Joan Levine, Environmentalist

sarahjoanJoan Levine was the chair of the Morningside Heights Community Relations Committee in 1994 when she partnered with Sara Martin, president of the Grant Resident Association at Grant Houses across the road. Together, they would form the Morningside Heights and West Harlem Sanitation Coalition and collaborate to develop a recycling education program for both apartment complexes to address rising garbage and inadequate trash collection. Joan had worked as an elementary school teacher and as an adjunct associate professor in the School of Education at City College for 13 years. She was a 2014 Clara Lemlich co-honoree in 2014 with Sarah Martin, pictured above, left.

By Julia Gagliardi

When I was eight years old in 1936, Detroit workers were organizing sit-down strikes against General Motors. I organize a strike against my third-grade teacher, Ms. Harris. It was the time of the big automobile strikes and they were organizing the workers in Michigan. The would sit down in the factor and thy wouldn’t do any work until their conditions were met.

So, I organized a sit-own strike against rest hour. Rest hour was one of the practices for the lower grades at my school – one of the new schools during the era of progressive education.

One of the tenets of this new progressive education included an emphasis on children’s health. Every day for an hour, the students in the lower grades would lie down on mats and were not allowed to talk to one another. I realized just how boring it was. I hated lying on the ground. And if you have a strike, you have to have signs. At the time, the big automobile strikes, they had signs like Down with Henry Ford. So, I made a sign that said Down with Ms. Harris.

That was my life as a union organizer. But I was always a member of the union when I was a teacher.

Teaching seemed inevitable for me. I was a child of an educator and a social worker. Even as a kid, I became an educator. I loved going to school. We always studied about the local community and history as part of those progressive studies. When I was in the third grade, my teacher had gone out to the Southwest and lived with the Navajo Indians. That year, we built a pueblo in our classroom – houses that look like apartments. But the apartments were made out of adobe and mud and they had ladders. Sometimes they went up three or four floors. We built this pueblo in the classroom and we used to play in it. It was magnificent.

When I was in college I thought I was going to be an academic historian. When I was younger, before I wanted to be an historian. I wanted to be an archeologist. I wanted to dig at big sites and fine pharaohs. Then I was going to be a meteorologist. It was after college that I finally decided I didn’t want to be an academic historian, and I decided I wanted to teach elementary school children. I wanted to teach children about local history and their community. So, it was very natural for me to get my Masters. So, then I became an elementary school teacher. And then I was a trainer for teachers before becoming an adjunct associate professor at the School of Education at City College in 1991.

But all this time, I have always been interested in politics and local issues. My interest in my local community and local issues is what led me to form a Sanitation Coalition and to develop a recycling education program between Morningside Heights and Grant Houses. It was only a few years later that I met Sarah Martin.

At the time, I was the chair of the Morningside Heights Community Relations Committee and Sarah was president of the Grant Resident Association. We were separated by a single street running between our communities. I lived in Morningside Heights, which was a middle-income cooperative, and Sara live in one of the 1941 apartments in Grant Houses. We met for the first time after the Morningside committee filed a complaint about the trash management of our neighbors at Grant Houses. But it turned to benefit us both.

Grant Houses did not have a regularly scheduled pickup for trash with the Department of Sanitation. Rather they were often forgotten. Instead they are takers of the apartments would be bags of garbage on the street and sidewalk as if they were a small brownstone that put out a few trash bags. But for 1941 apartment, that’s a heck of a lot of black bags. But morning, it was a mess. The black trash bags were completely destroyed by rats that go into them. The people who were collecting deposit bottles tore open the bags. It was one giant garbage mess.

The sea of garbage affected the quality of life for our neighborhood, but also made it difficult for the residents of Grant Houses and Morningside Heights to access transportation and to get to work. You had to wade through black trash bags just to walk down the street.

This was a terrible community problem. It wasn’t just a problem for Morningside Heights but for Grant Houses too.  I realized that our communities weren’t in contact with one another.

My immediate community, which was middle-income, was just across the street from Grant. We were neighbors and we should be working together. SO, I introduced myself to their president, then Keith Mitchell, and we decided that we needed to work together. Eventually Sarah Martin took over and we formed an alliance with our neighbors. We decided that this was our problem and that we needed to work together.

At this point, we formed the Sanitation Coalition so we could make changes. Trash needed to be regularly picked up, and we got help from council members like Stanley Michaels. Then we moved onto different environmental projects. The Sanitation Coalition organized cleanup events in public parks and parking lots. Next, we created a recycling education program for small housing developments in the neighborhood. Later we moved the program to Grant Houses.

Every evening we climbed the seventeen floors of Grant Housing finished three floors a week. We went from door to door with recyclables and labeled bags to educate the residents. We would sift through newspapers, styro-foam, phone books, aluminun cans, smooth cardboard – any recyclables that residents might use. We loved if someone made a mistake, so we could teach through the mistake.

Our idea was adopted by Grow NYC, an environmental group based in New York that was first known as the Council on the Environment of New York City and CENYC. In the 1990s, the council followed us when we did our rounds to show Grant residents how to recycle. They were enthralled by the efforts. With our blessing, they stole our ideas. They still do it as the main form of recycling education.

We were able to change policies for our neighborhood. We had garbage trucks to pick up trash for Grant Houses and Morningside Heights. The quality of the air improved and the residents of the community did not need to wade through trash bags to get to work or to walk down the street. But as we speak, something needs to be done again. It smells on a cold day . The garbage trucks don’t pick up trash bags in the neighborhood anymore.

Sarah and I just don’t have the same energy or time as we used to. You people need to get involved in local issues through education and hands-on programming with community members.

Interviewer and author Julia Galiardi was enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Romberg’s urban sociology class. Students profiled women honored as part of Labor Arts’ annual Clara Lemlich Awards, celebrating women in their 80s and 90s who spent a lifetime involved in social justice issues.  More at




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