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Activist East Harlem Topic Series Now Available as an eBook!

We are pleased to announce that our recently-concluded social justice topic series on activism in East Harlem has been compiled into a free eBook, accessible here

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 6.37.47 PMThis eBook, the fourth in our series, deepens and expands the work of a community meeting at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, 2014. This meeting brought together volunteers, city officials, and faculty and staff from CUNY to discuss emergency response following a tragic gas explosion nearby that had killed 8 people the previous month. Participants met in groups to discuss the event, make recommendations for better emergency response in the future, and strengthen community partnerships. Afterwards, several people sat down with us to talk about their experience, which we produced as a series of podcasts.

The active participation in the meeting was characteristic of the strong, invested community of East Harlem, also known as El Barrio. We drew inspiration from this event and highlighted other important activist work and pressing issues impacting the community, especially affordable housing and gentrification, and drug policy reform. In addition to the conversations with local volunteers, our series included interviews with a local journalist and two scholar-activists; featured the work of local filmmakers; highlighted a two-day forum on drug policy reform held at the New York Academy of Medicine; and discussed current events and policies impacting the neighborhood.

rainbowPS191-470x140This series portrays only a small portion of the dynamic activist work being done by local residents. To do justice to this rich community would take far longer. Luckily, this work is represented by the many community groups that are active in East Harlem and in everyday life in the neighborhood. We encourage you to start here and do more exploring on your own, both virtually and in person. Take a walk around the neighborhood and meet some of the amazing people who call it El Barrio.

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Concluding Our Topic Series on East Harlem

IMG_0537-470x260Listening to peoples’ stories is a powerful way to understand how inequality affects people in their everyday lives. For example, gentrification in a low income neighborhood like East Harlem impacts a person’s ability to find affordable housing, education policies such as opening charter schools affect young people at local public schools, and lack of digital access limits economic opportunities.

In this topic series on East Harlem, we have explored a number of social issues impacting the neighborhood and have featured the voices of local residents, activists, journalists and scholars.

Beginning with the aftermath of the tragic gas explosion in March, we highlighted the community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health that brought together volunteer first responders, city officials, activists, and researchers to talk about emergency response and plan for better preparedness in the future. The disaster, and the stories we gathered from participants at the event, highlighted a community that is unique and tightly-knit.

rainbowPS191-470x140However, this cohesiveness is threatened by changes brought on by disinvestment giving way to gentrification. East Harlem (aka El Barrio) is a primarily low-income, Latino neighborhood and has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city, yet its landscape is rapidly changing as higher-end chain stores open on 125th Street and luxury condos crowd out affordable housing.

Gathering the perspectives of people who are directly affected, rather than interpret a situation for them, is vital to understanding these issues. East Harlem resident, activist, and filmmaker Andrew Padilla emphasizes this point in an article he wrote about a Fox News journalist who contacted him. The reporter, Soni Sangha, seemed determined to frame the story of gentrification in Latino neighborhoods like East Harlem as being “taken back” by wealthier Latinos returning to the area, implying that this form of “gente-fication” benefited the community rather than displaced residents. Padilla countered that perspective, sharing his experience interviewing people in the community and offered a more contextual explanation. Ultimately however, the article didn’t include the perspectives of East Harlem residents, which was a disservice to the community and readers alike.

spirit_app_blogWe highlighted two documentaries, “Whose Barrio?” by Ed Morales and Laura Rivera, and “El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem” by Andrew Padilla, which explore the significant impact of gentrification on the neighborhood.

We also profiled a number of scholars-activist and journalists working in the area, calling attention to these concerns, and working to address disparities.

Jeff Mays is a journalist who covers the neighborhood and spoke with us about how people have been impacted by the explosion. Even now, three months later, several of the nearly 100 families displaced by the disaster remain homeless and are having difficulty finding affordable housing in their community. Businesses are slowly recovering, but suffered great losses.

CUNY School of Public Health Professor Lynn Roberts addresses the intersection of race, class and gender and its influence on health disparities and models of community organizing for social justice.

BarrioEdProj.v.blue_.1090-332x205Educator-scholar-activist Edwin Mayorga recently worked with two young people from East Harlem to explore public education in the neighborhood and connected with community members using digital media to tell their stories.

