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4/25/2018

Impressions on Re-reading the Capital South Segway to the Future Plan

by Tom McPheeters
I was a member of the South End Action Committee and participated in the planning process that resulted in the Capital South Segway to the Future Plan in 2017. Aside from the title, I thought it was a good, inclusive process that resulted in an impressive document with real prospects. I was also on the South End Implementation Team, which was charged with overseeing the execution of the plan. That was discouraging, to see interest wane and gradually disappear.
So it was instructive to give this Plan a full reading last weekend, from the perspective of both yesterday’s ideas today’s realities. This is my subjective report:
The Plan had the optimistic goal of completing the first phase, “Stabilize,” in about two years. There was a heavy emphasis on the built environment, for obvious reasons, but, as it turns out, the strategies proposed for accomplishing the task of turning around the blighting influence of abandoned properties didn’t work.
Eleven years on, the situation with the buildings is worse, simply because the vacant buildings are older and even more deteriorated. But it is important to acknowledge these significant success:
·         Public safety has improved markedly, with all crime statistics trending downward, thanks to the Albany Police Department’s embrace of community policing, innovative gang outreach by Trinity and others, and more community participation. However, public perception has not caught up.
·         The Albany Housing Authority completed all the projects the Plan suggested, absent tearing down more of Lincoln Square. Habitat did one major new project on Alexander Street and is adding more homes to its Delaware Street project.
·         The Capital South Campus Center is a major outcome from the Plan, and a source of pride in the community. The reevaluation of the CSCC’s mission that is under way does not detract from this accomplishment.
·         Albany County created a Land Bank that has finally gotten control of the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, so that it is now possible to do rational planning and priority setting. In addition, the city has refocused its efforts to understand vacant property ownership, so that good data can drive decision making.
·         Community engagement and participation has increased substantially, thanks to the South End Neighborhood Association, AVillage…,Inc., a variety of newer community organizations, a revitalized Trinity Alliance and a helpful Albany Housing Authority.
·         The South End Improvement Corp. has increased its capacity and is now able to take a pivotal role in planning as well as in implementing rehab and redevelopment projects.
Stabilize: Still the goal
The abandoned property issue turned out to be much more difficult to solve than the plan anticipates, and nearly all of the suggested solutions turned out to be either unworkable or did not receive the government investment they needed to succeed.
Thus, we find ourselves with a new set of facts and a new set of tools — not necessarily better or worse, but not 2007.
Nevertheless, the Plan makes one valuable contribution, I think — the assertion that all of the various approaches to addressing abandoned property need to be evaluated not as individual enhancements but as one coordinated campaign to reach specific goals.
The Stabilize section addresses other important issues for the South End: Access to jobs, quality of life and community capacity. While none of these are completed, the question is whether we have learned enough and moved far enough in eleven years to warrant going on to “Energize.” The next step would be to form working groups to explore goals and strategies in each of these areas.
·         Access to jobs. Building wealth in the South End is a major unmet goal. The Campus Center discussion currently under way ultimately revolves around the intense difficulty of raising income levels in poor neighborhoods. Again, the Plan envisioned a multi-faceted but coordinated approach that has so far not materialized. However, the city has stepped forward with its new CAPRI initiative, so a South End group might want to plug into that while refocusing on relationships with local employers, including the Port of Albany, Albany Med, the Convention Center, the WAGE Center, etc.
·         Quality of Life can expand on the successes listed above, and move on to block level organizing and planning, etc. This is also where local “clean and green” efforts hold great promise, since both the city and the land bank now support the concept. We also need to recognize that qualify of life should include more than absence of crime and a more attractive neighborhood, but also touch on recreation, arts and culture.
·         Community capacity is an ongoing issue, as it depends in large part on volunteer efforts the work of a few large not-for-profits and a collection of a dozen or so small not-for-profits. The Lincoln Fund, a fund of the Community Foundation, is interested in working with these smaller not-for-profits to increase their capacity and explore areas of partnership and collaboration, while maintaining their individual character.

Not Addressed in the Plan: Then there are several areas not addressed in the Plan that have been the focus of these smaller not-for-profits. This indicates a high level of community interest that should be nurtured by a new coordinating body:
a)      Health and environmental justice
b)      School success and youth development
c)      Recreation, Arts and culture.

