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Forest Hills Group 'Let's Talk Democracy' Is All About the Facts
Founded in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Let's Talk Democracy is bringing nonpartisan civics lessons to Forest Hills.
By Maya Kaufman, Patch Staff Feb 26, 2020 3:55 pm ET
FOREST HILLS, QUEENS — In the days and weeks following the November 2016 presidential election, Dr. Ida Messana started seeing an unusual pattern in the patients coming to her Forest Hills clinic. "People were coming with all kinds of serious anxiety and physical problems related to their anxiety," Messana said in an interview. "I was giving out Ativan like crazy." Messana was prescribing so much anxiety medication to patients upset by the election results, she recalled, that she wanted to find a way to help her community feel more empowered.
There didn't seem to be an easy way for people like Messana, whose knowledge of politics largely dates back to her 5th-grade civics curriculum, to learn more about the current state of affairs. While New York public library branches offer civics lessons tailored to immigrants studying for the U.S. citizenship exam, Messana wanted to go further.
Together with several other Forest Hills residents, she launched the group Let's Talk Democracy to provide free civics classes, plus nonpartisan lectures and discussions about national and hyperlocal political issues. "Just the facts, ma'am," Messana said of their approach. "Just the facts."
The organization's debut program in fall 2017 — a seven-week civics workshop at the Queens Public Library's Forest Hills branch, led by Queens College political science professor Michael Krasner — was an instant hit.
Lessons covered everything from the structure of city and state government to gerrymandering and voter suppression, and the course culminated with an "advocacy fair" to connect the pupils to political groups that take action on the issues they'd just studied.
Since then, Let's Talk Democracy has continued partnering with the library to host expert-led discussions on Amazon's plan for a second headquarters, climate change, immigration and media literacy, among other topics. "Public libraries are the most open and democratic institutions in our city, providing access to knowledge, information and opportunity to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances," Queens Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott said.
"It could not be more fitting that this important civic initiative has found a home at Forest Hills Library, and I want to congratulate its founder, Dr. Ida Messana, on identifying the need for it and the entire 'Let's Talk Democracy' team on making it a huge success."
Let's Talk Democracy grew so popular that a member of the group's steering committee started a Manhattan spinoff in 2018. In Forest Hills, upcoming events will focus on the U.S. census and criminal justice reform.
"When I first started, I knew nothing about politics; my nose was in medical books for many, many years," Messana said. "As I'm learning, other people are learning along with me."
Let’s Talk Democracy Presents: Can Democracy Survive?
November 6, 2019 @ 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm
Join us as Michael Krasner, professor of political science at Queens College, returns by popular demand to present Can Democracy Survive? – a five-week civics series that focuses on the threats to our current democracy and what we can do to defend it. He will cover the benefits and vulnerabilities of democracies in the modern world, highlight those that are under attack today, and discuss issues and causes that are weakening our democracy and possible responses to these worrisome trends. Don’t miss this free, informative journey to empowerment through a better understanding of our times.
Queens College Political Science Professor Michael Krasner is an expert in American government and politics. As co-director of the Taft Institute for Government at Queens College, he works to expand and enhance citizen participation by promoting a better understanding of the political process.