Sarah Martin, Environmentalist

sarahjoanSarah Martin lived in Grant Houses, a public housing project in Morningside Heights for 57 years until 2014. Grant Houses served as the original site of Martin’s environmentalist and sanitation work. Martin formed the Morningside Heights and West Harlem Sanitation Coalition with Joan Levine in 1994 when she was president of the Grant Houses Resident Association to address the effects of poor trash management in the neighborhood. Martin and Levin developed a hands-on recycling education program that has since been adopted by city agencies like Grow NYC, and have influenced city officials to expand the approach. She was a 2014 Clara Lemlich co-honoree with Joan Levine, at right, above..

 Interview by Julia Gagliardi

I came to New York when I was 12 years old with my mother. My mother left me with my aunt in South Carolina when I was very little. We were very poor, but when I lived with my aunt and my cousins, I learned how to plant a garden. We planted tomatoes and string beans. We raised chickens and pigs.

It wasn’t easy but I learned how to garden and to take care of animals. During the day, my aunt worked for a white family. Every evening my cousins and I used to have to wait for my aunt to come home to bring the leftovers for dinner.

But I survived. During the day while my aunt worked, my cousins and I went to school. Well, some days I went to school if my older cousins didn’t go I didn’t go because I did not know how to get there. I couldn’t remember the roads or directions to get to school.

When I was 12, I got this little job babysitting for these white people. I was picking up change and I thought I was rich. And when I went to town, I spend every dime of it. Then when I moved to live with my mother, she tried to treat me like a kid. I wasn’t a kid. I was independent.

When I first came to New York, we lived in a rooming house on 115thStreet. It was a really big room. We had a bed and I had a cot. I had to open every night to go to bed. Then I lived up on 131sst Street in a tenant bedroom. We used to call them railroad flats. If you laid down on the bed and looked towards the wall, you could see straight through to the bathroom and into the alley. So, I guess I’m not accustomed to having anything. So, the things I do have are valued. I don’t like to see things wasted. I like to see things taken care of.

That’s why I care about the Sanitation Coalition and the trash management in my neighborhood. I want the environment and my neighborhood take care of.

When the Morningside Heights and the West Harlem Sanitation Coalition was formed, we started by cleaning up parks and parking lots. We started recycling first in all the smaller buildings in the area, and worked with the superintendent.

Then we asked ourselves, “What is we tackle a housing development. What a difference that would make with the trash going out and in the environment.”  Right then we decided to tackle Gran House because I had become the president of the Grant Resident Association at Grant Houses. We started to attend the monthly meetings and talk about our reasons to bring recycling to Grant Houses and to the residents who live there.

Our recycling program was an education program. It was hands-on for the residents. We would go door to door, knocking on apartment doors and asking residents to come into the hallway.

We had recyclables and recycling bags with us and blue and green bags for trash. We would explain the why’s, who’s and where’s of trash – Why do we recycle, where do we recycle. We were working hands-on right in front of the residents.  That was the most important thing;  It’s convenient and they don’t have to walk half a block in the rain or in the snow or at night after they are done working. The face that it is convenient was important.

The recycling program is for the residents but it also needs to be taught by the resident or members of the community. It can’t be any other way. You’re not going to send our someone once a month. The resident of Grant Houses would’ve asked whey is someone coming from downtown telling us what to do. That is why the residents need to do the recycling education for each other.

In order for education and trash management to work, it is not just the residents who need to contribute. The residents, trash management and the Department of Sanitation need to work together. Those three entities need to work together to make recycling education and trash management successful. But it hasn’t happened.

Once we finished giving recycling education to all 1,941 apartments in Grant Houses, we wanted to go across the city to other developments. We wanted to expand the program. But we were also giving education to the community on our own time and we wanted to be paid. But the Department of Sanitation and trash management and the council members did not allow it. So, everything stopped. Education stopped. New residents moved in and they didn’t know anything about recycling. On a management level, the caretakers aren’t taking out the trash and putting it where it is supposed to be put — because there’s nobody minding the caretakers. Now I don’t know what they do with receiving. The Department of Sanitation is probably saying that the residents probably are not putting out enough recycling for them to come pick it up. For the Grant House development, education for all 1,941 apartments is ongoing. It needs to be ongoing, but right not it is not. That’s why education is so important.

It needs to be going on. We need to take care of our neighborhood.

That is what I’ve learned during my life to see things take care of. We need to take care of the environment through recycling and making sure our trash is thrown out.

The Grant resident, the Sanitation Coalition and the Department of Sanitation need to work together to help our neighborhood and the environment. That’s why I want to see Grant Houses and my neighborhood and neighbors taken care of.


Interviewer and author Julia Gagliardi was enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2017 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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