Grow the South End
This third section is admittedly futuristic, and most of the ideas presented are still beyond any immediate action at any level. However, events and individual decisions often drive planning in ways that nobody anticipated. With that in mind, several of the large concepts should be kept in front of a new community committee:
·         The redevelopment of Lincoln Square. While demolition of any of the remaining tower buildings depends on federal funding unlikely to appear any time soon, the prospects for developing 15 Warren Street are much brighter.
·         The South Pearl corridor, and especially the so-called “Capital South Square” (the DMV building, the county-owned parking lot and the other county buildings) could all be affected by real estate decisions. South Enders may want to preserve our options for a more community-oriented approach to that area.
·         The development of Giffen Memorial as a “community school.” This holds great promise for the South End both in terms of enhancing the educational experience of our young people, but also as turning the school into a community asset.
In order to have an impact on current developments that might affect those long-range concepts, this new community committee would need to establish itself as a body that can speak for all of the South End.   


3/26/2018

People of the South End: George York

by Mahalia Cummings

George York has been living in the South End for twenty-two years. George is deeply committed to serving his community and consistently shows up for the South End community through his work at AVillage and the Children’s Café. George volunteers at The Children’s Café from open to close, five days a week.

George’s favorite part about volunteering at the Children’s Café is the familial atmosphere. One of the core aspects of its mission is to nourish people. George enjoys that this is a place that families can come together and eat, and have a good time while doing it.

He likes to be useful, which explains his role at the Café.  George wouldn’t necessarily consider himself a mentor, but he’s a presence that the kids at the Café can depend on. “You know, just basically like a big brother. I try to help to the best of my abilities, you know?” Whatever they need him for, he’s there. Whether it’s cooking, maintenance, or minding the youth of the program, George is an active participant. He is also close friends with the director, Tracie Killar.  He describes their relationship as “tight like brother and sister”.

When George first became an AVillage member three years ago, he was also in a position that put him directly in touch with the community. As former manager of the South End Healthy Market, he enjoyed having face-to-face interactions with the people of the South End, selling produce, and creating connections. People still come up to him and ask him if he’s going to be selling produce during the next Healthy Market season. When George first joined AVillage, he felt like he was receiving as much as he was giving.

“Actually, as I was helping people AVillage was helping me also.”

When asked what his favorite thing about AVillage’s mission is, he said it’s the drive to help people to the best of the organization’s ability. George also praises AVillage’s growth since he joined three years ago.

“It’s amazing. I believe it’s like a miracle. It takes work and it’s just the progress, you know. It’s progress, not perfection.”

George definitely embodies his own advice. His activities include exercise at the YMCA, taking typing classes at the Capital South Campus Center, volunteering, and weekly bowling. Keeping this schedule allows him to keep his mind occupied. It’s about balancing what he can while he gives back to his community. Over twenty-two years, he’s witnessed a lot of change, both positive and negative.

He cites the Capital City Rescue Mission’s expanded capacity as a positive, marking his desire to simply see people getting the help they need.

However, George wants to see more places built for children in the community, instead of buildings focused solely on business development.  Among other changes he wants to see is a shift toward less environmental pollution in the South End, and less violence. He hasn’t touched a cigarette in seven years, but wonders to what extent the air pollution is affecting him.

George York is greatly observant, but doesn’t simply stand by and watch. He works toward an empowered South End every day. He is a man of his community, a man of principles and routine. He enjoys listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire, and playing cards. He keeps to himself, but makes it a core principle to give back. Yes, George is a man who lets his silence do the talking. But he knows the value of reaching out to those around him, and is part of a ripple effect of the positive impact of individuals doing what they can to touch the lives of community members. “Goodwill and a little heart go a long way. When you speak heart to heart, people understand better,” he says.

I think all members of the South End community would agree that we need more Georges in the world.

1/02/2018

We know it’s hard to get good jobs if you live in the South End. Knowing why, shouldn’t we have a strategy?

