Senators Bob Duff, Gary Winfield, Saud Anwar and Others Share Support for CONECT’s Key Issues at Kick-Off Assembly
photo by Jack O'Melia
Nearly 300 individuals attended Sunday, January 29th's Kick-Off Assembly hosted by Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT) at the Bridgeport Islamic Community Center (BICC). Attendees were joined by a number of elected officials who shared support for a variety of key issues CONECT will be prioritizing this legislative session. Issues include the development of crisis receiving centers for individuals suffering a mental health crisis, Clean Slate implementation, and full and fair education funding.
Officials in attendance in-person or via zoom included Senators Bob Duff, Gary Winfield, Saud Anwar, Heron Gaston, Jan Hochadel, Ceci Maher, and MD Rahman and Representatives Jeff Currey, Jennifer Leeper, Antonio Felipe, Marcus Brown, Hilda Santiago and Sarah Keitt.
The assembly was led by CONECT Co-Chairs Reverend Philippe Andal and Dr. Liz Keenan who MC’d throughout the event.
“We are people of faith and we are a people of power,” opened Dr. Keenan to a large applause from the crowd.
The co-chairs then held time to acknowledge the grave miscarriage of justice in the murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers.
“While many are grateful for what some consider to be the swift action that Memphis leadership have taken, we call on ourselves, we call on people of faith and goodwill across this nation, and, we call on elected leadership and police departments to commit to taking concrete action, to eliminate an entrenched culture of aggression and dehumanization in policies and practices in policing,” said Rev. Andal.
Following a moment of silence, the assembly kicked off in true CONECT fashion with a prayer led by Imam Mohammed Abdelati of the BICC.
BICC members Yousef Seyal, Sunila Fadl, Lina Khannouchi, and Mustafa Seyal then took to the stage to celebrate the inclusion of Eid al-Fitr in the Fairfield public school calendar. BICC and CONECT, who organized for its inclusion, are seeking to expand on this win and are currently organizing for the addition of Eid al-Fitr on school calendars state-wide.
“I strongly believe that life only changes when you are more committed to your dreams than you are to your comfort zone,” said Fairfield high school student Lina Khannouchi.
Following a roll call, where CONECT member organizations shared their organizing and financial commitments for the upcoming year, the remainder of the event was spent discussing the three key issues of the evening: mental health supports; Clean Slate implementation; and education funding.
Leaders from CONECT’s Mental Health Care issue team, Reverend Odell Cooper, Reena Kaur, and licensed mental health clinician Kevin Muhammed, took the in-person and virtual stage to discuss the need for safe and appropriate places for police, non-police responders, and family members to take loved ones in an acute mental health crisis.
“A lot of people say that the congregations, the faith communities, can serve as the moral compass of society. CONECT, with your actions, you are showing this,” said Sen. Saud Anwar, Public Health Co-chair, before discussing the work of the legislature to increase mental health supports and alternatives.
From there, individuals with CONECT’s Education Team and partner organization FaithActs, discussed Connecticut’s inequitable school funding system, teacher shortage, and how we can build a system that supports all students, regardless of zip code, race, or learning ability.
“Schools are at the mercy of a complex and inequitable educational funding program, weighing too heavily on local property taxes. This continues to impact students, parents, teachers, and communities across Connecticut – creating massive, disturbing disparities,” said retired teacher Melanie Lee, a member of Mount Aery Baptist Church and the chair of CONECT’s Education Team.
CONECT shared support for this year’s proposed House Bill 5003 that would specifically fund poor, Black, and Brown school districts with an allocation of $450 million which could help build a more diverse teacher workforce.
Representative Jeff Currey, Co-Chair of the Education Committee and champion of this landmark bill committed, “We are going to take eleven disjointed funding systems and turn that into one simple funding system that funds all of our public schools regardless of their type.”
For the final issue of the evening, CONECT’s Criminal Legal Reform team took to the stage to discuss the delayed implementation of Clean Slate, a landmark bill championed by CONECT that would automatically expunge criminal records, allowing people who have served time and stayed crime-free to gain greater access to jobs, housing, education, and more.
“Working with many community and legislative allies, CONECT won the passage of Clean Slate in 2021, which was to be implemented fully on January 1, 2023. Just before Thanksgiving, the Lamont administration revealed that Clean Slate would only be partially implemented for marijuana convictions for 44,000 people,” said Phil Kent, Tri-Chair of the Criminal Legal Reform Team. “And so, we stand here together on a fairly warm January day in the tension of community organizing, still seeking the justice promised by our Clean Slate law.”
New Haven resident Sherman Edwards shared his story of living with a criminal conviction and the impact of the delayed implementation of Clean Slate, “Because of my record, I’ve been struggling, working several odd jobs with long hours to feed my family and make sure my kids have what they need. I was hoping 2023 would be a good year because Clean Slate would open doors for people like me to find a full-time job with benefits so my family can build a more stable life for ourselves. But now that Clean Slate is delayed, that opportunity has gone away. I paid my dues to society and should be able to have an equal opportunity like any other Connecticut citizen.”
Clean Slate champion Senator Gary Winfield, who joined virtually via zoom, discussed the continuing fight to get relief for individuals impacted by criminal convictions and thanked the CONECT organizers and leaders for keeping pressure on legislators to ensure the effective implementation of the law.
The final speaker for the assembly, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, was welcomed to the stage to discuss his work and support for the issues discussed throughout the evening.
“All of these things are so important for the quality of life we have here in Connecticut…there’s only so much time in the legislative session, and only through the army that we have with CONECT can we get the things done that we need to get done,” said Senator Duff.
“Leave here fulfilled that so much has been done and that we can continue to get good things moving forward year after year, to make Connecticut the envy of the nation on so many of these important issues,” Senator Duff concluded.
Following commitments from attendees to organize to advance the issues discussed during the assembly, the event came full circle and closed the same way it began: with a closing prayer from Rev Iona Smith Nze, Bethel AME Church, Bridgeport.
A zoom recording of the event is available by request.
Photographs from the event can be found here. Photo credit: Jack O'Melia, CONECT.