The birth of a movement

| 21 Jan 2016 | 04:31

By Nancy Kriz
— The Monroe town board’s decision to purchase a movie theater at auction during a late night workshop meeting in November 2012 was the catalyst for the birth of a grassroots movement that, by all accounts, changed Town of Monroe politics, raised awareness of the need for people to get involved, challenged government actions and demonstrated why voting matters.

The United Monroe grassroots group will soon mark its first three years as an official organization. It’s had its share of challenges since its 2013 formation. But at the same time, United Monroe has developed into a respected group which now gets attention, Chairwoman Emily Convers said.

As residents and those not living in Monroe continue to express triumph over the 2015 election of Mike McGinn and Tony Cardone and the beginning of their four year board tenure earlier this month - considered by many to be United Monroe’s greatest achievement to date - Convers reflected on United Monroe’s lengthy efforts to affect change in Monroe government and political affairs.

“I never imagined we’d turn into a political movement,” said Convers, talking about how that first news story focusing on the town’s movie theater purchase caused her to investigate and eventually persuade people to attend a town board meeting to question elected officials about their decision.

“For me, it started as righting a wrong,” Convers said. “My moral compass was activated for what I saw was injustice. Nothing motivates and fuels people like injustice does. At that time, at that meeting, I thought maybe we could change their minds. Maybe we could get this building back on the tax rolls and make a difference in this community.”

While that didn’t happen, the “Save the Monroe Movie Theater” group had a growing Facebook following which was just the beginning of community activism efforts.

“At the time, it was just about the theater,” she said. “It turned into so much more because of what we continued to witness in the town board meetings.”

Finding common ground
Convers was quick to say United Monroe’s formation would never have gotten as far as it has without thousands upon thousands of residents and non-residents supporting its work, either by volunteering time, making financial donations to the cause or both.

In three years’ time, United Monroe learned about voting blocs, public debates, poll watching, voting irregularities, lack of government transparency and more, she said.

The group, she added, also dealt with Department of Environmental Conservation decisions, lawsuits, attorneys, chaotic town board meetings, unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism, political cronyism and nepotism and efforts to discredit its work within the community, county and even statewide.

But United Monroe also learned about the heart of a community as unity grew around the cause, found common ground among different political parties, engaged in successful fund raising, marketing and communication efforts, forged positive relationships, including with business and education leaders, families, elected officials and even groups in the KJ section of the town.

The group became social media, website development and podcast savvy, got the attention of other local, county and state elected officials, demonstrated why respect and integrity are integral components to one’s behavior, stressed why voting matters, and, Convers added, never gave up or gave in because it felt its cause was a just one.

So, Convers said, when the Kiryas Joel 507-acre annexation request came up just two months after the 2013 election, residents quickly challenged the motives of Monroe officials, repeatedly emphasizing the issues tied to annexation had absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with high density housing, infrastructure challenges, water and sewer issues.

“It’s overwhelming to think about what we accomplished in the last three years,” she said. “We’ve changed the course of Orange County politics. But the growth of the movement and what fueled it was the town board.”

People who aligned themselves with United Monroe would not give up either, Convers said.

“Every fund raiser, every rally, every election has cemented the confidence that we’ve needed to continue and keep going,” she added. “People keep showing up, more and more people keep joining the movement and every week we have more people interested and more press and more phone calls. Where in the very beginning I may have doubted if we would have succeeded, for the good part of these last three years I have not doubted for a second.”

‘Trickles upward’
Convers felt the United Monroe’s creation resulted in positive outcomes never before seen in the greater Monroe area as well as in Orange County.

“There’s better awareness,” she said. “People in Monroe are incredibly engaged and incredibly aware now, since United Monroe was formed. It’s been our biggest goal and mission to inform and engage our fellow citizens.”

The result? More people are aware of the issues and come out to vote to take a stand.

“I think getting so many people who previously never voted to the polls has probably been one of our biggest victories,” she added. “I think the culture of grassroots and the impact of grassroots trickles upward, because we now know Albany politicians, county legislators and the county executive know who United Monroe is and are watching what we do. Our impact is widespread at this point and it’s an inspiration to other communities, because this shows they can also make a difference and they can do the same things we’re doing.”

But it’s more than voting, too.

“People are staying charged,” Convers said. “Calls for volunteers to kick off voter registration drives immediately had a dozen, new names offering to volunteer. The fact that we’ve maintained the same core group of people since the beginning says a lot about our organization.”

The march
For Convers, United Monroe’s “monumental moments,” thus far, were the 2015 march by hundreds of residents and non-residents to Kiryas Joel to watch annexation vote this past fall.

“Also, I think the creation of Preserve Hudson Valley was a game changer,” she said. “I think this recent (2015) election and building a bridge with the Alliance in KJ and finding common ground is monumental as well and vital for peace in our region for future generations.”

United Monroe’s mission remains unchanged, she stressed, adding she felt the newly elected town board members will represent a previously unrepresented electorate and respond to the wishes of the people.

“Communication, integrity, respect and transparency,” Convers said. “We’ve spread ‘the message of community’ and how important it is for every individual to take a stand, and to stand up against wrong doing. We’ve worked really hard and communicated and given information to the public by being extremely honest, which has really resonated with people.”

And while Convers said United Monroe’s work was far from over, there’s one more thing, she felt was important.

“(Former U.S. Speaker of the House) Tip O’Neill said ‘All politics is local’ and I really believe that to be true,” added Convers. “To reach out directly to individual people, to rally side-by-side on a community level, is very empowering, and can bring so much hope.”