And finally, we co-sponsored a symposium on drug policy reform, held at the New York Academy of Medicine. Many of the speakers focused on the intersections of race, poverty, and incarceration. Punitive drug laws and high rates of incarceration disproportionately impact low income, minority neighborhoods like East Harlem. CUNY Professor Harry Levine’s research reveals racial patterns in Marijuana arrests. As we wrote earlier, the data tell a story that whites use marijuana at higher rates, yet blacks and Latinos in neighborhoods like East Harlem are arrested for marijuana at much higher rates.

This collection of East Harlem stories exemplifies JustPublics@365’s approach to bring together scholars, activists and journalists to highlight social justice issues. By bringing together a diverse range of people with ties to East Harlem, we have offered a few of the many voices working to make the neighborhood a more just place for all its residents.

(Thanks to Edwin Mayorga and eastharlemmurals.com for images)

The Red Cross was an Integral Part of the East Harlem Emergency Response

In the wake of any disaster, emergency response typically includes the American Red Cross, whose recognizable logo signifies a first stop for help. Volunteers respond quickly to set up communication centers, coordinate medical attention, arrange shelter for displaced people, provide food, and offer general support. This wide range of services requires tremendous coordination, which is particularly remarkable for an organization that is primarily staffed by volunteers. The explosion in East Harlem was no different. Red Cross volunteers went to work immediately and their work continued for a month afterward.

RCimage source

According to a follow up report on their blog:

  • The Red Cross Emergency Operations Center was in operation and fully staffed 24/7 from the time of the collapse on March 12 through Sunday, March 23.
  • More than 338 adults and children were comforted and assisted by Red Cross caseworkers at NYC resident service centers.
  • More than 200 volunteers from across the Greater NY Region responded to the call to help those affected.
  • Over 20,000 meals, snacks and beverages were served to residents and first responders.
  • Between March 12 and March 14, more than 70 residents overnighted at the Red Cross operated shelter at the Salvation Army facility (for a total of 121 shelter stays; i.e., some of those 70 residents stayed more than one night).
  • Dozens of children received solace and safe haven at the Red Cross shelter, with a little extra help from the Good Dog Foundation therapy dogs in conjunction with the ASPCA.
  • Nearly 500 blankets and personal hygiene comfort kits containing soap, toothbrushes, face clothes, toothpaste, deodorant and additional items were distributed.
  • Red Cross Client Assistance staff connected with over 20 families in need of mental health and/or physical health support.

One experienced volunteer, Mary O’Shaunessy, spoke to us at a community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, which brought together residents and community groups to discuss what happened following the explosion and how to better prepare for future emergencies. She shared her experience following the disaster:

Community Conversations – Red Cross Volunteer Mary O’ Shaunessy

My name is Mary O’Shaunassey, I am a Response Manager for the American Red Cross of Greater New York. On the day of the explosion on Park Avenue, I was actually at work at my day job as a technology manager for a legal services organization that helps low income women.

As part of response management at the Red Cross, I receive four-hour reports on general activities. Regular fires, evacuations of unsafe apartments, and other small disasters. I received special messages from the Office of Emergency Management and the Red Cross management regarding this explosion. As soon as I could leave work at 5:30 or so, I headed to the Red Cross where we have an emergency operations center. This is an office that is staffed only during major disasters. There are 24 seats and each seat is occupied by a person with a very specific responsibility: for obtaining large quantities of food, for arranging the setup of a shelter, for arranging for licensed mental health professionals and physical health professionals to arrive at a scene, and so on.

My job as operations management was to make sure that each of those seats were filled or that each phone at each seat was being answered. So it boils down to there are 24 phones, if it rings, answer it, respond appropriately, make the right decision.

A lot of people don’t understand that the Red Cross is not a government agency. We are 90% of us volunteers. The volunteers that were available were people who are retired, self-employed, or unemployed. That can really limit our ability to respond to people who are linguistically isolated. Our volunteers speak what they speak, they’re available when they’re available. We happen to be lucky that a couple of our people were native Spanish speakers. It is possible that at a fire you can have people that are so linguistically isolated that no one can help them. We have facilities for that, but it takes some time to set up.

When I arrived at the emergency response center, I found it in full swing. People were already at the blast site. They were already working on a reception center. Until we have the capability, that is, a released building from the Board of Education, a custodian, and shelter staff, we have reception centers. And that’s where clients —  and I have to define the word client here — we never call people victims because part of the Red Cross role is to encourage people in recovery and calling people victims does not encourage that. We have clients, and we have survivors. Clients, survivors, and family members were already at the site looking for information.

