention.

Vote “NO” — Let’s not give the power brokers in Albany a chance to overhaul the NYS Constitution

By Esmeralda Simmons

You don’t have to search far to find a New Yorker who believes the current New York State government in Albany is dysfunctional. Numerous reports of widespread government corruption and a lack of shared power are just two frequent critiques. This Election Day, Nov 7, 2017, voters will have to decide if they want to give these Albany bosses even more power than they’ve had in the last 20 years. The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY encourages Black New Yorkers to vote NO on the Constitutional Convention.

Every 20 years, New York voters must decide whether or not to hold a convention to change the New York State Constitution—a phenomenon known as “Con Con.” While Con Con isn’t the only method to amend the Constitution, it is certainly one of the most drastic and it is the only method that is triggered by New York voters. This is particularly important in today’s political environment.  

Currently, our State Constitution affords greater protections than the US Constitution does in several significant areas. These protections include important state constitutional mandates, like: care for the needy; voting rights protections; basic educational standards; protections for the environment; and, public workers’ rights. When all of these issues are embattled on the national front, why open a route to disrupt these rights and protections in our state? If New Yorkers vote yes to Con Con, then each of these issues is up for grabs—by a process controlled by those same members of the dysfunctional Albany government. Do not give Albany bosses the power to overhaul all or parts of the State Constitution.  Especially since there is a better option to amend the Constitution in a way that protects our most vulnerable populations.

The process for managing the convention is also skewed toward disempowering many New Yorkers. First, Con Con delegates would be elected based on current State Senate districts — the same politically gerrymandered districts that the Center for Law and Social Justice fought against in 2011. Those State Senate districts are heavily favored toward upstate voters at the expense of New York City voters, majority of whom are people of color. In addition, the IDC member senators who hold the balance of power in the Senate, joined with conservative Senate representatives to control that legislative body.  We should expect little or no progressive initiatives to be passed.

Second, there is no limit to the amount of lobbying money that can be poured into the process by giant corporations, rich and powerful lobbying interests like privately–run charter schools businesses, and those who seek to suppress voting rights in New York State. Limitless corporate lobbying dollars and donations are legal since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. This money has been destabilizing democracy in Congress and state governments due to the heavy influence of large political contributions. New Yorkers should not open up the State Constitution to these unelected, non-voter forces.

Third, there are no restrictions on which parts of the Constitution a Con Con would overhaul. Literally, every New York State Constitution based protection could be revised, rewritten or removed. And even worse, there are no structures for how the convention will operate or any limits on how long the convention will be in existence.

Many progressive organizations like the NY ACLU, the Sierra Club, Citizen Action, the Alliance for Quality Education and a host of labor unions are urging you to vote “NO.”

We want change in New York State, but not through a process that is so clearly flawed.  On Election Day, November 7, 2017, vote “NO” on Con Con!

Esmeralda Simmons is the founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

Support us on Tues. Nov. 28 for #BrooklynGives!

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The Center for Law and Social Justice is excited to share we are one of 20 organizations selected as beneficiaries of the #BrooklynGives on Giving Tuesday campaign! As a result, we are also one of the finalists for the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Spark Prize, the only award of its kind to honor Brooklyn’s leading nonprofit change makers.

On Tuesday November 28, we’re participating in #BrooklynGives, and if we successfully raise $5000 on Giving Tuesday, then the Brooklyn Community Foundation will match us dollar for dollar!

For more than 30 years, CLSJ has used the law to positively impact African descendant and disenfranchised communities. In light of the current political storms gathering in our nation’s capital and beyond, now more than ever, CLSJ needs your support to continue this work. The CLSJ team works tirelessly to protect our community in areas as varied as voting rights and voter protections, educational equity and ending systemic racial violence in policing. As the 2020 census draws near, we are already hard at work to ensure our community is counted fairly and that we receive the resources needed for a healthy Brooklyn.

Please get ready to give! On November 28, starting at 12AM, visit here and make a donation to us. You will have 24 hours to make your donation, and all giving will end at 11:59PM on November 28.

Please help us  spread the word about #BrooklynGives on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets by linking to our campaign here and including the hashtag #BrooklynGives!