by Tom McPheeters

The article Millennials Are Screwed should be a must-read for anybody concerned about our inner city neighborhoods. If you have not read it, set aside a half hour and be prepared to be outraged.
While the article (in Huffington Post’s Highline section) is focused on the plight of young adults caught in the economic tsunami of the 2009 Great Recession and its aftermath, it lays out in devastating clarity the structural inequities that have kept residents of low income neighborhoods and people of color out of the economic mainstream for many, many decades.
Workforce development is not a new topic, but in Albany there is a new interest and some new initiatives (see our newsletter). I would like to offer the following thoughts:
  • The structural barriers facing low income workers are enormous, and any new program that hopes to “break the cycle of poverty” better be fully prepared to deal with the almost inevitable setbacks that come with living paycheck to paycheck. Government anti-poverty and safety net programs are utter failures in dealing with these low-level but devastating catastrophes (an illness, a car accident or breakdown, etc.) As the HuffPo article points out, the best way to deal with these setbacks is to make sure families have a cushion, a little extra income (just like us middle class folks). Where is that to come from?
  • Address the high cost of housing, the biggest single drain on family finances. Housing insecurity and the cycle of homelessness is one of the major reasons people don’t keep the jobs they have.
  • Start to break the “contract worker” system. I recently talked with a young man at a family homeless shelter. He has a job with a local contractor doing demolition and cleanup for the Albany County Land Bank, but he still fell behind on his rent, got evicted and ended up at Schuyler Inn. The HuffPo article made me realized how prevalent the contract labor system has become. Albany Housing pays contractors to do its grounds keeping and maintenance. The local hotels hire through contractors for their housekeeping and kitchen jobs. Many workers these days get 30 hours a week and no benefits, and very little job security. Not every employer can be persuaded to change their ways, but surely public authorities and some local businesses can be led to see their own role in keeping people in poverty.
  • Remember what has to be a primary goal — strengthen the economic life of the neighborhood. Workforce development works best in neighborhoods that already have things going for them, where people see hope and a future for themselves and their children. At a certain point, the neighborhood becomes its own network and support system and generator of ambition. We are not really helping a lot of people when our few successes get a better job and move out.
  • Don't aim for the fences with every program. There may be a few people who can jump from sweeping floors to a great job in some tech company. We should applaud them and help them however we can, but they can’t be the focus here. For most people, there are many steps in between, and on each rung of the ladder there needs to be both a job, support and training for the next job.
  • Understand that unions have different agendas. As the HuffPo article points out, most unions these days are in a defensive mode, and focused on keeping their current members employed. In my opinion, we have invested way too much effort in trying to persuade the construction trades in the Capital Region to let people of color into their high-wage system, only to find that the deck is stacked against new workers. It's almost impossible to actually make a living without substantial seniority, a reliable vehicle and (usually) a second job. The white color unions are seen as allies to the poor, but not portals to their good paying jobs.
  • Find areas of opportunity — professions that have both entry-level positions with minimal training and opportunities for advancement. Develop relationships with the employers, so that the job exists at every off ramp. We have been exploring a couple of good prospects, and I am sure there are others.
  1. Train people with some construction skills to work on our many vacant buildings. These are non-union jobs that require both traditional skills and extensive problem-solving skills that find economic ways of dealing with decay and inexpensive design solutions.
  2. The health and medical fields offer a variety of entry-level jobs that could lead to higher paying jobs. We see some residents of the South End take advantage of these opportunities, and now Trinity and AVillage are hiring South End residents to serve as Resident Outreach Workers. With encouragement and more training, these part-time positions could lead to good paying full time jobs.
  3. Trinity’s Capital South Campus Center had been scouting employers who are willing to start people at entry level and bring them along. What is missing is a funded cadre of employment advisors, counselors and problem solvers. Transportation, medical crises, children’s illnesses, etc. And, as I wrote earlier, cash when it’s needed.

People of the South End: Shameka Andrews

By Mahalia Cummings
Shameka Andrews celebrated a birthday yesterday, on New Year’s Day. Her celebration is a reminder that she defied stark odds. Shameka was born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly. “My parents were told that I wouldn’t live past the age of 5. And now coming in this new year I’m going to be forty years old. So to me that in itself is exciting.”

Shameka is a disability advocate and consultant. She provides workshops for people with disabilities, their families, and community organizations in the areas of health and wellness and self advocacy. Helping people with disabilities — and their families — get the resources that they need to live the lives that they want to lead.  She coordinates wellness activities, increases participation of people with disabilities in their communities and runs Ms Wheelchair NY, which is an advocacy and empowerment program for women who use wheelchairs. “It’s all about helping women with disabilities being better advocates in their communities and make differences and have their voices be heard.”

Shameka’s journey may have started with self advocacy, but she always hoped that her actions would have a positive ripple effect for others. When she graduated from college, she was told that students with disabilities would not be able to access the stage and walk across it like everyone else. “They said that we usually pass them their diploma  while they’re sitting in the audience. And I said, ‘I’m sorry, no disrespect to you, but I worked just as hard as every student in this school. And I am not going to sit in the audience while somebody passes me my diploma.’

Shameka loves to take walks, and refuses to let the breakdown of accessibility standards confine her or others.  We talk about the issue of sidewalk accessibility. When the risk of using a wheelchair on an icy or unplowed sidewalk is too great, some opt to drive their wheelchair in the street. Sometimes, anger is drivers’ knee-jerk reaction, and this is representative of how the issues that people with disabilities face are often marginalized, or misunderstood. Shameka talks about the value of seeing the full human being, not a burden. “It’s not a disability issue. It’s a community issue.”.

