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Brooklyn debate league raises $1.3M after viral post

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

This quote is how coach K.M. DiColandrea would begin almost every debate team practice at Frederick Douglass Academy. He would urge his students to figure out their ‘why’.

At 15, Jonathan Conyers couldn’t answer the question.

Conyers, now 27, has figured out the answer. When he was selected to tell his life story with Humans of New York, he opted to talk about his teacher, nicknamed DiCo, instead. And that’s when over $1.2 million started rolling in to support the Brooklyn Debate League.

Through 12 different posts on the account, Conyers shared his life story, overcoming ‘hows’ like drug-addicted parents, getting evicted numerous times, and seeing his friend locked up at 14.

Conyers enrolled in Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem after avoiding charges for breaking into a home in middle school. The principal made him enroll in an extracurricular program. After sitting silently in the back of the debate room, Conyers finally participated when the topic of drug addiction was brought up.

“But one day they were discussing drug addiction, which is a topic I know a lot about,” Conyers said in the Humans of New York post. “So I stood up and shared my story. Afterwards Ms. DiCo asked me to stay behind. Mainly she just wanted to make sure I was OK. She was like: ‘Do you need anything?’ But after that, she was like: ‘You should join debate.’”

In hindsight, Conyers wishes he paid more attention to DiColandrea.

“She was white, from Manhattan. She’d gone to Yale. I just assumed she didn’t have any problems,” Dico said in the Humans of New York post.

But that wasn’t the case. DiColandrea revealed to his students that he was in the process of transitioning.

“They waited until I was ready to tell them,” DiColandrea said in an interview, explaining that some students had suspicions when Dico would bring his “friend” to school events. “And then it was just unconditional love.”

“DiCo could have told me he was a dinosaur, and I’d be like: ‘That’s cool. Just stay DiCo,’” Conyers said in the Humans of New York Post.

DiColandrea and Conyers knew the biggest tournament of the year was a real shot when the topic was announced: “Should juvenile offenders be tried as adults?”

While Conyers recalled feeling out of place at the tournament, he found his home on the dais. Conyers recalled in the post that there was nothing special about his opening speeches, but on cross-examination he destroyed his opponents asking his predominantly white and affluent opponents whether they should be the person making this argument if they don’t know anyone.

“Jonathan needs to stick to the facts. His life story gives him an unfair advantage,” Conyers recalled a judge saying, in the Humans of New York post.

DiCo taught all his students to be calm and collected. But that’s when DiColandrea snapped.

“You will not do this to him. These rich kids have access to every resource. But you’re penalizing Jonathan because his life is f***ed up?” Conyers recalled Dico saying, in the Humans of New York Post.

Ever since that tournament, DiColandrea has been working hard to break down those barriers in debate. A few years later, DiColandrea founded the Brooklyn Debate League – a group that seeks to eliminate the gatekeeping in debate by expanding programs and teams to urban areas.

“But it’s not always just about personal anecdotes, it’s like, it’s a more fundamental, personal confidence,” DiColandrea said about teaching students a more personal and unconventional debate style. “It’s helping students understand at a really visceral and deep level, that regardless of what neighborhood they live in, or how much money their parents make, or what school they go to, or what color their skin is, or who they’re attracted to, or how they identify. Regardless of any of those identity markers, they belong in a space where the only weapon is words because their words matter”

“And that’s priceless. Knowing your voice matters,” Conyers said. “Especially as a young Black man, presentation and how you articulate yourself are important.”

And although it’s priceless, it still costs.

DiColandrea started the GoFundMe to cover the $6,000 he personally invested to cover payroll for the small mostly volunteer staff. It was covered in 10 minutes. After two days, it already hit a million. Now over a week later, it has raised over $1.3 million.

“It feels like a mix of the day I got married, all of my birthdays combined, and the day that my student won Harvard,” DiColandrea said about the newfound attention and funds. “It feels like everybody in the world is just reaching out with this abundant outpouring of love and kindness.”

The Brooklyn Debate league operated on a small and scrappy budget, reaching around 250 people on their mailing list and about 100 students coming to tournaments.

