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Teacher, teacher: (l-r) Mary and Ava Zwolinski. Photo by: John Whipple

From My Family to Yours
Literacy organization in Rensselaer County launches new program encouraging volunteers to bring their children

When thinking of ways to spend their free time alone, parents also have to consider what to do with their children. The challenge of finding something for them to do on their own, or a babysitter to look after them, can limit plans. One possible solution, now being explored by a local organization, is to make it easier for parents doing volunteer work in their spare time to bring the family.

Linda Feldmann, a member of Literacy Volunteers of America—Greater Rensselaer County, a volunteer organization that provides free English tutoring to adults, says she’s seen a big shift in the way families socialize from when she was a child. “It used to be a neighborhood was an umbrella network of families. . . . Now, [socializing] is more structured for particular age groups in particular settings and it does make it harder for families to interact in family units,” she said.

She also said that she has noticed a trend over the years of LVAGRC members dropping out once they have younger children because of the time demands. She’s organizing a new program that she hopes will combat this issue called Family to Family, which pairs English-speaking volunteer families with families learning to speak English to participate in activities together.

“LVAGRC have been doing almost 40 years of one-on-one tutoring, and what has become clear is that many people have stopped tutoring because of having small children, whether that means wanting to stay home with them or the pressure of finding child care. . . . So by including kids we’re removing that obstacle,” Feldmann said, adding that adults learning English face the same challenges.

Barbara Wyman, LVAGRC executive director, proposed the idea in an effort to get more volunteers in the age bracket of people with younger children involved. So far, five pairs of families have signed up, though LVAGRC would like twice as many. Participating student families come from countries including Poland, Korea, and Afghanistan. LVAGRC matches the families based on mutual interests and personalities, and asks for them to meet for two hours twice a month for at least one year. What they do during this time is up to the families to decide, but LVAGRC asks that the activities incorporate conversation, reading and writing, such as a trip to a museum.

Mary Zwolinski, a folklorist at the Arts Center in Troy and a former board member of LVAGRC, said she became interested in the program because she had been looking for an activity she could do with her daughter. “I had been looking for something for a while and hadn’t been able to come up with something we could both do together that would match our different personalities,” she said. She and 7-year-old Ava have volunteered to be paired with a student family.

Zwolinski thinks a major advantage that the program provides is that it teaches English in a social setting that a classroom cannot provide. “It’s really important when people come here from a different country,” she said. “To learn English as a second language, they need to share some of those informal social situations together. Going to a class to learn English for two hours is one thing, but they have to be able to go learn in a social setting too.”

She also hopes that she and Ava can learn something about the family they’re paired with. “I see it as a good opportunity for us to share something that we like to do and at the same time learn something new about them too, so it’s a two-way street, really,” she said.

A four-hour orientation for teacher families will be held on Saturday (April 24) at the LVAGRC headquarters in Troy, where they’ll learn about cultural sensitivity and come up with ideas on what to do with their new friends. Then the families have a first opportunity to sit down and meet at a dinner organized by LVAGRC.

—Liz Healy


What Are They Thinking?
Pataki, Spitzer and the Senate go for vast anti- terrorism omnibus bill that civil-liberties advocates firmly oppose

‘Gov. Pataki, Sen. Bruno, your anti-terrorism proposals will not make New Yorkers safer,” said Udi Ofer, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, at a press conference he hosted this week. “It’s a response that is based on an outdated and discredited notion that constitutional rights and freedoms must be sacrificed in order to protect national security.”

This sentiment was echoed by civil- and immigrants’-rights activists, a law professor, and a criminal defense lawyer who joined Ofer on Monday (April 19) to express opposition to proposed anti- terrorism legislation for New York state.

The proposal comes from an omnibus package of bills jointly advanced by Gov. George Pataki and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who have supported such legislation since 2001. In this year’s State of the State Address, the governor called the package “the single most important piece of legislation you will consider this year.” The Senate passed the package in mid-March, though the Assembly has not.

