Sylvia Kinard and her daughter Kellie
First things first.ATTENTION
: There is a Democratic primary election in New York City onTuesday, June 26
(tomorrow) is the last day to register to vote in said election. Please check to see that you’re registered. If you are, double check your Congressional District. If you aren’t, please register and please vote. There’s the perception that primaries often don’t matter. But, with our new, more competitive district, that is NOT the case this time.
Earlier this year–and at the last possible moment before candidates could start collecting signatures–New York’s Congressional districts were redrawn following the 2010 census. In fact, those new lines had to be drawn by a federal court and it was only on April 27 that they were approved by the Justice Department.
One of the results of redistricting is thatthe 11th District
, which most of you vote in,has now become the 9th District
. Although if you’re on the west side of Coney Island Avenue, you may be in the 10th, so make sure to plug your address into this helpful NY Times interactive map.
Along with losing western parts of Brooklyn like Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, the new district now extends much further south into areas like Marine Park and Sheepshead Bay. These shifts in make-up mean that an incumbent like Congresswoman Yvette Clarke has to introduce herself to wide swaths of new constituents. It also means that she is more prone to a primary challenge, which is exactly what’s happening.
Clarke’s challenger is Sylvia Kinard, a Flatbush-born-and-raised attorney and ordained Baptist minister. Currently living in Midwood, she’s no stranger to New York politics. Among other positions, she has been Senior Legislative Attorney for the New York City Council, where she drafted legislation for the Immigration Subcommittee, Subcommittee on Mental Health, and the Committee on Education. She also worked on the development of nonprofit affordable housing projects in New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse while serving as Assistant Commissioner and Deputy Counsel for the New York State Division of Housing.
Last week, Kinard took time out from her schedule to meet me for coffee at Qathra to discuss her campaign. (She also ended up introducing me to her beautiful 11-month-old daughter Kellie, who tagged along after a last-minute childcare cancellation.)
As for why she’s running, she said, “When you look around at where we’re headed, there’s a need for people to talk about things outside of the traditional box. Clearly, we’re at a crossroads in our country and in our city, and we really have got to have voices that are not just there to vote the party line. But really to start talking about alternative ways that we can look at addressing issues that concern all of us.”
She specifically focused on the concern she saw during redistricting about competition and disparate interests clashing between communities. “I think, on a deeper level, there are some basic issues that are uniform, and I’d like to see more conversation around those issues. That’s why we picked our campaign slogan: A Better Brooklyn for Everyone.”
As for the job Clarke’s been doing, Kinard is not impressed. “She’s been silent about issues that affect Brooklyn specifically. She has not said anything around the Jobs Act that the President came out with in terms of how does it impacts Brooklyn. Beyond the fact that she’s voted 98% of the time with the party…she’s been invisible. I think we need a lot more visibility. I think it does matter for people to advocate in a very narrow, laser-focused way on how does [legislation] impact us. Like how does the student loan thing impact New York?”
But getting folks out to the polls won’t be easy. Primaries traditionally have very low turnout, and while she’s been doing a lot of the requisite meet-and-greets, candidate forums, visits to religious institutions, house gatherings, and just plain meeting people on the street, the issue is partly getting people to vote for her, but mostly getting people to just plain vote. Most people don’t even know there’s a primary coming up.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion about what’s in, what’s not, who’s here, who isn’t,” she said. “One of the things I’m doing is reaching out to communities that may not be aware there actually is a primary, that there is an alternative candidate, and to find out what people are concerned about.”
She said she’s less concerned about pointing out Clarke’s weaknesses than telling people why she’s a good alternative. “I feel I could do a better job,” she said. “I would be more inclusive. That’s why I’m running.”
In her campaign literature, Kinard pledges the following:
• She’ll support initiatives such as the Central Brooklyn Leadership Pledge to secure $1 billion in funding over the next five years and efforts to develop the Bedford Ave Armory.
• She’ll ensure the rights of seniors by fighting against housing foreclosures, changes in Medicare eligibility, elimination of neighborhood hospitals, and threats to Social Security.
• She’ll fight to pass President Obama’s Jobs Act and work to ensure that out-sourced government jobs are “re-captured” in order to provide Brooklyn residents with greater job opportunities.
One issue Kinard is particularly passionate about–and returns to often–is education. She doesn’t think charter schools are the answer.
“New York City just closed nine charter schools,” she said. “There are over 70,000 applicants this semester for only about 14,000 charter school slots. So clearly that’s not going to be the answer for the majority of Brooklyn school children, who are still going to public schools that are substandard.”
While I couldn’t validate those figures, it’s clear that the city has recently become tougher on charter schools, closing them for being subpar.
A big concern for Kinard when it comes to charter schools is equity. While she doesn’t have a background in education, her sister teaches elementary school and she described witnessing this inequality firsthand.
