Meet activists from across the five boroughs. From oyster keepers in The Bronx, to land use advocates, in Brooklyn. All interviews were conducted by student reporters who are enrolled in the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative for Youth.
New York City has seen many changes over the last two decades. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, spent several days in a mayoral-imposed curfew following civil rights protests last summer It was the most severe September rainfall in history. flooded streets and subwaysMore than a dozen residents were killed.
However, many New Yorkers responded to these and other crises by standing up for themselves, pressing for neighborhood changes, and making their voices heard. Below, you’ll find interviews with just a few of these community activists, from oyster keepers in The Bronx to land use advocates in Brooklyn.
These profiles were created and edited by student reporters enrolled at the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative for Youth (CLARIFY), a paid internship program we’ve operated since 2014, which teaches and trains the next generation of New York City journalists. Liz Donovan was their supervisor. She covers climate change and the environment at City Limits.
All Ages Bond Over Oysters In The Bronx
Rosalie Flores and Michelle Grullon by Amanda Chen, Lina Lin, Lina Lin, and Rosalie Chen
Barbara Zahm has been committed to activism for nearly six decades — a dedication that even once landed her in jail. Now, she is the treasurer of a landmark restoration project on City Island.
Zahm joined City Island Oyster Reef Project two years ago. It was an effort to restore City Island’s oyster reef, which once featured a vibrant oyster market. This time, however, the oysters would not be for eating; rather, they’ll serve as a way to provide natural water filtration and protect the island from storm surges and flooding, which frequently plague the community.
“We’ve discussed a lot about how important the reintroduction of oysters back into our waters is, and how that could really help City Island overall,” Zahm told City Limits.
Zahm, who describes herself as a “senior activist” originally found her calling in social justice as a college student in the 1960s protesting the Vietnam War and working in the Free Speech Movement.
Zahm, a University of California-Berkeley student, was shocked to learn about the violations of human rights during the Vietnam War. She joined the resistance after her friends were drafted to the military.
“I couldn’t go on with my own life until the war ended,” she said.
Zahm was part of the G.I. Movement and participated in protests organized around military bases. Zahm also asked veterans to share their experiences. After college, she produced two documentaries: “Bombs Will Make the Rainbows Break,” portraying the fear of nuclear war that Americans felt in the 1980s, and “The Last Graduation,” chroniclingthe education system in prisons and how many such programs were eventually wiped out following the the Crime Bill in the 1990s.
Later, she was the head of a department that published curriculum materials created by top educators through funding from the National Science Foundation. The goal was for middle and high school students to be engaged in social justice issues, and to empower them in science and math.
“We didn’t change the world, but we changed people’s lives. I know that,” Zahm said.
After 30 years of impacting students and raising awareness on social issues, Zahmrealized that though she lived for years on City Island, she hadn’t given the same attention to her home.
Her new “think globally, act locally” focus coincided with the initiation of the City Island Oyster Reef project. She was immediately involved.
Her education background meant that she understood the importance of getting children to care about local issues. For the past two years, she’s worked to secure grants to hold educational events for the community, including the popular Viva La Sound Festival and collaborating with local educators.
Karen Heil, middle school science teacher at P.S. 175, has been working closely with Zahm, the City Island Oyster Reef, and their students to engage them in their classes. She also participated in the project’s hands-on work.
Zahm’s fundraising skills also acquired $270,000 from the Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the group, funding that allows the volunteers to investigate, plan, and create two oyster reefs in the waters just off the island. She has also worked with local organizations such as the Long Island Sound Future Fund. “They think we’re one of the hottest grassroots groups going,” said Zahm.
That collaborative spirit has allowed the group to flourish into an intergenerational non-partisan organization, bringing people together under the shared goal of caring for their community and its future, Zahm said.
Many members are retired, putting everything they’ve learned in life into teaching the next generation how to care for their community above all else.
“I think City Island is divided right now the way the country is divided,” Zahm said. “The thing I like about the City Island Oyster Reef group is that I can bring in diverse people. In other words, it’s not political in the sense that it’s left or right. It’s [the] environment. It’s everyone’s interest.”
Chelsea Community Fridge offers a discreet solution to food insecurity
Rosalie Flores and Michelle Grullon by Amanda Chen, Lina Lin, Lina Lin, and Rosalie Chen
As the COVID-19 pandemic dismantled many aspects of life, low-income New Yorkers experienced a crisis that’s only continued over the past two years—food insecurity and food waste.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1.5 million people in cities struggle to buy enough food or afford healthy food plans. Chelsea resident Lea Rose noticed her neighbors struggling with food security and decided to do something about the problem.
