Irvington Activists Continue Efforts to Promote Progressive Agenda
by Barrett Seaman –
They are organized. They are committed. And they are local. But, in many ways, they are emblematic of what has been happening on a national scale. Like similar political groundswells in Virginia, Alabama and most recently in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, the Irvington Activists have most of all proven themselves effective.
A group of about 45 residents (mostly from Irvington’s Main Street neighborhoods), the Activists are an outgrowth of the 2016 presidential election. “It just kind of bubbled up,” said Thom Thacker, one of the group’s founding members.
“There were a lot of people feeling … unhinged after the election,” recalled Thacker’s co-founding partner and friend since college, Peter Bernstein, pausing to find the right descriptor. Conversations along Irvington’s sidewalks, cocktail party commiserating, …and frustration—all led to a series of meetings in the wake of the election, the second of which became an actual organizational event. One of the participants, Ellen Prior of Tarrytown, applied her knowledge of human resource methodology to help the group articulate its goals and develop an organizational model.
Under the Activist umbrella, three committees emerged, each focused on a particular area where members felt they could make a difference: “vulnerable communities,” which includes but is not exclusive to issues surrounding undocumented immigrants; local government, at the village, town and county levels but with an eye towards influencing national policy, and the environment. Early on, there was a fourth topical committee on health care, leaning towards promotion of single payer insurance. Lacking any realistic avenue toward success, however, it withered as members devoted their energies to the first three.
While they call themselves non-partisan and can cite examples of centrist and conservative supporters, the Activists are decidedly liberal, as is apparent by their choice of issues. Given recent demographic trends in Irvington and other rivertowns, that’s not surprising. All four of the village’s elected trustees are Democrats, and the mayor, a former member of the Republican Party, has recently run exclusively on the “Irvington First” ticket. There has been no Republican on the ballot in recent election cycles.
The group’s first galvanizing issue came early in 2017 in reaction to the Trump Administration’s aggressive immigration policy and travel ban. Led by Irvington native David Imamura, now a Manhattan attorney, the Activists crafted a pair of resolutions, eventually combined, that urged the village to declare that its law enforcement officials would “not engage in activities solely for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration laws” and refrain from assisting ICE in its efforts to identify and detain undocumented immigrants without warrants. The language was designed to avoid leaving the village open to charges of acting as an illegal sanctuary. Irvington’s board unanimously passed the resolution, which subsequently became the model for a similar resolution by the Westchester County legislature. That resolution passed but was vetoed by former GOP County Executive Rob Astorino, then signed by Westchester’s new County Executive, George Latimer (see story page 6).
Since then, their ongoing efforts have been focused on supporting existing groups that provide aid and comfort to immigrants and other disadvantaged groups in the region, such as Hudson Valley Community Coalition, Irvington’s Abbott House, which provides government-supported transition to refugee children, and Community Voices Heard (CVH), a multi-racial group supporting social justice in the New York metropolitan area. Hosting a “Cake for Change” baking contest at the Irvington Presbyterian Church, the Activists raised $7,600 last year for the group. A reprise of the contest is scheduled for May 5th. Supporting CVH and other ongoing organizations reflects the Activists’ practical approach. Said Lisa Genn, an early member: “We don’t want to re-imagine strategies and needs that they’ve already been working on for years.”
Politically, the group threw itself energetically into the successful campaign to have Democrat George Latimer unseat Republican incumbent Astorino as County Executive. They are actively lobbying Albany in support of legislation that would authorize the state to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants as a way to encourage more immigrant participation in the legal system. Currently, they are working to help Democrat Shelley Mayer succeed Latimer in what was his state Senate seat—not exactly an Irvington issue but one they perceive to be a step on the road towards breaking the logjam in Albany that is blocking a lot of Assembly-passed progressive legislation they support.
The environmental committee’s portfolio has been more modest. Activists backed an already popular initiative to limit use of gas-powered leaf blowers in the village, which the board adopted last year. Members are now hoping to convince Irvington to open a food scrap-composting site and to provide more recycling containers for the public to use on Main Street.
In an effort to highlight racial consciousness in a local context, several members of the group are researching colonial era slavery practices in the lower Hudson Valley.
Bernstein’s and Thacker’s progressive ideology goes back to their days at Washington State’s Evergreen College, which has been back in the news recently in stories about campus free speech. With Genn, they share family histories in which recent immigration and its hardships played a role. Their professional careers did not reflect a particularly ideological bent: Thacker taught school, then worked in museums, with a brief stint working for a large labor union. Bernstein was an employee benefits consultant. Genn is an attorney but has more recently worked for civil rights organizations and an urban dance company that promotes the arts for at-risk and homeless children.
Irvington Activists have done their own internal talent inventory. They have people who have the time and resources to drive; people who are computer-savvy; graphic artists and video experts, and people who know how to write grant applications. “We have a community of individuals who want to be active but have different capabilities in terms of time and talent,” said Bernstein.