It’s all about education and youth for Saywalah Kesselly, a political newcomer who is vying for the 31st District City Council seat to replace James Sanders Jr., who won a bid for state Senate. Kesselly calls himself a troubleshooter and a problem solver and says he was motivated to seek elected office because he is tired of the status quo.
Kesselly, a married father of three who lives in Far Rockaway, is the founder and executive director of the African Center for Community Empowerment in St. Albans, a nonprofit organization that serves youth and families in Southeast Queens. But his educational background is in finance, accounting and economics.
The native of Liberia, West Africa is the oldest candidate in the race at age 52. Others on the ballot for the Feb. 19 special election are Donovan Richards, Sanders’ former chief of staff; Marie Adam-Ovide, the district manager of Community Board 8; Jacques Leandre, a lawyer and founder of the Rosedale Jets Football Association; Earnest Flowers, who runs a communications and marketing firm; Mike Duncan, a community activist; Selvena Brooks, a public relations specialist; Pesach Osina, community liaison for Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway); and former City Councilman Allan Jennings.
Kesselly’s top priority is improving education. He believes in turning schools into holistic learning centers for nurturing and educating children. He said there should be a focus on social and cultural development as well as on building self-esteem.
Kesselly wants teachers to focus their attention on trying to get to know each student on a personal level, so they are better equipped to help them with problems or deficiencies. It is a philosophy, he says, the ACCE has used with great success as it serves about 1,000 youngsters and their families annually with a myriad of programs including standardized test prep courses.
“If children know you have their best interests at heart, they are ready to learn,” Kesselly said.
Citing the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” Kesselly says he wants to bring together community resources including teachers, educators, parents, seniors, faith-based organizations and professionals in a collaborative partnership to educate children.
“The school system is falling apart,” Kesselly said. “Students in this area have a passing rate of 60 percent. At the center, it’s 96 percent. The public school system needs to work for the students.”
He said some schools should stay open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays. And he added that there are too many holidays when schools are closed. In his State of the State Address, Gov. Cuomo said he supported extending the school day. School’s chancellor Dennis Walcott also supports the idea, but neither proposed a way of funding it.
“We need to prepare students for life, not just to pass a test,” Kesselly said. “They need to learn to think critically.”
Kesselly will also focus on economic development by fostering job training and entrepreneur and business incubation centers dedicated to training and empowering youth and adults to acquire the skills for securing decent-paying jobs.
“Most of the people in the community do not own the businesses that are here,” Kesselly said. “It’s not like that in other areas like the Asian community or the Jewish community.”
Kesselly will help community-based organizations streamline their services and expand their programs to the varied needs of youth. He will create additional multipurpose centers to keep youngsters off the streets and out of trouble. Those are some ways Kesselly hopes to prevent juveniles from becoming victims of what he called the revolving-door prison system. And he opposes the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, calling it “a civil and human rights violation, and a return to the old Jim Crow south.”
The City Council hopeful wants to put elders and the unemployed to work as mentors and volunteers in schools and community centers as a way or bridging the intergenerational gap, while at the same time providing meaningful services to the community.
Also on Kesselly’s agenda is setting up centers to deal with foreclosures and immigrant issues and establishing a community-based credit union and bank to spur economic development and area business-ownership.
He says he will pay for his initiatives with member item money and by fostering partnerships with the private sector.
Kesselly is a member of the board of directors at the Addabbo Family Health Center, the vice president of the board of directors of the Farmers Boulevard Community Development Corp. and a member of the advisory board at York College’s Department of Teacher Education.