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Wisdom from my Coworker

7 Mar

As my coworker Martha and I got on the bus together one morning, a tiny old woman in a big overcoat sitting at the front of the bus waved at Martha. She waved back, smiling wide. The woman said something I didn’t catch in Spanish and Martha nodded vigorously, saying, “Yea, yea, yea!”

“I don’t remember who she is,” she muttered to me a few moments later, and I laughed. As we exited, another person waved and then a tall man in a puffy blue jacket stopped to talk to us on the sidewalk. Martha hugged him and asked about his mother, the Laundromat she runs, and the hair salon that he runs. We got stopped on the street two more times this way on our way back to the office.

Martha knows everyone, or knew everyone at some time, or treats everyone like she knows them. After 17 years as a housing counselor at St. Nicks Alliance, it is no wonder that she knows so many people in the neighborhood, and that she can’t keep track of them all.

What’s more, she adores strangers. When we call to order pizza for a meeting, she banters with the pizza man as if they’re old friends, then admits she has never met him. She flirts with the cab driver and gives her dinner to him, pollo y arroz con gandules, wrapped up in styrofoam. She spends an extra minute at the bodega counter as we buy ice, checking on how the worker’s week has been.

One evening in October she told me something simple that still sticks with me. Walking out of the office together, Martha waved at three men who always hang out on a certain stoop on Powers Street, cursing and smoking. They all waved back, calling “Marta!” fondly. As we got out of earshot, she told me:

“Kelly– always be friendly to everyone in your neighborhood, even if you don’t know them. You never know when it will save you.”

She told me about a time that she was visiting the tenants in a building across the street from the bodega where we buy ice. As she left, the landlord confronted her on the stoop, yelling at her about talking to the tenants about their rights:

“He was two inches from my face,” Martha said, “and raising up his hand as if to strike me, and the man at the deli saw and came out to the sidewalk, and yelled, ‘HEY! What’s going on!?’ And the landlord went inside real quick, you can bet.” She laughed.

“People usually won’t go that much out of their way for strangers– they won’t get involved. But if they know you, it’s different.”

I laughed with her, so proud to be walking beside her in a world of people that seem to love and need her so.

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Martha at our office holiday party.

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Small Acts, Big Dreams

22 Jan

On January 19, the New York Public Allies class gathered in a high school cafeteria with students from The Future Project, New York Cares, and the community, to participate in a youth-driven Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. The walls were transformed by recycled decorations made of newspaper and a slideshow projection of MLK Jr., the tables had morphed into five “Acts of Kindness” stations, and the air buzzed with inspiring music and energy from the participants.

Leading up to the event, a core team of high school students from the Future Project and New York Cares met together along with a few Public Allies to brainstorm, design, and execute the day. The students picked the theme “Acts of Kindness,” based around the idea that everyone in the community can do acts of kindness for others, and that these small acts have an impact—whether a physical one, like feeding another person, or a psychological one, like making a person feel valued or empowered. These acts are small steps towards the just and peaceful world that MLK envisioned.

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A ladder made of string hung like a banner over the Dream Ladder station, where we wrote our dreams on pieces of construction paper and then tied them to the ladder. At the Care Package station, we assembled packages of toiletries for survivors of Hurricane Sandy. At the Brown Bag Lunches station, we decorated shoeboxes and filled them with food and goods for the homeless. New York Cares and Trinity Church will be distributing the care packages and shoeboxes for us this week. We made inspirational cards at the Happy Cards station, which youth participants took with them to distribute to both strangers and loved ones to symbolize building better relationships in our communities. Finally, at the Go Green station, we turned recycled materials into new creations to “showcase the reinvention of ideas, teach sustainability, and explore the reusing of ideas from MLK’s time to our present time.”

And, of course, there was a lot of dancing.

Attending a day of service, I expected to leave the event reflecting most on the service that we performed. What I have been reflecting on most, though, is the conversations that I had with students.

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I met a young woman from New York Cares who loves volunteering, wanted to be a philanthropist when she grows up, and wanted my opinion on how to get there. She plans to go to college but worries about choosing a major. We talk about how a college degree, no matter the major, can open up opportunities for a lot of futures, rather than determining a specific one.

Another young woman, a Dream Fellow from the Future Project, is producing a variety show in April, where students at her school will be allowed to display any talent they wish to their peers and the community—not just singing and dancing, but writing or cooking or anything else.

These conversations give me hope that Martin Luther King Jr.’s visions for education and schools are not impossible, and that many youth still believe in these visions. Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to justice in schools— through providing all students with quality and equitable education, and through school integration that allows youth to share this education across color lines. The fight for these visions is still in progress.

“The function of education,” MLK said, “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically… Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”  In the U.S., we have not yet succeeded in providing engaging, quality education to all youth. It is a feat that seems impossible to many. But I am inspired that projects like the Future Project and New York Cares allows students to cultivate both intelligence and character, and do so with an eye on sharing that impact with their schools and communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. also dreamed of “a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” In a time when a child’s education is all too often impacted by race and socioeconomic status, I was inspired and honored to participate in a gathering of youth and adults of all colors in one cafeteria—on a Saturday!—where people were eager to talk together, work together, dance together, and put their personal dreams on display.

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A Roof over their Heads

8 Jan

A young woman called me at work in the first week of December.

“I’m not sure if you remember me, but I wanted to let you know that we found an apartment,” she said.

Of course I remembered her. She was one of the first tenants I counseled at St. Nicks. She came into the office in September, frazzled, holding a blonde toddler boy in a big puffy coat, who proceeded to squirm and attempt to crawl all over the office in the hour that we sat together. She kept apologizing for him in a lilting, sad voice.