The bills criminalize bio-, agri-, and cyber-terrorism, making activities including money laundering and contaminating public food and water supplies new terrorist offenses. There is also a provision permitting roving wiretapping, which Spitzer has been behind for some time. He believes it will help because “the ability of law enforcement to track criminals has been outpaced by technology,” said Mark Violette, a spokesperson for Spitzer’s office. Roving wiretaps would allow the tapping of all phones a suspect might use, unlike wiretaps of the past, which were attached only to a particular phone.

The legislation’s critics agree that greater vigilance against potential terrorist attacks and improved preparedness are necessary, but don’t think the omnibus bill is going to achieve those goals. They say this legislation is too vague and expansive and would therefore lead to faulty prosecutions, unnecessarily erode civil rights and liberties, and serve as a distraction from real measures of prevention, such as securing the safety of the state’s infrastructure and public health.

“If the intent of the governor’s anti-terrorism package is to deter acts of terrorism and to secure the public safety, it’s our view that the proposed law will accomplish neither objective,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU’s legislative director. He added that deterrence is not a tactic that will work for terrorists. “Clearly if they are willing to risk their lives, the penal code in New York law is not going to deter them from engaging in terrorist acts.”

Under the proposed legislation, critics said, crimes redefined as terrorism are made felonies, police powers are dramatically expanded, and the burden of proof is lowered for prosecuting this new category of crimes. This set of provisions, Perry said, “virtually invites law enforcement to lower their standards.” Accomplice testimony would no longer be required to add up. A suspect’s personal or business tax records could be released if requested by a legal authority for a terrorism investigation. Previously unwarranted searches and seizures could result in admissible evidence in court if the officer was acting in “good faith.” Suspects can also be retried for the same crime after an acquittal, over and above the constitutional bulwark of “double jeopardy,” which had previously made such retrials unthinkable. There is also a provision that would allow someone to be convicted of aiding a suspect group, even if a person supports only something like the educational activities of a group.

“This is a misguided bill that seems like it’s simply trying to pander to fear that we see today surrounding terrorism,” said former prosecutor and Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman.

The renewed effort for the new anti-terrorism package comes at a time when President George W. Bush is calling for the extension of the sunsetting provisions of the Patriot Act. Bush was in Buffalo on Tuesday making a stump speech lauding the Patriot Act to a closed audience of first responders. He applauded the convictions of the Lackawanna Six, a local group of Yemeni-Americans who admitted to briefly attending Al Qaeda training camps, and said, “The Patriot Act needs to be renewed and the Patriot Act needs to be enhanced.” Bush is joined by Gov. Pataki on the campaign trail.

Last week, Pataki announced more than $103 million in federal Department of Homeland Security grant money for New York’s counties. The counties receive funds based on threat assessment, and the grants to fund preparedness efforts range from $7,500 for Hamilton County to $53 million for New York City.

“I understand the timing: Bush is in town,” said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, regarding the correlation of the legislation’s passage in the Senate, grants and presidential visit. “I think there’s a lot of it that’s election-year pandering.”

The infusion of grant money could help alleviate what Perry called the state’s “woefully inadequate” efforts to bolster the state’s level of preparedness.

“We are in need of a comprehensive plan to protect our people,” said Gradess. “It can’t simultaneously undermine the Constitution and protect us.”

—Ashley Hahn
ahahn@metroland.net

Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

Rich in Satire

Billionaires for Bush staged a thank-you rally outside the New Karner Road Post Office on tax day (April 15). Members of the ad-hoc satirical theater group dressed up in formal wear and carried various signs on the theme of “Taxes Are Not for Everyone.” “I’ve incorporated my business in the Bahamas,” said coordinator “Lou Pohlz” (Jon Bartholomew). “I don’t pay any corporate taxes when all is said and done, but as a subcontractor for Halliburton, I make money off of taxes.” The group started at about a dozen, said Bartholomew, but swelled to 20 as taxpayers asked if they could join the fun.

On Tuesday (April 20), the billionaires turned out again, this time to protest proposed “clean money/clean election” legislation on the state Capitol building steps. They brought signs such as “One dollar, one vote” and “Buy your own president,” and chanted “Big money, united, shall never be defeated.” Ten clean-election supporters with mops and brooms later chased the 20 billionaires off the steps.

Bartholomew said the group plans to continue to turn out at events such as political fundraisers and visits from presidential candidates in order to point out how “the current system is geared toward billionaires.”