“Her school is one of those where there’s a co-located charter school,” she explained. “I think it’s troubling. You have kids coming in the same doorway having totally different educational experiences in the same building and from the same community. If you’re a parent whose kid gets in on floors one and two, you’re happy. If your kid’s coming to that school and they’re on floors three and four, you’re not as happy. And there are a lot more kids on floors three and four. I’m not anti-charter school, but we really have not addressed the issue of how we’re going to educate the next generation of kids. Let’s really wrestle on how to get all the schools better.”
Brooklyn Dreams Charter School, photo by Brooklyn Catholic
Kinard would like to see more flexibility in the funds for Race to the Top, as she feels they’ve been directed too heavily toward charter schools. She cited that teachers like her sister often pay out of pocket to cover materials.
“Once you get past those headline stories [of incompetent teachers], what you’ll find is a lot of frustrated teachers. I think that’s the vast majority…particularly in Brooklyn, which I would be representing,” she explained. But mainly, Kinard wants more representation in the House. “There is currently no New York City Representative on the Committee for Education in the House. I think that’s disgraceful, particularly when New York City has the largest public education system in the country.”
It should be noted that while this is currently true, Congresswoman Clarke did serve on the Education & Labor Committee during the last (111th) Congress.
In terms of higher education, she currently works as the Chief Affirmative Action and Diversity Officer at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, where she’s also been a Distinguished Lecturer in Public Administration, and believes the country’s colleges are going to have to start dealing with is the issue of not having enough revenue–how to address that without raising tuition.
“I think that the President is taking a good step in the right direction,” she said. “A lot more is going to have to be done in terms of private/public partnerships.”
Larger schools with larger endowments, she pointed out, don’t feel the kind of pressure that schools like Medgar Evers does in trying to close that revenue gap. She gave the example of the school having a new, state-of-the-art science building in Crown Heights but not being able to compete for top talent without an upper-level salary tier. Federal funding could help with something like that. In her words, “It’s great that we bailed out Wall Street, but it’d be very nice if they endowed a chair. Mr. Dimon–I’m going to publicly call on him to endow a chair in Economics at Medgar Evers College.”
Ditmas Park (and Brooklyn in general) is so full of artists and art-supporters that it’s important to know where our representatives stand on federal arts funding. In budget fights, arts funding is often one of the first things on the chopping block (the NEA‘s budget is lower now than NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs budget). Given that Kinard is a former Executive Director of the New York Production Alliance and a Vice President for New York Women In Film, her stance may be somewhat obvious. But because I think political candidates should be pressed about the arts–and not just in the context of arts in education–more often than they are, I asked anyway.
“From the Venus of Willendorf to the refrigerator art of our children, creative mediums are important because they give us tools for the souls expression and help us to understand and make sense of our world,” she responded. “I do not think that funding for arts or support for adult artists is a luxury. I played violin in my junior high school orchestra, and that experience helped shape me into the adult I am today. We must find a way not only to save federal funding for the arts, but to expand it.”
As mentioned above, Kinard is an ordained minister, and her family’s “faith heritage” runs deep. Her grandfather was a founding member of Salem Missionary Baptist Church and her father was a minister and a pastor. The relationship between religion and government in this country is one that is constantly debated (although both sides would insist that there’s really nothing up for debate), and, given how heated that debate has become lately when it comes to healthcare, we need to know how our prospective legislators walk that line between personal faith and public duty.
“Faith in the public square is really about whatever your core values are defining how you operate and interact with other people,” Kinard said. “Whether you’re Muslim, whether you’re a Humanist, whether you’re Christian as I am, whether you’re Jewish…what the great faith traditions all do is talk about how do I interact with my fellow human beings? For me personally, that has been about stewardship, and about how I take part in the gifts I’ve been given to make the world better. But I don’t think the public square is where you proselytize. I go to church on Sunday.”
Over the course of our conversation, I found Kinard to be extremely warm, intelligent, and accessible. That may just be because she had a baby on her lap the whole time, but I doubt it. I would really encourage any of you who are interested in her candidacy to get in touch with her by:
We reached out to Congresswoman Clarke’s office to see if she’d be willing to schedule a similar interview. No word yet, but there’s a Congressional recess June 11-15, when she is supposed to be back in the district. Here’s hoping.
In the meantime, enjoy this parting shot from Kinard on her desire to bring visibility to our little swath of Brooklyn. And remember:
REGISTER BY TOMORROW!
VOTE TUESDAY, JUNE 26!
“This [new 9th District] is not an area that is sexy to the city,” Kinard said. “This is an older community with different kinds of needs. We don’t have as many institutional resources…but we have a lot of other resources. This is a great community, it’s a very diverse community. In the diversity, we really do have to figure out what our common ground is. There are some things that people are fundamentally not going to agree on. We could be here until the moon turns green trying to deal with it, or we could try to find out how we can build a community that we all want to live in that is going to meet the needs of our children and our families, however we define that, and move forward. Those are the things I want to focus on, to bring a voice to this community that has traditionally been overlooked.”