“There’s food for everyone, but it’s not going into the hands of the people who need it,” said Rose. During the pandemic, she became part of one of the city’s growing community-driven solutions to food scarcity—the community food fridge.
In September 2020, she founded the Chelsea Community Fridge & Cupboard, after personally witnessing people in her Manhattan community struggling to secure basic necessities. She was also in hardship after losing her job at a coffee roaster’s wholesale department. This motivated her to find affordable food options in Union Square.
Rose started small and reached out to social media to find food donors, financial donations, volunteers, and volunteers. The post was immediately a success in attracting donations from food sellers. “Social media has been a huge [tool] for that because as we got more donors, then other bakeries saw the post wanting to donate,” she said.
Rose had more volunteers than food donations a year ago. However, Rose’s popularity has grown and the fridge is now a popular local business. “Now it’s the opposite, we have tons of food coming in but not enough volunteers to get it,” she said.
She’s also been able to witness how the project’s growth has directly led to positive financial and health impacts in her community. “Someone told me, ‘It was because of this organization that I was able to buy a birthday gift for my daughter,’” she said.
The take-what you need policy allows people to have dignity and discreet access to food. “There aren’t enough places where people can get food without stigma,” she said, adding that some places require people to show a pay stub to prove that they can’t afford the items. “There’s also the shame that people have from standing in line at a food bank.”
Rose had to question her preconceived notions about food shortage. Rose recalls seeing a single person empty an entire fridge. Initially frustrated about having to reload a newly filled fridge, she recognized that she did not know this person’s home situation.
“They could be taking food for their family, for their neighbors,” she realized. She was inspired by that moment to teach others how to trust one another.
“I think there’s still some shame in coming to a community fridge but at least no one has to prove [their needs] to anyone,” she said. “As long as the food gets eaten, it really doesn’t matter to us who gets it.”
Nature Preservation: Passing the torch
By Grace Adesanya, Josette Lombardi, Luke Macwan, and Sierra Williams
Imagine hiking along natural hillsides covered in native trees and plants while hawks flutter above. Imagine glacial sinkholes with wildlife that isn’t often seen, as well as animals like raccoons squirrels, rabbits and opossums. As you walk through the forest, imagine green milkweed or slender knotweed hugging you feet. serpentine barrens.
John Garcia doesn’t have to imagine — for him, this scene is his typical workday.
As president of the Serpentine Art and Nature Commons he spends his time maintaining 40 acres of land within a public nature preserve on Staten Island.
He is particularly focused on motivating the next generation to take care of their local environment sites. Through SANC’s youth programs, he’s hoping to inspire a new cohort of stewards to continue his work—which he says is at risk of falling victim to industrialization and gentrification.
“I’m very fearful of what would happen to Serpentine if I were to sell it or leave,” he said.
The commons was established in 1978 as a non-profit, community-based, and -focused organization. The preserve is home to hiking trails and biodiversity. The organization also offers field trips for local schools as well as a summer program that allows young New Yorkers to explore their passion for the outdoors while volunteering on the grounds.
Garcia has a personal connection with the youth program—as a child, the native New Yorker participated in it himself, which allowed him to immerse himself in his community and its natural environment.
He used to be a police officer in Lower Manhattan, but was hit by an automobile. He stated that volunteering remains his civic duty.
Now, he uses his energy to help nature thrive. And by working with a new batch of young, bright volunteers—with COVID-19 precautions in place —he is hopeful that he can inspire the next generation.
He teaches them how important it is to protect and maintain nature preserves. Garcia believes that nature, with local and public accessibility, truly benefits its community’s inhabitants and the beauty of an area: “There’s positive things about preserving the land,” he says.
His current focus is to stop corporations and realtors from building on the park. This will be done through legal measures as necessary. For example, he’s currently fighting against the potential development of a BJ’s Wholesale ClubGraniteville wetlands.
“Real estate guys, all they want [is] to come and destroy, build, develop and run,” he said. “They make their money, they’re gone, and then you have to deal with it.”
That’s why he believes it is paramount to be involved from a young age—to be active and give back to the community.
“Children are the future,” he said. “You guys are the future.”
Queens: Leading by example
Ankita Das and Natalia Lashley. Samama Moontaha and Erica Yang.
For Jaslin Kaur, the climate crisis hits close to home—literally.
The former City Council candidate was shocked to discover that she lived just 10 minutes from two of the victims of Hurricane Ida’s remnants.