“That’s chump change now. We can change our whole mission now,” DiColandrea said with excitement in his voice. DiCo said that he’s looking to reach every person, school and program he can throughout Brooklyn and other urban areas.

“You don’t need to look any further than the New York State Championship that was held two weekends ago, right? There were over 60 schools there. And there were five of them that were public schools in New York City. And three of those were specialized schools. And we are the biggest school district In the country, we have, what, 1.1 million students? They weren’t in those spaces. And they’re not in the speech and debate circuit,” DiColandrea said, explaining the still urgent need for something like Brooklyn Debate League.

While Conyers credits a lot of how he got by in life due to his coach’s help, DiColandrea disagrees.

“I don’t know how to express it. You know, that kind of selflessness is what’s always made him so special; he’s a very humble person,” DiCo said. “And he wanted me to have this moment. And man, am I having it?”

Conyers now says he has figured out his why.

“I learned that giving back and being selfless can change lives. And what he [DiColandrea] did to me has allowed me to help so many people,” Conyers said. He has been on the front lines of COVID working as a respiratory therapist at NYU. He also started a home for children who had been orphaned during the pandemic and owns juvenile rehabilitation centers in Virginia to give kids like him the resources and opportunities he didn’t.

For DiColandrea, it’s a wish come true.

DiColandrea originally gravitated to the quote when he was 16. His high school was only a few blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11. IN the weeks after, she asked for book recommendations for helping to understand and process her trauma. The teacher recommended Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

“As someone who experienced this firsthand, we then had an obligation to speak up about it, to make sure that it wasn’t forgotten to make sure that people understood what happened.”

And that became DiColandrea’s reason. Helping his own students to process their trauma and make sure they know that their voice matters.

“We’re talking about racism. We’re talking about,people who are undocumented. We’re talking about people who come from low income communities. There are traumas that kids are carrying from those communities as well. I want them to feel empowered to speak up about what is meaningful to them, what is their lived experience. To teach them about what matters and for them to feel empowered to share that on whatever level they want. That might be just in front of a friend or a classmate or it might be on a national stage at the Speech and Debate championship,” DiColandrea said.

“But that voice belongs to them. And that power belongs to them to use it, to speak up about what they think matters.”

Even though Coyners said he never had a good answer to what his “why” was – he always knew a bit of the answer.

“All I knew was that I wanted to be like Ms. DiCo,” Conyers said in the Humans of New York post.

“I just want the world to know that there is so much more to Jonathon Coyners, there’s so much more to DiCo,” Conyers said. “We pray that we can continue to share our story and continue to share the things we have been through in much more detail, and we hope the world is supportive.”

Democratic borough president hopefuls debate

A crowded field of Democratic candidates are vying to replace Eric Adams as borough president of Brooklyn.
On May 18, six candidates – Robert Cornegy, Kim Council, Khari Edwards, Mathieu Eugene, Antonio Reynoso, and Jo Anne Simon – exchanged jabs and discussed policy during a televised debate.
Topics included affordable housing, the city’s economy in the wake of COVID-19, and the controversial Industry City rezoning.
Polls currently place current councilmen Cornegy and Reynoso at the front of the pack. The two sparred during the debate, with Cornegy questioning Reynoso over his lack of support for the doomed Industry City rezoning in Sunset Park.
“Months later, there has been no alternative plan for job creation in that area, no alternative for putting people on a pathway to any opportunity in that area,” Cornegy said. “I’m curious as to how you count that as a win when nothing else has been created?”
Reynoso defended his stance on the issue, citing the opposition leveraged against the rezoning by Sunset Park’s current councilman Carlos Menchaca and the local community board.
“The community board voted against the Sunset Park rezoning, every single elected official that represents that district voted against it, and I think that given their experience and their time in their community they know what’s best,” Reynoso explained.
Reynoso went on to emphasize the importance of listening to community feedback on all land-use issues.
Edwards, who serves as Brookdale Hospital vice president and coordinator of the East Brooklyn Call to Action Campaign, used his speaking time to address the high rate of displacement and gentrification in the borough.
He particularly criticized Cornegy for allowing so much development in his district, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.
Council, a community activist and legal librarian, cited her experience bringing affordable housing and health clinics to Bedford-Stuyvesant. During the debate she suggested the creation of a mobile Borough Hall that would “flip the switch on top-down governance.”
Eugene, who represents Flatbush in the City Council, focused primarily on the issues of education and gun violence, calling for action to address the recent spike in violent crimes.
Simon, who currently serves in the state Assembly, also focused on gun safety. She called for the creation of new red-flag laws and cooperation with state and federal governments.

