Peekskill ‘community convention’ brings town together for beer

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As Jason Angell takes the microphone, there’s barely an empty spot upstairs at the Peekskill Brewery. A sea of ​​neighbors chatting amicably over their pints and coffees. It takes a while for the room to calm down.

Angell, 41, is not the new musical sensation. He’s not a cutting edge comedian.

He filled that suddenly too small upper chamber with nearly 140 Peekskill residents – many standing side by side along the bar in the back – to talk about civic education.

Yes, good citizenship.

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Angell’s Garrison’s Nonprofit Citizen Green Project is leading the final installment of a grassroots citizenship experiment. This time, the group invites the neighbors of Peekskill to come together for a meal and a drink, to listen to each other and talk about what matters most to them.

Jason Angell of the Ecological Citizen's Project welcomes the Peekskill Community Congress Forum at the Peekskill Brewery.

It’s called the Peekskill Community Congress, and it’s the second of its three public forums. The first was held in December at The United Methodist Church; the next will be on February 9 at the “Saturday Academy” at Peekskill Middle School, where Angell hopes to hear from the teens. (Anyone 13 and over can participate.)

Each forum hears residents present ideas or issues that they believe should be a priority in moving their city forward. Short speeches are followed by a social hour for small group discussion.

Once the forums are completed, a ballot with all of the proposed priorities will be distributed for a vote in early spring, resulting in a call to action with an integrated group of activists ready to help answer that call.

It’s quite a revolutionary idea, at a time when most people would rather look at a device in their hand than in the eyes of their neighbor.

And this revolution is broadcast live, with simultaneous translation into Spanish.

“Everyone here lives in Peekskill and they care about their community and they want to be a part of something to move their community forward,” Angell told the crowd. “While there is always disagreement, the only thing that is true is that everyone here probably wants the best for their community and wants to see this process have an impact.”

Thanks to a grant from the Endeavor Foundation, Angell and program director Jocelyn Apicello hosted their first convention in Philipstown in 2017 and achieved remarkable community support. They identified three main priorities: cycle paths and hiking trails; clean water; and a teenage center – and dozens of other issues needing attention in the city of 9,700 people.

“In Philipstown, we saw 800 people vote and 450 people volunteered to turn their proposals into reality,” says Angell.

The issue of cycle paths has already won a federal grant; Another key issue, the city’s response to the opioid epidemic, prompted the city to hire a coordinator, Angell says.

“Congress provides clear data that people want something,” he says.

Amy Wiggens was among the residents of Peekskill listening to speakers at the Peekskill Community Congress on January 17, 2019 at the Peekskill Brewery.  The congress brought together the residents of Peekskill who wanted to help set priorities for the city's future.

A civil congress

On this particularly cold night, 11 neighbors get up at the microphone at the front of the room, some reading notes on their cellphones, others clutching paper scripts.

Obstructions are out of the question.

Each speaker has three minutes to convince the crowd that their idea must be a priority for the city of 24,000 inhabitants. When their speeches reach two minutes, Apicello rings. A single speaker does not meet the three-minute limit; Apicello gets up and stands by his side, a silent reminder.

Civility reigns in this congress.

During about fifty minutes of interventions, the subjects are very varied: search for volunteers for the voluntary ambulance corps; relaunch the Cherry Blossom Festival; looking for a task force to oversee the Paramount Hudson Valley theater, which the city owns but is closed for renovation.

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There are calls for more diversity in public policy, for a municipal identification system to support immigrants, for garbage cleaning and for safer intersections.

A speaker wants the city to have a mental health crisis response team to help police defuse potentially violent situations. Another wants to add a bus service to schools to ensure student safety.

Next, Courtney Williams of the population rights group “Peekskill 2030” steps in, with a team of adults and children carrying signs and wearing costume pieces. Williams points to a first grader with a graduation cap. “When he turns 18 and graduates from high school, what will our city be like?” she asks.

Williams proposes a task force to create a roadmap for navigating the challenges ahead. (They’re on Facebook, like Peekskill2030.)

Brewer, father, citizen

Keith Berardi, the lanky 35-year-old brewery owner, is a sidekick in the process, happy to lend his business to Congress – a supplier of what he calls “beer, that great social lubricant.”

Berardi walks the march of civic engagement.

When he started the brewery ten years ago, he was its father. Today, he is the father of three children, including two students from Peekskill Schools.

“We lived in the Lakeland School District and came back to Peekskill a few years ago to put our kids in the system here because we worked here, we spent most of our time there,” says Berardi. “We have seen so many changes and we wanted to be a part of it.”

It’s one thing to talk about wanting to be part of the change; it is quite another to take your children out of a school district and place them in a district that has been identified as needing improvement.

But Berardi sees it as a sign of his 100% support.

“I felt like if people our age didn’t fully commit that Peekskill would never take that step,” he said.

This meeting looks like a turn in this corner. The atmosphere in the room gives the impression of being a startup.

It comes weeks after a steering committee meeting, where, Berardi recalls, people wondered how it was all going to work.

“People were like, ‘Who’s going to make it happen?’ He remembers. “And I actually got up in the middle and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! This piece is what makes this happen. Like, that’s actually the point of this. The point doesn’t. It’s not that a savior or another politician or a person is going to come and say, “We’re going to fix the drinking water right now.” No, no, no. That’s everyone in this room. ‘”

For Berardi, citizenship is not a spectacle sport.

“I think the beauty of this model is that everyone is active,” he says. “This is the end result. In high school, I was taught that it’s the journey, not the destination. I feel like this is what it is. “

Keith Berardi, resident of Peekskill, owner of the Peekskill Brewery, makes his presentation at the Peekskill Community Congress on January 17, 2019. Surrounded by the youth of Peekskill, Berardi proposed that the town make the youth program, services and facilities its own. top priority.

“You don’t feel intimidated”

A lot of people didn’t know what to expect when they walked up the steps of the brewery. (The elevator was broken.)

Resident Rick Kline says he thought his neighbors would focus on issues like “a few bike lanes and global warming.”

But it’s more than that.

When Berardi, the host, speaks, it is as a business owner and father. “I suggest that as a community we make youth services, programs and our facilities the top priority of the community,” he says, suggesting a multi-faceted program to oversee all aspects of the issue.

Later, Kristin Jarvis and Allen Jenkins are chatting right next to the main room, next to the coat rack.

“I had no expectations,” Jarvis said. “I came hoping to see a great community here tonight, and I did. I was blown away. I thought there would be 20 people in the room. I had no idea it would be one. such a great event. “

For Jenkins, the place and the format are liberating.

“Most of the time it is presented at a joint council meeting or a school board meeting, but not many people go to these things, not many people feel comfortable going.” he said. “It’s informal, where people can come in and have these ideas. You don’t feel intimidated because these are people you know who are in your community. I like that part of it.”

He looks forward to the February 9 event at the Saturday Academy.

“At the academy, you will have the school children. I hope they have some fresh new ideas that we don’t think of.”

Learn more

You can watch all of the January 17 public forum speeches on YouTube by searching for Peekskill Community Congress.

The congress website is www.peekskillcommunitycongress.com.

Find out more about the ecological citizen project on www.ecologicalcitizens.org

This is the official report from the 2017 Philipstown Community Congress. A report similar to this will be coming out of the Peekskill Forums.


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