Although she grew up in Downtown Albany, Shameka is now a citizen of the South End. She can be seen at local events, including protests at Ezra Prentice, AVillage Thursday meetings or Saturday morning Zumba classes. Her presence in the community is an embodiment of her practicing what she preaches through community development. Albany is one of the few cities to form an advisory committee to better enforce the American with Disabilities Act.  “It can’t be up to one committee. It has to be the the community as a whole saying whoever I am, that I am going to do my best. Do my part to make sure that my little section of the community is as inclusive and supportive as I can possibly make it.”

Shameka is also a teacher of meditation. She loves to share the strength she has found through stretching her mind and body to the height of their capabilities, despite the external noise. “And that’s what this work has done for me in my own life, to really explore and be able to explore my own capabilities of what my mind is capable of and what my body is capable of.”  

Shameka Andrews embodies self care as a radical force. She encourages people to love themselves as a rule, despite imposed limitations. “Most people before they meet me or even have a conversation with me have already decided what I am capable of. I mean from the day I was born — that’s how most people with disabilities are presented to their parents, with a list of things that they will never be able to do.”

Shameka is also an author.In 2018, she is keeping the door open for bringing readings of her books and other programs into schools, booking more speaking engagements, coordinating more health and wellness events, and continuing to share her story.  Shameka’s children’s book, Butterfly On Wheels, is about a caterpillar on wheels who can’t wait for her wings. As for more the possibility of more books? That’s a door that Shameka has left open, and is excited to see what unfolds.

One quote she shares before a speech is this quote from Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. And I won’t let what I can’t do interfere with what I can.”


12/13/2017

People of the South End: Miss Clara Phillips


by Elizabeth DeSantis

Keeping the Past Alive
Mississippi native Clara Phillips has been in Albany for 56 years, and has stayed a loyal resident to the South End ever since. She has been a part of AVillage for the past 8 years ever since running into Willie White one day after her church service who said, “I’m starting an organization”. Ms.Clara has since been known as “AVillage’s first member”, and her dedication to her work is accredited to something her mother always told her -- “If you’re going to do something, stick with it”. Her dedication is visible through the creation of the 100 CDTA bus line and the annual Mississippi Day.

While interviewing Ms. Clara, I asked her what her favorite memory of Albany is, to which she laughed and said, “Well, at first, I didn’t like Albany. It was too quiet”. Now, Ms. Clara said, she would never leave the South End or Albany. Mississippi will always be home, but Albany has become a good second home for her.

She now occupies her time by working at the South End Children’s Cafe where she helps youth with their homework and tries to answer all of the questions about life they throw at her. “They keep you in touch”, she said, when asked about how different is was working with a younger generation. Since younger generations are more involved with social media than Ms. Clara, they fill her in about technology while she tells them stories about her past.

Ms. Clara admitted that she’s not as updated with technology, but she wishes the South End could get more media coverage to raise awareness. “You can’t buy salad in the South End”, she said. The importance of raising her, and many others’ concerns about the need for jobs, health insurance, and vegetables needs to reach more social media coverage so that change can happen.

When asking about her history, Ms. Clara told her life story with a reminiscent look and a smile that never left her face. From sharing stories about the day she cooked for the first annual AVillage Mississippi Day with an injured ankle to how she works at the local South End Children’s Cafe to help students with their homework, it’s clear why social media is important. Without social media platforms, some stories never get shared. They may die with the person they belong to, but Ms. Clara is working against that by writing her first novel. Still in the making, From The Beginning to Almost The End, will share her well known recipes and the challenges she’s overcome. Her hopes for the book is that “it might help someone else”. 

People of the South End will be an occasional feature of AVillage VOICE. If you know someone with a story to tell, let us know. The Editor.

Corey Ellis Talks Economic Development

by Mahalia Cummings

It was on those yellow pieces of paper that this organization was born,” Albany Common Council President-Elect Corey Ellis begins his talk at December 7th’s Thursday Meeting by calling back to AVillage’s origin story. He talks about the way that Willie White built on an idea. An idea that Corey first witnessed come into its own on bright yellow flyers and on passion before the it was even fully conceptualized.
South End residents dream for themselves, too. Corey Ellis points out that for too many people, the job opportunities they see always come with a barrier or obstacle attached, so that they can see it, but can’t grasp it. Some of these obstacles stem from educational injustice, lack of economic opportunity, the absence of equal representation in government, housing disparities, and racial discrimination.