Debate in person

Dear Editor,
The June 22nd primary election for mayor is one of the most consequential of our lives. It is vital that voters be able to hear directly from those who want to lead New York City’s post-pandemic recovery.
Voters have the right to see how candidates engage with one another in a meaningful way, how they think on their feet, interact with and treat their peers, and observe their body language.
New York City and State are on the path to reopening as infection rates continue to fall and vaccinations increase, so it makes no sense for the next Democratic mayoral debate to be held virtually.
If New Yorkers can now socialize and dine in indoor settings, remove masks according to federal health guidelines, and adhere to other health and safety recommendations, then organizers of the next debate are shirking their responsibility to provide a format that benefits the public.
We can have the debate at a location that allows for adequate social distancing and enforces other necessary precautions, such as requiring proof of vaccinations and limiting attendance.
This will ensure that New Yorkers get the lively, interactive, and in-person debate they need to make informed decisions on who to vote for when they cast their ballots this season.
The public deserves nothing less.
Sincerely,
Alfonso Quiroz
Jackson Heights

Debate over Open Street program intensifies in Greenpoint

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused cultural conflicts both nationally and locally. Maskers vs. Anti-maskers, vaccines and anti-vaxxers, open streets and…closed streets?
Throughout the past year, a strange and intense animosity has been growing in Greenpoint regarding whether or not certain city streets should be shut down to allow for more COVID-conscious outdoor pedestrian space.
The tension began last May when Mayor bill de Blasio announced the NYC Open Streets initiative, which placed barricades to stop car traffic on hundreds of miles of streets in the city, including several Greenpoint thoroughfares.
Initially, the NYPD was in charge of the initiative, placing the barricades every morning at 8 a.m. and removing them at 8 p.m. each night. After various complaints that the officers were neglectful of their duties, community organizations volunteered to take charge of the open streets program.
Most notably, the North Brooklyn Open Streets Community Coalition stepped in to manage the situation. With the support of councilmen Antonio Reynoso and Stephen Levin, the volunteer group successfully maintained and facilitated open streets on portions of Berry, Nassau, Russell, and Driggs streets since last year.
However, the open streets program has faced significant pushback since its inception. Last November, a petition titled “Stop Open Streets from becoming a permanent fixture in Greenpoint” gained 962 signatures on Change.org.
“Many members of the community feel they were misled on the original plan, and were unaware that they were signing to completely remove the streets of Greenpoint and turn them into pedestrian-only walkways,” the petition read. “This petition is on behalf of my neighbors and car owners of Greenpoint, our voices are being silenced and we are getting increasingly worried and upset that we are not being represented in the plans for Open Streets.”
Last month, the situation reached an unprecedented fever pitch. A man in a “counterfeit” Amazon delivery truck stole 16 of Greenpoint’s open street barricades overnight, then proceeded to throw the barricades into Newtown Creek.
Members of the community organization North Brooklyn Mutual Aid searched for the missing barricades. Five were found washed up on the shoreline at the end of Apollo Street. Two were fished out of the creek by volunteers in a rowboat. The other nine were lost completely.
While less dramatic, the open street drama continues up to this week. Greenpoint local Logan Reeves recently published an op-ed calling for changes to make the open streets program more focused in its intent.
“Residents have asked multiple times to see the data that was collected in order to figure out what streets to close, and the North Brooklyn Open Streets Coalition declines to share the information,” he wrote. “Do better NYC.”
Despite the pushback, the mayor has expressed his intention to maintain the program. Many of the major Democratic candidates for mayor, including Eric Adams, Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire, Diane Morales, Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley, and Andrew Yang, have also pledged to upkeep the open streets initiative.

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