A year ago, she moved from Romania with her two young sons to join her husband, an American citizen who has been working a low-wage job in Brooklyn for the past few years. While they struggled to pay the rent (of around $1000 per month, which is relatively low in this area), she could not work herself because they could not afford childcare.

In that first meeting, she told me that the landlord had started an eviction case against them and that their court date was yesterday. She pulled out a settlement paper, which I read with dismay: they had signed an agreement that the family had to be out of the apartment by October 31st. By then, she’d need to find another apartment.

When I needed to find an apartment in New York, I had it easy. Without a family to support or house, I could devote a large percentage of my stipend to rent and split a multi-bedroom apartment with multiple people. (Federal guidelines recommend that people spend no more than 30% of their income on rent, an increasingly difficult feat in New York City– I spend about 65%.) I also didn’t need to look for a place that I could stay in for multiple years without fear of being priced out of the apartment, as families seeking stability reasonably want to do. It took a few weeks of persistence on Craigslist, talking to acquaintances, and hopping on the train after work to visit apartments, but I never doubted that I would end up with something habitable that I could afford for the year.

But I worried about this woman. Her family’s income was about $10,000 per year, a figure that would make any landlord squeamish. Very few apartments (even studios) rent for less than $1000 per month. Almost no rental subsidy programs continue to accept new applicants. The waiting list for public housing is multiple years long. The rent-stabilized housing stock, which offer lower, more steady rents, are generally occupied– and vacant ones are quickly being converted to regular, market-rate apartments.

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Highly coveted and highly elusive apartments in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn

That first day, I helped her apply for various affordable housing lotteries, gave her multiple referrals to benefits agencies and rental assistance programs, and gave her instructions for how to get the court to extend the move-out deadline. But when she thanked me and left, I had a sinking feeling that she would not find anything. We checked in over the phone a few more times since then, and I learned the judge had agreed to allow them to stay until the end of November. But I was still nervous.

I don’t know how she found the new apartment. The rent is $1100, so they are still going to have trouble paying it. But for the time being, she, her husband, and her two sons have a roof over their heads. I accept this as a victory, however partial it may be.

After all, that afternoon, I sat with two more tenants who were on the long hunt a new affordable apartment.

Opportunity is…

18 Dec

ImagePossibilities start to come into focus as the New York Public Allies listen to a panel of successful community leaders talk about how they got to where they are today.

Panel members included (left to right): Nekoro Gomes, Community Engagement Manager for City Limits (http://www.citylimits.org/), Lauren K. Miller, Associate Vice President, Strengthening New York City Non-Profits (SNYCN), United Way of New York City (http://unitedwaynyc.org/), and Laurie Cumbo, Founder of MoCADA Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts and Candidate for the 35th District New York City Council (http://www.lauriecumbo2013.com/).

Facing – and Fighting – Years of Decay

28 Nov

I’ve regularly toured dilapidated New York City buildings for the last year and a half. The building I visited Wednesday morning, the former Greenpoint Hotel, is the worst. “Jim,” a tenant there, asked my coworker and I to visit. He looked middle-aged and was a disabled Vietnam veteran who suffered a shrapnel injury that makes his voice sound like a scruffy ninety-year-old. He said that there has been no heat or hot water in the building for ten days– a problem they’ve had intermittently for three years– and he’s called the city repeatedly to complain with no relief.

One of my tasks in the Community Preservation Unit at St. Nicks Alliance is to visit buildings where landlords aren’t fulfilling their legal obligations, particularly to low-income and longtime tenants. We educate the tenants on their rights, help them form associations, and show them how to access resources to solve their housing problems.

Jim’s building is in Greenpoint, a suddenly-chic, historically-working-class neighborhood in North Brooklyn (you may have heard of it as the home of the girls in HBO’s Girls). Inside the building are over 100 single-room units, some barely large enough to fit a twin-sized bed. The tenants share bathrooms on each floor, where the showers are black with mold and leaky sink pipes flood the floors. The halls smell like waste and smoke; the floors, ceilings, and staircases are warping. The only means of cooking are hot plates– a fire hazard– and the windows lack enough fire escapes. Abandoned rooms are left unlocked and filled with refuse. Some tenant’s doors no longer close and have been rigged shut with wire and master locks.

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As my coworker and I followed Jim down the cold, bright orange halls, other tenants stepped from their rooms, asking who we were and offering information. The tenants are all men; many are seniors, many are disabled, and at least a dozen are veterans. As we spoke, nearly half of them had to excuse themselves to lie down or warm up. Some men who could afford it had bought space heaters, which pose a fire danger in such tiny rooms. One man caught on fire last week and has been in the hospital ever since. They say the landlord keeps an office next door, but refuses to touch the place.

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The building’s problems are no secret. The city’s website reports over 300 violations in this building. Tenants have been working with a legal services organization for the last three years. Many tenants have filed complaints against the landlord for rent overcharge with the city and won. A 2006 New York Times article detailed the poor conditions and drug problems in the building. But the article made no mention of the landlord’s legal obligations and seemed to imply that all of the tenants were addicts who put up with the conditions by choice, while in reality many tenants are simply seniors, veterans, and others who have no other affordable options.

Almost seven years later, this building remains unchanged. It is the tenants’ reality, day in, day out.

After discussing the tenants’ legal rights and promising to call another local organization to collaborate on following up with a course of action, we left. On our way out, we passed a city council member going into the building, who told us he was hoping to get a story in the Daily News about the place.

These are small but promising steps. But why does it take so long for a community to not only see that some of its most vulnerable neighbors have been living in deplorable conditions, but to then push for and achieve positive and lasting change? There are certainly large obstacles to improving such a building. But, as leaders, we have to ask: how do you get from knowing about a problem to trying to solve it, and from trying to solve it to actually getting the thing done?

By Kelly Wehrle, Public Allies New York (an AmeriCorps program) Class of 2013