The definition of a disaster is that it is unplanned, therefore information is always partial, immediate, and changeable. It’s very difficult to set and manage expectations. We are also committed, individually, corporately, and internationally to client confidentiality. It is very common for family members to call, and we were getting these calls, and people saying “my sister-in-law was there, my nephew was there, my cousin was there.” We cannot release that information. We did not have the information about the deceased but even if we had it, we cannot. We cannot give information about who is registered at a reception center, or a shelter. What would happen if a man were to come and say my “wife is there, I need to get to my wife” and we released that information and that woman had an order of protection against an abusive spouse. That’s something that we always have to protect people against. We cannot make assumptions about what people are telling us.

Most people are honest. Most people want to help. We have to be realistic, as well as optimistic in our view of human nature. So we were getting calls from volunteers, we were getting calls from partner agencies, we were getting requests for food. We try to purchase food from local vendors. We try to purchase all our supplies from local vendors. Surviving vendors may have decreased foot traffic. They may have decreased customer assistance because their customers have been displaced. By the Red Cross spending money in these local businesses, we’re keeping these small businesses in business. We’re keeping their employees able to contribute to the community and therefore the function of the society is continuing to go.

Very often we get complaints from people who say “I didn’t want my money to do go overhead.” Overhead is very interesting. If you think about wanting a report about where money goes, you would say “yes I want a report.” A report needs a database, a list of expenses, and a list of donations. That computer needs electricity. The person who is putting that information in needs an office with electricity, running water, and maybe heat or air conditioning. The software needs to be purchased. That’s overhead. So it’s very interesting to try to explain what overhead means in terms of how people get their wishes in terms of donations.

We have overhead and we are not ashamed of that. We are very careful about donor dollars. In order for a Red Cross responder to go out by themselves, that is, to respond to a fire or a vacate, they have extensive training and extensive practice, and they undergo a background check. When I walk out to a fire, I can have as many as 30 debit cards, with a maximum value in the field of $1,000. If I’m handing someone, as a manager, $30,000 nominally in debit cards, I want to know who they are. That is why what we call spontaneous volunteers get asked to do really basic things: hand out water, hand out food. Trained responders go into people’s homes. We go into homes to evaluate damage, to determine how much cash assistance to give, whether to give hotel rooms. I would not want someone in my home that had not undergone a background check.

So these are the things that go into being a Red Cross responder. And it all gets really ramped up in the event of a large disaster. As you gain experience, it’s also important to know how to step back. I’ve been a volunteer for 7 years, I’m very experienced, and now I’m in management. I have to step back and allow other people to learn how to do this. That can be hard because they’re training and by definition, trainees make mistakes. Sometimes, in an event like this, a simple mistake can get very high profile very quickly, and it’s very difficult to manage. We never send trainees out alone, but in a fast-moving, crowded event, they make decisions. Sometimes they’re very good decisions and sometimes they could have been better. And we work on that in what we call hotflashes. After an event, and in some cases after every 24 to 48 hour period, we sit down together and figure out what went wrong, what went right, and how to keep doing what was right, and how to correct what was wrong. It’s a continuous process.

I love volunteering for the Red Cross. I like going out, I like adulation, I like people saying “oh you do wonderful things.” It’s an ego charge, and I’ll take that. Fires, disasters are an adrenaline charge, but you also have to balance that against the needs of the organization and the needs of the community. Those needs will go on long after I am able to respond to disasters.

Faith Leaders Play an Important Role in East Harlem Following Explosion

With churches large and small throughout the neighborhood, religious faith is a hallmark of the East Harlem community. It was only natural that ministers, pastors, and chaplains were prevalent in the aftermath of the March 12 gas explosion, and that pews were full the following Sunday.

Faith leaders were also present at a community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, which brought together residents and community groups to discuss what happened following the explosion and how to better prepare for future emergencies.

Chaplain Alicia Goudif from the United Chaplains State of New York, and who is active in NYPD Precinct 25’s community board, shared with us her experience following the explosion:

Community Conversations – East Harlem Resident Alicia Goudif

“I got a you call saying to look at channel one, and after that they told me you need to get out there because a lot of chaplains was out there at that time. We were just standing around seeing where we needed to help the most. I call myself the CEO. That means Chaplain Encouraging Others, so I was there to encourage others where their lives are concerned. If they need prayer, I give them prayer. If they need encouragement, I give them encouragement. I was there just helping out the police department, which I’m part of the Two Five Precinct Community Board Sergeant of Arms. So I was out there making sure everybody was safe. Everybody who needed help who were down and out to let them know it’s going to be ok. It’s not over until God says so. If they need help I give them my card to let them know I’m there whenever they need help. I was there following the explosion every day for those who needed my services.”