Thank you for your support!

The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College Announced as a Recipient of the #BrooklynGives on Giving Tuesday Campaign Match, as well as a Finalist for Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Spark Prize

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Awards Recognizes High-impact Community-based Organizations Across Brooklyn; Prizes Upwards of $100,000

BROOKLYN – The Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY (CLSJ) is proud to announce they are one of the 20 organizations selected as beneficiaries of the #BrooklynGives on Giving Tuesday campaign, and are the finalists for the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Spark Prize, the only award of its kind to honor Brooklyn’s leading nonprofit change makers.

The return of the #BrooklynGives on Giving Tuesday campaign was announced this week. The campaign aims to drive awareness and donations to a diverse cohort of 20 local nonprofits. The Foundation will match up to $100,000 in donations to the 20 participating organizations on Giving Tuesday, November 28. Giving Tuesday is the global day of giving celebrated each year on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday giving season and inspire people to improve their local communities.

The Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Spark Prize, is selected by a diverse committee of Brooklyn civic, business, and neighborhood leaders from a highly competitive pool of 140 applicants in recognition of their social justice-oriented, values-driven service to the borough’s communities. In January, the five winners of this year’s Spark Prize will be awarded grants of $100,000 each.

“We are extremely honored to be named as a finalists for the #BrooklynGives campaign as well as the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Spark Prize. It is our mission to advocate and assist the African descent community on racial justice issues such as voter rights, educational inequity, police violence, as well as tackling issues that impact women of color,” said Esmeralda Simmons, Esq., founder and executive director of CLSJ.  “Due to our unique combination of advocacy services from a community-based perspective, CLSJ is a focal point for progressive activity. Our social justice work and values as an organization makes us perfectly primed to vie for the #BrooklynGives campaign and the Spark Prize. We look forward to working on the donation match in November, and on receiving the top honors in January.

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New York Party Enrollment Deadline Matches Trumps Voter Suppression Horror Show

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By Esmeralda Simmons, Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and Susan Lerner Common Cause/New York.

Scary news: today is the last day that New Yorkers can change their party enrollment from one party to another if they want to vote in the 2018 primaries.

Unaffiliated and non-Democratic Party voters, in particular, got a fright last year when they tried to vote for Bernie Sanders – an independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination – in the April primary and found they’d long missed the deadline to change their registration. This is a real issue in New York City where the rising rate of voters who don’t register with a party pass up the opportunity to vote in the near-definitive Democratic primaries.

That means you need to pick a party months before you know who the candidates are. Don’t think you have enough information or lost your crystal ball? In the spirit of Friday the 13th: tough luck.

While this news is frightening, it’s right in line with the horrors coming out of Washington D.C. One of the most outrageous is the Trump Administration’s demand that states hand over voter roll data to effectively undermine confidence in U.S. federal elections.

The comically misnamed Presidential Commission on Election Integrity, known as the Pence-Kobach commission, was formed in an attempt to legitimize President Trump’s false claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, and convince us that he somehow actually won the national popular vote (he lost by almost three million votes), never mind FBI confirmation of Russian interference. The commission has requested that each state release private information about voters, such as the last four digits of a social security number, felony convictions and military status.

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Brooklyn district attorney candidate forum: Five days before election

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(Appeared in the Aug. 31, 2017 online version of the Amsterdam News)

Restorative Justice: Traditional approaches to justice tend to focus solely on crime and punishment and can frequently result in excessive sentencing and wrongful convictions. These policies send thousands of people of color to prison with little regard for the devastating impact that can have on the community. Conversely, restorative justice seeks to repair the harm caused by crime in a way that balances the need for justice with centering the community’s need to heal. How will these candidates center restorative justice as part of the justice seeking paradigm in Brooklyn?

Juvenile Justice: The school to prison pipeline is a combination of school-based policies and procedures (such as zero tolerance programs that criminalize minor rule infractions) that funnel Black and Brown youth into the criminal justice system. How will candidates use their position to balance holding young people accountable for their crimes with reducing the over-criminalization of Black and Brown youth?

In addition to these key areas, audience members will have an opportunity to submit questions for the candidates. What strikes you as the most pressing issue for these candidates to consider? What policies would you like to see the DA’s office implement? The forum will provide an opportunity for the candidates to hear from the public.

