Sofi Chavez, Immigrant Protector

Sofi Chavez, 22, is actively working for the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, N, which places undocumented immigrants in safe situations.

Interviewed by Erin McNally

I have always been an activist, since I was a kid. Being a fourth-generation Mexican American, I further wanted to understand and solidify my own identity, with each one seeing exclusive and pulling me in either direction. But here I was, senior year of college and still not sure what to do with my life. At age 22, who does?

I thought back to my college career and was reminded of a course I took, Borderlines and Immigration my senior year. It was different than any other class that I took. I loved it because it wasn’t your traditional class, sitting at a desk for an hour and a half, blankly staring about the whiteboard and trying your hardest to stay awake. It had an experiential learning aspect, taking me outside of the dull, white walls and down to the American Southwest, making stops in Tucson, AZ, San Diego, CA and Tijuana, Mexico.

In Tijuana, I spoke with migrants from all over Latin America who had been recently deported back to Mexico. I remember one moment where that little voice in your head tells you, This is wrong– the moment I witnessed Operation Streamline. For those not well versed in the egregious immigration policy that is Operation Streamline, the picture is terrifying. Shackled in chains, immigrants line up in front of judges. Reading off names and charges, they seal the fate of those risking their lives for a better life. It was one of those times that you stand back and think, This is going on in my home, in my backyard, in my neighborhood. I need to do something about this. I found the need to marry my work with my activism. Interested in pursuing literature, I graduated college with the plan to take a year off and apply to graduate school.

However, with nothing planned in the meantime, I moved in with my parents in New York City. My mom, Linda, had been volunteering with an organization for a little under a year and I still did not have any summer plans. So, when my mom asked if I had wanted an internship with the organization that she had been volunteering for, I thought, Why not? Little did I know that this was going to change my life forever

Interning at New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) opened the door to narrowing my activist work and to meet some amazing people that were so passionate, driven and inspiring. But I was still an intern, doing work around the office, filing paperwork, and getting documents ready for my superiors. I did not feel true belonging to the organization until one ordinary afternoon, a woman called saying that she was having difficulty navigating the area and finding the office before a community meeting. Stepping up, I left NSC and went after the woman, ultimately finding her by the West 4 subway station. It felt like I was part of something greater than myself, that I was the first face this woman saw from the organization and being seen as NSC.After my internship, Sara, my boss, asked me to take on a full-time position in the fall. I happily obliged. I had found community with this organization and people. It was a new position that was created for myself and another summer intern.

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Maria Valdez, Hunger Volunteer

Maria Valdez, 22, is a volunteer at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger headquarters in the basement of the Church of Saint Paul & Saint Andrew United Methodist Church. She was born in the Dominican Republic, raised  in the Bronx. Valdez attended and was graduated from Siena College in Loudonville, NY, is fluent in Spanish and English and discussed working at  WSCAH, a food pantry that services 1,298,089 meals to 18, 121. .

Interview by Valentina Gonzalez

Foremost, the reason I decided to volunteer at West Side Campaign Against Hunger is because of the core mission the pantry supports which is in service of others. WSCAH’s mission is to not only providing food, but to provide quality food that is fresh. The supermarket style pantry implemented by Doreen Wohl, who was the executive director of WSCAH, goes a step further to provide dignity and respect to individuals who step into the safe environment and busy threshold of the WSCAH good pantry.

I have never gone without food. However, this was in part because my family had food pantries as a support system. There were instances throughout my youth in which my family fell on hard times, and my parents would make the commute to a local pantry to provide a home cooked meal. When I was a little girl I came to this pantry, WSCAH. It’s funny, my parents tell me the story of how I came to WSCAH as a child the place I am now employed and volunteer. Granted, there were other food pantries that my parents went to, WSCAH being one of them. Part of the passion I feel for food scarcity is that I have first-hand, intimate awareness that families do rely on food pantries to make it through difficult times.

We went to the pantries to get food for ourselves, but also sent back some of the food to the D.R. (Dominican Republic).  We shipped food that we didn’t necessarily enjoy–wasting food not being an option–but we also gave food that we enjoyed as well because we understood that we had extended family members who were also in need of nutritional assistance as well as other forms of assistance.

Although my nuclear family has since left the D.R., we still remain connected to our cultural roots. During the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving, of course we have turkey, but being Dominican my mother also cooks pernil, a traditional roasted pork popular in Latin cuisine. Although food insecurity was present, a love of food was nonetheless cultivated if not an even greater appreciation for food developed.

