Four Bronx Women

In recent weeks, I have turned my lens and my ears toward a few Bronx women whose talents and community projects have impressed me.

Emily Rodriguez, Soprano and Bronx student, performs with the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Quartet.
Emily Rodriguez, Soprano and Bronx student, performs with the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Quartet.

Emily Rodriguez
Soprano / Student at Celia Cruz High School of Music

Ms. Rodriguez performed Mozart’s “Alleluia” accompanied by the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Quartet earlier this year.  We went to the Ensemble’s January concert and it was really lovely, held in a private home in Riverdale.  The Bronx Arts Ensemble often features young Bronx musicians in their concerts. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to expose My Favorite 15 Year Old to chamber music.  And it was — she enjoyed hearing and seeing someone close to her own age. Ms. Rodriguez appeared quite at ease singing to a packed room, which included her school’s principal.  Sitting next to us, a young man wearing a badge that read “Press — Celia Cruz High School” commented to his friend, “She gave me goose bumps.”

Last month, I attended the discussion, “Civil Rights in the Bronx: Past and Present”, as part of The Bronx is Building lecture series presented by the Bronx African-American History Project at Fordham University. The panel happened to be an all women line up, with two women from local chapters of the NAACP (which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year) and South Bronx community activist Majora Carter.  I was especially excited to hear Ms. Carter as I’ve followed her story shortly after she was awarded the “genius” prize — a MacArthur fellowship in 2005, for her work in her Hunts Point community.

Beverly Roberts, Shirley Fearon and Majora Carter, panelists at the lecture "Civil Rights Activism in the Bronx: Past and Present."
Beverly Roberts, Shirley Fearon and Majora Carter, panelists at the lecture "Civil Rights Activism in the Bronx: Past and Present."

Beverly Roberts
President / NAACP, Parkchester Branch

From the time it was built in 1938 until the early 1970s, the Parkchester housing complex had no residents of color.  Ms. Roberts noted that it was the National Urban League who sued the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Parkchester’s owner, for their “whites only” policy.  The NAACP Parkchester branch, established in 1974, provided support to families with integration of schools in the area.  Ms. Roberts said further, “All people of color, newly arrived in the United States, have benefited from the NAACP.”

Shirley Fearon
President / NAACP, Williamsbridge Branch

Ms. Fearon recalled her first act of defending civil rights as a young girl in her Williamsbridge neighborhood. She joined her father and other blacks in the community in picketing the five and dime store on 216th Street.  It was 1959 and no black women were working there. The moderator Professor Mark Naison, noted this with particular interest commenting that demonstrations and picketing by black Bronxites is not readily known.  Today the Williamsbridge chapter brings programs into local schools that teach students about Black History.

Majora Carter
President and CEO / Marjora Carter Group

Ms. Carter started off by commenting on the name of the lecture series, “The Bronx is Building”.  She said, “As someone who lived in the South Bronx when it was burning, I am so happy to see the word ‘building’ in reference to the Bronx.” Ms. Carter has built bold strategies to improve the quality of life in her Hunts Point, South Bronx community, where residents are saddled with high asthma rates and live side by side with the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center which brings semi trucks into the area on a daily basis. In the late 1990’s, Ms. Carter placed herself front and center in opposition of the city’s plan to bring a waste treatment plant into her community’s back yard.  Her efforts have brought “green” jobs into the South Bronx and she secured a $1.25M federal grant to design a South Bronx Greenway along the Bronx River for parks and recreational use.  Ms. Carter, said during the lecture that “Environmental justice is the civil rights of the 20th century.”

If you have not seen it already, Ms. Carter’s talk at the TED conference (Technology , Entertainment, Design) is brilliant.  She is passionate, she is bold and she is honest. And she puts a challenge directly to Vice President Gore that is so daring but necessary.

Onward and Upward!

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National Day of Service is coming to The Bronx

The new President will need our help.
He said so the night of his victory speech back in November.

Next Monday, January 19th, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Holiday is

National Service Day

I know I said I would help him.
And I know others that did too.

Here’s our chance to roll up our sleeves and get busy!
Right here in the Bronx…

We can sign up to volunteer or to request volunteers here:

Who’s Dishin’ the Compost?

Helping Matt with the composting
Matt and Saul, the super, shoveling compost.

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.