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The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro: A Speech By Frederick Douglass

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Social reformer, abolitionist, writer, and statesman, Frederick Douglass was a fiery orator and his speeches were often published in various abolitionist newspapers. Among his well-known speeches is “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” presented in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, a version of which he published as  a booklet.

In his speech Douglass delivered a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence with speeches, parades and platitudes, while, within its borders, nearly four million humans were being kept as slaves.

Today as we commemorate Independence Day, we hope you will take the time to read Douglass’ remarks and reflect on its meaning, both then and now.

Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:

He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.

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Meet the 2017 CLSJ Summer Law Interns

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The Center for Law and Social Justice is pleased to introduce our 2017 Summer Law Interns.

The interns work alongside CLSJ staff on policy, advocacy, research, and litigation initiatives. Summer interns are integral to all aspects of CLSJ’s work, including programmatic and strategic planning. The interns will experience an intellectually stimulating and exciting summer including a number of trips and learning excursions as part of their internship experience.

Meet our 2017 intern class:

T’Ajai Carrington, Penn State Law

T’Ajai Carrington is a rising second year law student at Penn State Law, a Charlotte, NC native and alumna of UNC Charlotte. Ms. Carrington is a strong advocate for social justice and looks forward to using her law degree to serve her community. In her spare time, Ms. Carrington loves taking her two dogs to the park or catching a Boston Celtics game on TV.

Kyung “Candice” Lee,Benjamin Cardozo School of Law

Kyung “Candice” Lee is a rising second year law student at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, a first-generation immigrant and has called Brooklyn home for the past six years. Ms. Lee graduated from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Psychology, focusing on domestic violence and racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Her passion for public policy and social justice started with her interest in therapy treatment for disadvantaged communities.

Taylor Armstrong, Fordham University School of Law

Taylor Armstrong is a rising third year law student at Fordham University School of Law and holds a chemistry degree from Howard University. He is passionate about civil rights and criminal justice, and he desires to start his own criminal defense practice. He also has a passion for technology and using his intellectual property background assisting several startup ventures. Taylor is sports enthusiast who loves playing and watching basketball and soccer.

#BlackWealthMatters: How Race, Debt & Personal Choices Shape Black Economics

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by Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq.

Wealth and Debt in Black Communities:

“If current economic trends continue, the average [B]lack household will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their [W]hite counterparts hold today.” Joshua Holland, The Nation Magazine

When economist, author and former President of Bennett College, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, appeared in CNN’s documentary Black in America: Almighty Debt, she noted that personal and community wealth are based on cross-generational accumulation. Which means your personal and community wealth are supposed to grow when passed down from one generation to the next. According to Professor Steven Rogers:

Inter-generational wealth is “the monster wealth that started three, four, five of more generations ago and has been multiplying ever since; the kind of wealth that could, if the market conditions were right, start a retail chain, or buy swaths of real estate in the hottest market and develop a commercial residential complex or three.”

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“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around…”

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A Post 11/9 Election Communiqué

by Esmeralda Simmons, Esq.

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, I’m gonna keep on talkin’, keep on walkin’, walkin’ up to Freedomland.”

Traditional Freedom Song

“We who believe in Freedom cannot rest…”

Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock

Young women singing freedom songs in a Selma church. 7/8/1964. Photo Credit:

Young women singing freedom songs in a Selma church. 7/8/1964. Photo Credit:

In turbulent times like these, I turn to freedom songs to ground myself. I hold onto who and where we are as African descendant people. I look at the present through the perspective of our history. I glance again at our goals for the future—keeping my eyes on the prize.

Admittedly, after the election on 11/9, our immediate prospects look glum. Once again, racial animus is raw in this country. Donald Trump, a man exulted in the United States by Neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, and ultra-extreme conservatives who dub themselves as the “alt right,” is now the President Elect. The same nation that elected Barack Obama to be its first Black President, has now elected his 180° opposite.

The 11/9 presidential election was a shock to many African Descendant people in the U.S. Metaphorically, and maybe literally, it was a hard slap to our face by the proverbial “Miss Ann.” After the initial shock, we engaged in a lot of “wringing of hands” and “gnashing of teeth.” We questioned, we analyzed, we asked “How could this have happened?