Trailmix

Getting Down to Issues

In an Albany County legisla- tive election season that has largely been dominated by concerns over process, from redistricting to absentee ballots, there are some third-party candidates who are hoping their issues will be heard above the clamor.

Of course Norman “Zoe” Zidback’s one issue actually is about the process of elections. Zidback is running as a candidate of the Preferential Ballot Party in District 2, and his one aim is to promote what is commonly known as instant runoff voting. In IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate gets 50 percent of the first choices, second choices are added in to the mix, and so on until a majority is reached. Zidback figures that IRV is the only way for third parties to get anywhere, and so merits a single-issue run.

This is the first time Zidback has run for office, and it was a fairly casual decision. “It was almost an accident,” he said. “I became aware of the possibility, I went down and asked how many signatures you needed. . . . It didn’t seem too hard.”

District 2 is a full ballot, with five candidates, including a Green Party candidate who also supports IRV. “Yeah [they’re] in support, but with baggage,” said Zidback. “It’s an afterthought, something they stuck on.”

“I agree that voting reform is the only way that we’re going to win in any consistent way,” responded Albany County Green Party co-chair Peter Lavenia. “But we’re a political party and we have a holistic vision. We can’t just run on one issue.”

The Greens are running three candidates in this election: Steven Segore in District 2 (South End), Megan Keegan in District 5 (West Hill), and Peter Lavenia in District 8 (Pine Hills). They share a common platform of what Lavenia calls “basic Green stuff,” including a countywide living wage, funding for public transportation, cutting down on sprawl, and supporting tenants’ rights [“Back to the Greenroots,” Newsfront, Sept. 18, 2003]. They are also calling for the legislature to pass a resolution opposing the Rockefeller drug laws.

Lavenia and Keegan are the only challengers to their respective incumbents, Nancy Wiley and Fowler Riddick. Neither of the Green candidates have seen their opponents out campaigning, and so have some hope that they could pull off a surprise win. In District 2, where the spoiler charge could be levied, Lavenia thinks the Green vote is likely to be a protest vote, but he still feels it’s important to have a candidate there to gain some name recognition.

“I think it’s obviously an important place to run,” he said, “because the Greens are attempting to be a grassroots party for working people, in a way that Democrats aren’t and the Working Families, which is basically a front for the Democratic Party, can’t be.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

You Pick ’Em

In the special Albany County legislative election on Tuesday (April 27), most battles for vacated seats will take place beyond the city of Albany. Within the city, most incumbent legislators are Democrats who have a tight grip on their seats in virtually all of the city’s districts. Republicans within the city, however, hope to give the incumbents an earnest run for their money. Meanwhile, beyond the city limits, there is a lot up for grabs.

Several incumbent Republican legislators did not run in their suburban districts. In Northern Albany County’s District 20, John Graziano Jr.’s (R, C, I) seat is up for grabs as Democrat Timothy Nichols and Republican Scott Paton face off to take his place. In the 26th, William Melchionni III (R) did not to run for a second term to represent part of Loudonville and West Albany; now Democrat Richard Gross and Republican William Hoblock are running for his seat. Gross is endorsed by both the Independence Party and the Working Families Party, while Hoblock is endorsed by the Conservative party.

After three terms representing District 36, Republican Robin Reed isn’t running again, leaving Democrat Howard Shafer and Republican Tony Schwartz to go toe-to-toe to represent parts of Selkirk, Bethlehem and Coeymans. Paul Scaringe (R, C) is not up for reelection after representing Loudonville and the Town of Colonie in the 25th district for more than two decades. Fellow Republican Ann Comella is facing off against Democrat Alexander McHugh. McHugh is a plaintiff in the lawsuit over absentee-ballot fraud in the lower wards during the primaries.

In Guilderland’s 30th District, Democrat Allen Maikels’ seat is being vied for by Republican Dennis Magilton and Democrat Dennis Feeney. Maikels ran unsuccessfully for county comptroller last fall.

Voter turnout is anticipated to be low because April is an unusual time for elections, but out in the ‘burbs, the lawns are peppered with signs that show residents are paying attention.

—Ashley Hahn


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