On Sept. 1, 43-year-old Premattie “Tara” Ramskiret and her 22-year-old son Nicholas “Nick” Ramskiret—both immigrants from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago—died when floodwaters poured into their 183rd Streetbasement apartment in Hollis. They were two of 13 New York City residents who lost everything in the floods. tenants of basement apartments.
Kaur had previously worked to prevent the incident after listening to Black, Guyanese and Bangladeshi residents voice their concerns about flood safety.
“[When] I was running for Council, I really prioritized legalizing basement apartments and protecting tenants, and I got a lot of backlash for that,” she told City Limits.
Kaur and a colleague went to the homes of those whose apartments were affected by the floods and helped them clean up. She was also capable of restoring some of the personal belongings that had been damaged.
“It was very hard to experience that firsthand, but it jolted a wake-up call,” she said.
Kaur, who was born and raised in eastern Queens’ District 23, is the daughter of Punjabi immigrants. Her background inspires her to focus on issues that affect working class immigrants—particularly how they’re affected by economic and environmental inequities.
Partap Singh was her father. He joined thousands of taxi-cab drivers in their struggle to repay hundreds of thousand of loans. taxi medallion market crash of 2014This left drivers all over the city stuck in a cycle of increasing debt.
Kaur was present with her father when he declared victory alongside 25,000 other cab drivers on Nov.12. After two months of protests and a two week hunger strike, the government finally gave in. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance won an historic victory that will provide $65 million relief for struggling medallion owners. This could potentially free thousands of drivers from predatory debt.
In her run for Council District 23, Kaur was been endorsed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change Political Action Committee, among others. She lost the June primary election against a rival candidate. Linda Lee.
Kaur stated that she will continue to work on improving access to transportation in the outer suburbs and on environmental justice. Both of these issues are disproportionately affecting communities of color.
“It’s a pattern of exploitation across our city,” she said. “[It’s] a history of working people, of immigrants, who had just not been able to achieve the kind of dignity that they deserved and that they were promised when they came to this city and to this country.”
Sunset Park Youth Organizers Rise Up
By Cynthia Leung, Hazel Melendez and Marie Pontius.
Sunset Park, once a vibrant waterfront community, is now a victim to toxic chemical storage, highways, industrial parks, and highways. This makes the neighborhood a microcosm for the global climate crisis. But it’s now being fiercely protected by an intergenerational community group of environmental justice-focused organizers, called UPROSE.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was built in 1950 to cut the neighborhood into smaller sections. It allowed tens of thousands, many of them commuters, to pass through each day. Its. maritime area oil storage facilities for toxic chemicals and vacant lots with pollutants beneath the asphalt.
Sunset Park residents are a majority of the result. people of colorMany people have suffered from the health effects of asthma and other respiratory diseases for a long time.
That’s why UPROSE organizers have focused their attention on promoting clean energy and climate justice through legislation, education, art and direct community action.
But most notable is the group’s focus on amplifying the voices and organizing efforts of its youth volunteers—resulting in a “continuum of leadership” that founder Elizabeth Yampierre said is important to its mission.
“One of the things that I love about UPROSE is that on our staff and on our board are young people growing up in the organization,” Yampierre said. “That intergenerational part of our cultural practices, you’ll see it show up in the kinds of events that we hold and who facilitates them and how the issues are framed.”
Nyeisha Mallet, a student at Cooper Union, joined the organization six years ago—the position was her first job. Her most memorable campaign was being involved with the fight against Industry City, the complex of old factories turned into a commercial space which its owners sought to expand through a rezoning last year.
Mallett was concerned that Industry City would gentrify Sunset Park, in a manner similar to Williamsburg, and take away valuable resources to green industrialization. He participated in organizing to voice his concerns.
UPROSE organizers gave testimony and brought together scientists and lawyers to form a cohesive message against the proposal. eventually dropped by the site’s owners. This approach represents the group’s hands-on, education-focused approach to influencing change—that is, teaching the public about issues affecting the community as well as inspiring the next generation of organizers.
“Direct action is important, disrupting is important because that’s how we get attention,” said Mallet, “but community-building is the seed to everything else.”
Mallet works with Isabella Correa, a high school junior who joined UPROSE only a year ago but shares her colleague’s passion for community advocacy through intergenerational collaboration.
Correa has been to many climate protests throughout her lifetime, but UPROSE was a unique opportunity for her to pursue a just transition in which both racial equality and climate justice are achieved.
“I’m here to learn, and it doesn’t stop once the march is over,” said Correa.
“If we’re not solving the problem, then these rich white corporations [are] going to do it for us and not in the way that we want or not in the way that we need.”