The blatant racism of then candidate Trump’s rhetoric, and the recent rash of hate crimes his rhetoric spawned, signal the dawn of another era of racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, misogynistic, anti-LGBT, and anti-“differently-abled” actions and policies. We are in the early stages of a 21st century White American backlash to the post-Civil Rights period – a period that brought expanded rights to a host of “different” American citizens and residents. This new era will be much like the post Reconstruction era when White terrorism against Black people, and wholesale mob and public lynchings, were societal norms in the U.S.

Kujichagulia Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

By now, the sobering reality has set in and the new inquiry naturally emerges, “What now? What is in store for us?” Out of our questioning, an implicit answer has become apparent: “It’s about us! Now more than ever, our focus must be about African descendant people in the U.S., and beyond, having a collective viewpoint. It’s about our concern for, and action on behalf of, what we used to call “the Race.”

In recent years, due to the work of Michelle Alexander and others, our community has a greater understanding of “The New Jim Crow” and the mass incarceration of Black folks in the US. Also, Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th has effectively broadened our understanding of this modern-day assault against African Descendants in this country. We’re clearer now so post 11/9, our communities best be prepared to face Jim Crow 2.0 which will result in an exponentially increased number of attacks against us as a people.

The good news is that African Descendant people in the U.S will persevere. We’ve come this way before. We are the masters of intelligent resistance: on the continent, the slave ships, the Caribbean breaking grounds, the Wall Street auction blocks, the plantations, in every US war, during post-Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, through the Civil Rights Movement, and as Abolitionists. When “we” recognize a new major societal attack, “we” join forces and collectively resist and persevere.

This time, the first wave of the attack is most likely to be an economic one. Resources, funded by our tax–paying dollars (upon which African Descendant people have long relied) may vanish or be severely reduced. Federal jobs and block grants to states which convert to state and local government jobs will likely be cut. Further cuts may be attempted in federal government aid programs such as SNAP (Food Stamps), free school lunches, federal homeless aid, health care subsidies to states (Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare), and social security aid to the differently disabled. Many in our community have grown accustomed to these governmental safety nets. If the Trump administration makes cuts, as they promise, then there is a great likelihood that many in our community will be seriously hurt.

The solution to some of these assaults lay in own hands. As a people, we must hire each other and support the remaining institutions within our control. We still have farms, houses of worship, non-profit service providers, businesses, schools, health care centers, and cultural centers. Innovative solutions like Black-owned “farm to community” food co-ops must greatly expand if we want to afford healthy food. Our advocacy organizations, e.g., nationally, NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Urban League, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights; and locally, e.g., the Center for Law and Social Justice, political clubs and the wealth of charitable and organizations (like sororities, fraternities, ethnic benevolence societies, etc.) must expand their collaborations to reach even more members of our community. Now, more than ever, we must take care of ourselves!

Support Black Business Photo Credit:

Support Black Business
Photo Credit:

At this “wake up” moment, we also need to re-assess our habits and ask ourselves, “What does my family and community need?” Is our “shopping” utilitarian or recreational? Most of us are not among “the rich and famous,” so we have no business attempting to emulate their lifestyles. Regularly supporting our local tailors, bakers, and restaurants may lead to our collective survival and prosperity. Putting our talents and skills to use for our people is imperative.

Our history in this country informs us that the prosperous “Black Wall Street” town in Tulsa, Oklahoma was real. There, we produced goods and transacted business. We didn’t merely consume.  As we gear up for the battles ahead, let’s shed those aspects of our lives that are not serving us or our people. Let us appreciate what’s sacred to us: family and loved ones, our culture, our spirituality, and the eternal flame of love in our hearts. We sing this song for a purpose.

Stony the road we trod

Bitter the chastening rod

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet, with a steady beat

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed.

We have come, over a way

That with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path

 Through the blood of the slaughtered.

Out of the gloomy past

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast…

… Let us march on till victory is won.

– “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, The Black National Anthem by James Weldon Johnson

These post 11.9 days are just another trial in our path. Let us march onward, toward freedom.