For Corey, it is about equality and equity. It is about tapping into the entrepreneurial minds of young people, but it’s also about institutions. “You have to have some entity that holds people accountable.” Corey co-founded the Capital District Black Chamber of Commerce to become an economic driving force and leverage  for people who found themselves shut out in the face of systemic discrimination. “What about your lending practices? Your high interest rates?” Corey speaks of crossing into a world where institutions are no longer blocked off to marginalized members of the community.  “That’s where your institutions have to come alive. Your churches, your chambers. Your urban league.”

The discussion also centered on the merits of empowering yourself, any way you can. The inherent value of unions and the importance of advocacy was a hallmark of the meeting.  Members from ECWA local 102, a construction union, were present at the meeting. ECWA Local 102 is proficient in training its members, and works with legislator and community leaders in the city. Corey doesn’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to this subject. But he stresses the importance of going after the people who contract the companies in the first place, and getting down to the nuts and bolts of how many jobs community members will be viable for. And providing access to that training.

When AVillage member Ray Turner asks what he needs to do to achieve what Corey Calls a “sustainable, workable, livable” community, Corey tells him that he’s already doing it. “Being part of an organization that is based on community growth. Being active in the community.”

Corey is an example of what community activism does. As he said, he didn’t come to the meeting to talk at community members. He aimed to listen. There wasn’t always complete agreement, but conversations have to be nuanced to make change. Corey Ellis is at the forefront of our Common Council, filled with group of people who take a significant role in representing the residents of Albany. As Vivian Kornegay said at the meeting last Thursday, what affects one of our neighborhoods, affects us all. Corey stated that the resurgence of the South End is going to come hand in hand with aggressive change. We are all a part of that change.



11/26/2017

Road Closed Due to Injustice

by Mahalia Cummings
When Willie White speaks to Dave the truck driver on Friday, November 17th, with horns blaring around them, there is a moment of stillness. In contrast to the confrontational nature of the halted trucker at last month’s action, Dave tells Willie that he understands why he's being stopped. There is no quick flash of anger, but compassion.
For the news cameras, this result might have seemed anti-climactic. But it’s the buildup of awareness and open dialogue that will impact change.
Over the past month members of AVillage and the surrounding community have gathered to protest environmental injustice at Ezra Prentice Homes. Members gather at 625 South Pearl St., meeting those from groups such as Citizen Action, students from The Free School, Democratic Socialists of Albany, and Environmental Advocates of New York.   There has been great strength in small numbers, but we hope to continue to grow this movement, to be so loud that people can’t help but to join us.
AVillage advocates for people who have been exhausted by a system that overlooks and exploits them. For some, that means standing and holding signs. For others, that means standing in the road and refusing to move. Either way, AVillage seeks to elevate the voices of those who have been silenced. The residents of Ezra Prentice Homes deserve advocates who are willing to be unmoved.
In the minutes leading up to the conversation, Willie was gathered with other protesters as they blocked the southbound lane of South Pearl Street. While the traffic was blocked, other demonstrators handed out literature to those in their stopped cars. All the while, Dave and Willie engaged in a civil discourse about the toxic environmental impact that diesel truck fumes have on the neighborhood.
Willie echoes some of the  “Dear Trucker” letter passed out to all halted truck drivers who will accept them. To members of AVillage and many residents of Ezra Prentice, it is clear as day. Traffic stoppage is controversial. But the residents have no other tool or leverage to get their voices heard. What is a minor inconvenience for those on their evening commute is part of a larger picture for those who are fighting for their lives.
And at this particular action, it was met with a dialogue that continues to grow. Willie reports that he has received a number of phone calls from Truckers who read the letter and want to talk about how to resolve this issue. They tell Willie they understand the issue and why it’s necessary to take direct action, but also why other routes are difficult right now. One company that has found another route, according to its driver. Willie passes on the information from the truckers to those who have the ability to take action.
Tomorrow, Dave and people like him could be the impetus to the further closing of the gap between the needs of the people and the pressures of the transportation system.
Willie is known for shouting “no more” at protests, a two-word declaration that invokes the true nature of not only AVillage’s activism, but the voices of the oft-silenced Ezra Prentice residents. Enough is Enough. Everyone felt that spirit at the November 17th action, felt that the purpose stretching beyond one singular individual, but embodying the type of resistance that really takes A Village.
Will you join us? If you’d like to participate, please send us your phone number so we can text you about future actions.