Jeff Mays on East Harlem Recovering from the Explosion

largerJeff Mays is a reporter/producer for DNAInfo covering Harlem. He has written about East Harlem after the March 12th gas explosion and sat down with me to talk about how the community is recovering six weeks after the tragic incident.

 

Jeff Mays on East Harlem Recovering from the Explosion

Collette Sosnowy: You’ve been covering East Harlem since the tragic explosion that killed eight people and injured many more. What has the impact of this disaster been on the neighborhood as a whole?

Jeff Mays: I think the neighborhood as a whole is still reeling from the loss of those eight lives. A lot of those people were known in the neighborhood, people recognized them, so I think the loss of life is probably one of the biggest issues they’re still dealing with. There’s still a boy in the hospital, Oscar Hernandez who’s recovering from his injuries. The prognosis is good and doctors are hopeful but he still has a long road ahead of him.

Also, one of the biggest impacts you can see in the neighborhood are that businesses are still struggling. There are some that have been able to re-open but not return back to normal. Other businesses have not opened and are waiting for insurance payments and payouts from Con Ed. Just walking around the neighborhood, it seems like everything is normal but when you take a look around it may not be. There are buildings still boarded up, you still see people stop to gawk at the site, you still see city officials around the site. The neighborhood has been greatly affected.

Collette Sosnowy: Obviously, the families that lived in those buildings or nearby are the ones most directly affected. Do you know are they doing at this point?

Jeff Mays: I’ve been told that several of the families have been put up by the city in temporary apartments that I believe are three to six month placements, somewhere around there.  Another five or six of them have found their own accommodations. What’s most interesting is that I’ve been told that all of those people from the building want to return to East Harlem and city officials have promised them that they will try to make that happen, which is a big deal. I heard a story about one survivor who’s doing well now who has found another place who is getting donations of clothing and furniture and just trying to put her life back together, but those families obviously have a long way to go.

Collette Sosnowy: What’s your sense about how the community is faring overall?

Jeff Mays: I think that East Harlem is such a resilient community, it’s a diverse community with some very strong people. You have a lot of immigrants who have come to this country looking for a better life who are incredibly hard workers. What I’ve seen is that people in the community came together, not just in East Harlem but lots of people in Harlem. Once they heard about the accident, they got together and tried to organize different efforts, tried to collect clothing, collect food, collect money.

There are people who are specifically patronizing the businesses in the area. People are still devastated over the fact that eight people died and over the possibility that many more could have died, but overall people are really trying to get back to normal.


Collette Sosnowy: What are the most pressing issues that remain?

Jeff Mays: Right now housing is the biggest issue. As I said, we still have those people who lost everything when the two buildings collapsed. I believe all of the vacate orders in the surrounding buildings have been lifted, but I spoke to one woman who lives in a nearby apartment. She doesn’t have windows yet. She still has piles of debris in her apartment, and it’s been difficult for the landlord to fix that up. She’s still struggling with that because her shelter housing ran out so she’s forced to be back in the apartment while they do these repairs, and she suffers from asthma.

It’s still tough for a lot of the businesses in the area. I talked to a meat market on 116th street. They’ve been able to re-open but part of the problem is that the phone lines in that neighborhood are down, so they can’t accept credit card payments, EBT payments, which make up a huge chunk of their business. They’re open, but they’re barely open, and they’re struggling.

I’ve also heard about some immigrants who lost everything when the building collapsed and who are now having trouble getting documentation, which is difficult when they have nothing to prove who they are. Going to the DMV when you have nothing is incredibly difficult. I know some elected officials have stepped in and are trying to help those people.

Finally, I’ve heard some frustrations from people about getting money to replace furniture and clothing and other things that were lost in the explosion. There’s been a lot of money raised from the Mayor’s fund, over $330,000, but I’ve heard some complaints from people in the neighborhood that that money has been slow to trickle down to them to help with very real, pressing needs.

Collette Sosnowy: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jeff Mays: It’s been amazing to see how people in this community have responded to this crisis. People have come together and helped one another and are looking forward to moving past this.

I talked to the Urban Garden Center, which is a business right next to where the buildings collapsed and they were finally able to re-open. They were basically destroyed. They were one of four businesses that were heavily damaged or completely destroyed, so they are re-building and they’re very optimistic about their future and that they’re going to come out of this situation stronger than before.