This is my space to write about discovering all that is warm and fuzzy about the Bronx, yet I am still reeling from the speeches delivered at the Republican National Convention last week on the community activist issue. I know the conventions are where candidates make promises they don’t intend to keep or show just how tucked in bed they are with their party’s ideology. But I can not ignore the barbs thrown from the podium at the Xcel Energy Center, because several of them have landed smack dab in New York City’s greenest borough.
Gov. Palin and Mr. Giuliani used the convention stage to joke and laugh about Senator Obama’s early community work on the South Side of Chicago. Giuliani was consumed by his own chortling as he told the crowd “maybe this is the first problem on the resume” and laughter spread through the crowd like an infection. It was appalling.
Community activism is at the root, the foundation. It is the core of where change takes place. It can take hold in anyone, Republican or Democrat, parent or student, poor or middle class. When Senator McCain took his turn at the podium, however, it appeared he had not received the memo his fellow party mates had. He appeared the most energized and passionate at the end of his speech which, sounded to me, like a call to action in favor of community activism.
He said: “If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier. Because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.”
In my short tenure here in the Bronx, I have come to read about and hear the names of many people and organizations committed to grassroots initiatives – some are cleaning up the Bronx River or using art education to build awareness about the Bronx River (many children living in the Bronx have never seen the river because it is largely inaccessible). In the Northwest Bronx plans to blast rock for a water filtration project in the Jerome Park Reservoir near Van Cortlandt Park were temporarily halted due to community complaints and outcry. Other “less invasive” methods, such as drilling are being considered.
I read about Majora Carter, Green Goddess Extraordinaire!, who has developed waterfront projects to revitalize the South Bronx. Her South Bronx neighborhood is home to a sewage treatment plant, four electrical power plants and the world’s largest food distribution center at Hunts Point. She leveraged a $10,000 seed grant from the city into a $3 million water front park project. In an exclusive forum attended by power brokers, visionaries and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, Ms. Carter marvelously and boldly points out to Mr. Gore that he dismissed her offer to join his marketing strategy. She tells him that an agenda to stop global energy waste can not be successful if it wastes the energy and talents of grassroots organizations by not including them in the decision making process. Now here’s a reformer and a maverick for ya!
Closer to home, I think of my neighbors.
My next door neighbor Matt was literally up to his elbows in grass and roots. He became our coop’s self appointed gardener and landscaper. Every evening after work and on the weekends, we would find him on his knees planting bulbs and coaxing life back into soil so neglected and void of nourishment. Some of us gave one Saturday morning to help him. The super offered his pick-up to haul compost and the rest of us shoveled and spread it on the garden.
I think of my neighbor Verena Powell who stopped us on the sidewalk one Saturday morning to say she had decided to run for a county wide seat as Bronx Civil Court Judge. Her two opponents are women, yet race and partisan politics are splitting this heated campaign in half or to some, with the presence of Ms. Powell, into thirds.
I think of my neighbor Sue who formed a tenants association in her Upper West side building when she walked out of her third floor apartment to find that her shady super had removed the entire staircase. This month she entered a graduate school program in public policy. And lucky for us, she was recently elected to our coop board.
These are people I know. These are people who live in my neighborhood. In the Bronx. They are taking steps in a new direction. They are community activists. Community activism is where people first see and feel change taking place. Nothing about this work is laughable. And nothing about this work strikes me as elitist.