While many cultures tend to assimilate to American society as a form of survival, food was a way back into the D.R. Despite the physical distance I feel closer to my native country’s culture because my mom prepared foods in a Dominican style were present at home. Sometimes I think that the more time I spend away from the D.R. the worse my Spanish gets. I know that many of the patrons at WSCAH are either immigrants, children of

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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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Gloria Sukenick, Housing Activist

sukenickGloria Sukenick is an accomplished social activist for both the women’s movement and the housing movement. Living in New York City, Gloria has used her opportunities to voice her opinions on important issues and has allowed others to do the same. Still residing in New York City, she continues to attend social movements such as fundraisers for electing people to office who hold the housing movement as a central issue. She was a Clara Lemlich awards honoree in 2015.

By Lilly Engeler

Social activism has been a very gratifying part of my life, even though I didn’t get involved in activism until later on in my life.

Before I focused my time on activism, I went to Yale School of Fine Arts and majored in painting. I came back to New York after about a year. I had a very nice cold water flat in Hell’s Kitchen. It had one washtub in the kitchen for clothes and dishes and everything. It also had no heat or hot water and it was a six-flight walkup everyday with no elevator. Though, the rent was $16 a month for four rooms. Later, I started living a very Bohemian life in another cold water flat in what is now SoHo. I lived there for a couple of years, and went to Bermuda to waitress for a year or two. For a while, I had a job as a model for Montgomery Ward. I used to try on their dresses and see how they photographed for their catalogs.

When I was in my 40s I got a job at Alexander’s in the advertising and copy department. This is when I truly got involved in activism. The first thing that got me very involved was the women’s movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a very politically active group of people. In our meetings, we would have consciousness raising groups and political action groups, and we would go to Washington with these groups. This was probably my initiation into activism.

After this, I was involved in the housing movement. The initial thing that happened was when Barney’s was expanding and taking over apartments on 16thStreet and 7thAvenue. By doing so, they were putting out people who had affordable apartments. Basically, they were expanding their store at the cost of people who had apartments there that were affordable. I got involved with the Chelsea Coalition on housing, which was a very strong group of Chelsea-ites led by this one 80-year-old dynamo, Jane Wood. When she called for demonstrations, all of Chelsea would turn out. We had people standing in front of Barney’s lined down the whole block – we stopped 7thAvenue traffic. We wanted to make their lives as miserable as we could make them because Barney’s kept doing what they were doing and the mayor at the time was very much in favor of big business and expensive stores. When Barney’s construction equipment started to make noise I had pots and pans banging. I even bought a drum that was great at demonstrations that I still have today. Sometimes we would have costumes. At Christmas we would have big demonstrations with Santa Clause’s marching in front of Barney’s with big signs. Continue reading

Frances Goldin, Housing Activist

goldinFrances Goldin is an accomplished affordable housing activist and literary agent. She is the only surviving founding member of the Cooper Square Committee and has been active for over 50 years, fighting to save her neighborhood from destruction by construction running through the Lower East Side. In 2013, her committee’s alternative renewal plan was finally adopted and nearly 2,400 families previously at risk of displacement were able to secure their apartments for the next 200 years. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2011.

Interview by Sereene Kurzum

I used to live in Queens, but it was a very uninvolved community. After I got married I decided to move to 11th street, to Cooper Square, and I found nirvana. I moved to 11th street between 2nd and 3rd and lived in a five-flight walk up. I heard that there was an organization called a tenant council, in the building of the American Labor Party on 2nd avenue. I initially went to the organization because I wanted to find out if I was paying the right rent. When I went over, they took all my information, and they said to come back in one week. I came back one week later, and they told me I was paying the right rent after all. It was $65 a month. Then they said, “You seem intelligent, would you like to come work in the tenant council and help us out?”. I said sure, and I’ve worked with the tenant council ever since. I never left.

Then in 1959, Robert Moses wanted to build a freeway through the Lower East Side to make it easier for rich people to get to their jobs on Wall Street. It would have destroyed our neighborhood. That’s when we formed the Cooper Square Committee. Cooper Square came up with a plan to build public housing on vacant lots and then move people right into that affordable housing in their neighborhood. We organized and demonstrated and finally beat him 50 years later.

