Turning patches of concrete into parcels of farmland; converting a business need into an employment opportunity; encouraging low income community residents to become philanthropists; creating a second chance high school; building affordable homes for public housing residents — impossible dreams? No, real changes wrought by smart nonprofits with investments in Red Hook and supported by the Brooklyn Community Foundation.
Red Hook, with its achingly beautiful views of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor, has seen some remarkable changes over the past 25 years. But the huge public housing community, which still comprises more than half of its overall population, also has struggled with social and economic issues. So, while people from all over Brooklyn line up beside taco trucks for local treats, visit art shows and dance performances, and retailers large and small have begun to populate the neighborhood, in the background, visionary nonprofit leaders supported by the Brooklyn Community Foundation also have been working to make a difference in the lives of Red Hook’s young people and their families.
One of our early grants in Red Hook supported a workforce training initiative led by a nonprofit collaborative group that included the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) and Good Shepherd Services (GSS). The concept was both simple and brilliant: people in Red Hook needed jobs; local businesses needed truck and shuttle drivers. And so, the group created Red Hook on the Road, a commercial driver’s license training program. As a result, more than 1,200 local residents have obtained commercial driver’s licenses, and gotten good jobs with benefits at local businesses like Snapple, or with Fed Ex, UPS and the MTA. The project is now led by Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, an offshoot of FAC, directed by Brooklynite Aaron Shiffman.
The Foundation then made a major capital grant to Good Shepherd to build South Brooklyn High School, a “second chance” public high school for young people in danger of dropping out. This model, developed by the innovative Sister Paulette LoMonaco and her staff, was so successful that it has now been replicated by the Department of Education at other sites in Brooklyn and locations across the city.
We continued to partner with the Fifth Avenue Committee, brilliantly led by Michelle De La Uz, to develop the concept of Red Hook Homes. When it opens later this year, this unique housing model will introduce 60 new units to the neighborhood and offer a mixture of market rate and subsidized units, with a third going specifically to public housing residents who are ready for an opportunity to move up and into home ownership.
Jobs, housing, education — a good formula for change, but still not enough to reach into the lives and hearts of young people growing up in a challenging environment who need to be nurtured from the inside-out. The Foundation made early investments in two grassroots youth development initiatives created by extraordinary individuals: Added Value led by Ian Marvy, and the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) led by Jill Eisenhard. Both have achieved remarkable results for Red Hook’s young people.
The Added Value urban farming project transformed an unused, rubble-strewn patch of concrete surrounded by a 12-foot fence into a unique learning environment focused on agriculture and commerce. Today, it is a place where school children learn about the basic principles of planting and growing, of nutrition and health and what it takes to run a greenmarket that brings fresh produce to the community and to local restaurants.
And recently, RHI cut the ribbon on a new community center built with funds raised locally, including an extraordinary gift of $10,000 raised by young people and their families from the Red Hook public housing community. RHI helps young people to make smart life choices about school, health, work and family. RHI employees live in the community and the economic benefits ripple through the neighborhood.
Oftentimes, an underlying network of organizations quietly working to help those who need it, are those making the loudest rumblings of change. And while the positive effects of our investments are tangible, local issues are far from resolved in Red Hook. The dominating facts of life for many young people continue to be too many drug arrests and too few college admissions; too much violence and too little access to art, culture and literature. The neighborhood’s ideal views of Lady Liberty, which should inspire hope and promise, can still be an empty myth for too many of Red Hook’s young people.
That’s where the collective “we” comes in. It is up to us — those who care about Brooklyn and its people — to support these high performing nonprofit organizations so that no neighborhood, no matter how isolated, is forgotten.
The Brooklyn Community Foundation’s mission is to improve the lives of Brooklynites, now and in the future. Re-imaging a better Brooklyn will mean a commitment from all of us — to give, to serve and to create. Big ideas on a community scale can work — just look at Red Hook and be inspired, not only by the view, but by the innovative work happening behind the scenes.