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Moving ‘Newtown Forward’ Is Focus Of New Advocacy Group

Published: March 12, 2017

Since November, the local advocacy group Newtown Forward has been expanding, but it may not have started without a Facebook post.

Rebekah Harriman-Stites felt discouraged the day after the national elections and posted an update on Facebook asking friends to meet her for drinks at the Nouveau Monde Wine Bar in Sandy Hook. Friends wound up sharing the post with other friends, and roughly 30 people ended up meeting her.

Ms Harriman-Stites — who serves on the Board of Education but said her involvement with Newtown Forward is separate — said on Monday, March 6, that she knew a handful of the people who showed up. After that first meeting, a closed Facebook group was created. The group now has roughly 500 people in it, according to Ms Harriman-Stites.

“It’s mostly people from Newtown, and, of course, they all wanted to have a meeting,” said Ms Harriman-Stites.

The group held its first meeting in December. At its start, people ranted and complained, voicing frustration with what came out of the election.

“People needed to get that out,” said Ms Harriman-Stites, “but what we came to at the end of that was we needed to really be strategic and we couldn’t just sit around and complain and let things happen to the country that we love so much. We needed to be active and engaged in change making.”

It formed under another name at first. Ms Harriman-Stites said in a “tongue and cheek” way the members decided to call the group “Pantsuit Newtown” after a national movement called “Pantsuit Nation.” At the group’s second meeting, Ms Harriman-Stites said the name was changed to “Newtown Forward” to better reflect the group’s mission.

Newtown Forward, she said, is nonpartisan and it has member diversity, with people representing different races, genders, and ages.

Almost from the start, Ms Harriman-Stites said she “volunteer-told” people to lead different efforts. Now she said she mostly facilitates the monthly meetings and helps people connect with the group. Newtown Forward’s subcommittees are Advocates for Diversity and Unity, Political Action, Media Advocacy, Climate Change, and Youth Outreach. Each of the groups, she added, is working on “incredible things.”

Newtown Forward’s mission reads in part, “We are a group of motivated Newtown residents, convinced that the only way to build the resistance is from the ground up. We are the change we wish to see in the world.”

“You can’t just be angry,” Ms Harriman-Stites said. “You have to turn that into something that is positive.”

Diversity And Unity, Political Action Subcommittees

Each subcommittee has its own mission.

Robbin Chaber Allen, who co-chairs the Advocates for Diversity and Unity Subcommittee with Sabeena Ali, said working on the subcommittee was a natural progression from her interest this election season and the co-chairs’ joint efforts in previously helping to resettle a refugee family from Syria.

The subcommittee, according to its mission, works to advocate for Fairfield County individuals whose rights are under threat “due to their sexual orientation, skin color, religion, gender, income, ethnicity, or immigration status and to celebrate our differences to ensure an environment of mutual understanding and respect.”

Ms Allen said subcommittee efforts have included coat drives. She is also collecting grocery gift cards for Stop & Shop and Shaw’s for local refugee programs that are anticipating budget cuts. Ms Allen said anyone interested in helping to support the effort can e-mail her at robbinredhead@hotmail.com for information about the grocery gift card collection. The Advocates for Diversity and Unity Subcommittee is also working on a program for the spring or early summer that will celebrate diversity and educate people about different groups.

“Our goal is to be a voice for those that don’t have one right now,” said Ms Allen.

Political Action Subcommittee Chair Prerna Rao said her subcommittee is encouraging the members of Newtown Forward and other friends to get involved locally.

“The place to start is at home,” Ms Rao said.

Being a part of a group like Newtown Forward, Ms Rao said, helps keep topics that are important to her in the forefront of her mind. Her subcommittee, she said, offers a way for people who care about certain topics to help see those things come to fruition. The group offers support for each other’s goals, she added.

The group, said Ms Rao, is not conservative or liberal.
“Go to meetings. Get involved. Find out what is happening in town,” Ms Rao said. Later adding, “It’s really about getting involved and making friends, meeting neighbors, and being involved in general and politically.”

Media, Climate Change, And Youth Outreach

Media Advocacy Chair Alex Copp said his group works to be both Newtown Forward’s media arm — by working to make a monthly newsletter and a website — and an advocate for “good journalism” standards.

“We want to get back to an era of good reporting,” said Mr Copp.
One initiative the group has discussed, according to Mr Copp, is working to identify advertisers on different media websites and working to let those advertisers know more about the media organizations they advertise on. He said the group can also work to encourage people to read real sources to steer them away from “fake news.”

Fresh from her group’s hosted screening of the movie Before The Flood on March 5, at Edmond Town Hall, Climate Change Subcommittee Chair Vanessa Villamil said one of her group’s next efforts is organizing a local group to attend the planned People’s Climate March in Washington, DC, on April 29.

“We are tackling climate change through education political action, and local waste reduction efforts,” the subcommittee’s mission reads.

Ms Villamil said people interested in attending the People’s Climate March can e-mail her at vanvil77@aol.com for more information.

“Everybody needs to do their part to fight this problem,” Ms Villamil said.

Jean Walter and Michele Lurie are co-chairing Newtown Forward’s Youth Outreach Subcommittee. Ms Walter said the subcommittee is working with students to help them find a way “to have some hope.”

After meeting with a number of local students, Ms Walter said the students are concerned as citizens and as soon-to-be voters. Even though the students do not vote yet, Ms Walter said the subcommittee is working to help them feel like they have a voice. A Young Democrats group at Newtown High School was recently formed and it has been working with the subcommittee. Ms Walter said the subcommittee is open to all local students.

“I want them to not feel helpless,” she said, adding that she hopes the students involved in the subcommittee feel like they are a part of something and that they are doing something.

Newtown Forward, Ms Harriman-Stites said, holds monthly meetings. People can learn more information about the group, its subcommittees, its efforts, and future meetings by e-mailing newtownforward@gmail.com.

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