It was a few years ago, when everybody who lived on 3rd and 4th street, between 2nd avenue and the Bowery, came out with their families and signed leases to secure their apartments for the next 200 years. Everyone came out, there was a lawyer there, they notarized their leases, and that was that. They owned their apartments for the next 200 years. This was the moment I knew we had won. Everybody who came to sign kissed me and said, “You helped us do this, thank you!” I mean, it was wonderful. Yes, it was quite wonderful.

I’ve been involved with affordable housing organizations through all those 50 years, and I was very active in meetings and organizations. I never stopped being active. When you stay active, it’s good for your health.

I have this sign that reads, “I adore my lesbian daughters” on the front, and “Difference enriches us all” written across the back. I had a friend who was very artistic. I asked him to letter that sign for me and he did. I took it to the parade that year and it was the most popular sign at the parade. Lesbians and gay men would rush to me and say, “Would you call my mother?”, “Would you contact my father?” Of course, I’d call them. I’d tell them about an organization called PFLAG that works with parents of gays and lesbians to help them learn to accept and understand their children. I’d give them the number of that group. I hope they called them. Continue reading

Connie Hogarth, Civil Rights Activist

conniehogarth-tnConnie Hogarth is a co-founder of WESPAC, the Westchester People’s Action Coalition, as well as the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. She was an active organizer with the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Her activism contributed to the closing of Indian Point, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and spurred local movements in environmental protection, human rights, gay rights, civil rights, affordable housing and equal educational opportunities. She has lived in New York all her life, traveled extensively, and she continues to be active in the Beacon Sloop Club, the Duchess County and Fishkill Democratic Committees, and the Southern Duchess County NAACP. She currently resides in Beacon, NY, overlooking the Hudson River. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2012.

Interview by Larissa Ross

I grew up in Brooklyn–in all its different phases and faces, Brooklyn is a great place.

My father was, in some part, a musician. He used to have a band in the Catskills, and he played the organ and the piano for silent movies.

As movies progressed and the talkies came about, he was out of a job. My uncle and my father got jobs as projectionists, and they had a strong union. I used to walk the picket line with my father when I was seven or eight years old. We won most of the labor struggles and I say that it’s possible: it is possible to be a community of workers, to resist and to win.

My mother was very feisty; rather a premature feminist. So, I had two positive role-models:A strong woman for my mother, and a father with a background of working-class success stories.

That was all in the Depression, and in those days, landlords would offer one month’s free rent to people moving in, so we moved a lot– just about every year. It created a lot of flexibility in me; in making friends and losing friends. By the time I got to high school, though, we actually bought a little house in Brooklyn.

I had an extraordinary, wonderful high school experience. It was the beginning of  the very positive effect of the Communist Labor Movement, of the Arts. Henry Foner taught at my high school, believe it or not. It was full of marvelous, progressive people and had a very positive impact on me.

I decided early on that I wanted to be a doctor, even though I loved painting and music and art. When I finished high school, I won just about every medal and award at graduation–I was an excellent student. Even with all this, I could not get into Barnard, because I needed a scholarship. It was a real rejection and I was quite disappointed.

Still, my parents always helped me to develop a confidence, a strong sense of myself, an ego. Despite the setback, I had to keep moving on. I went to Hunter College for a year and a half–commuting from Brooklyn. Then, I got a full scholarship to go to the University of Chicago. This grand disappointment turned into a positive–you can look at life that way if you see the possibilities.

I spent four years at the University of Chicago as a pre-med major, and as I graduated in pre-med,  I married my first husband–a man I’d known from high school–as he graduated from medical school. He took an internship at Mount Sinai while I applied to med schools in New York–that was about 1948. It was a tough road trying to get into medical school as a woman, who needed a scholarship. In the interim, I worked at Mount Sinai doing research on a drug for multiple myeloma.

In that time, I started to dance. I had danced in Chicago, but I got a scholarship to study modern dance in New York. I had to make a choice–do I want to keep trying to get into med school, or do I want to dance? I chose to dance.

That was well and good until one day I was working with some liver samples at Mount Sinai. Things were done differently then, we didn’t have as much knowledge about certain diseases. I used to be sent down to the morgue to take liver samples from some of the cadavers–I had to aspirate the samples myself, and I got hepatitis. I spent a month in the hospital with the illness which effectively ended my dance career–not my interest, just the formal career. Continue reading