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Thursday Meetings Bring New Connections

By Mahalia Cummings

AVillage aims to bring the people who are shaping your community to you. Some of them can seem larger than life, but at AVillage we want to highlight the fact that we can be the bridge to the sometimes overwhelming issues of public policy and education. Our Thursday Meetings are an avenue by which we can bring a level of rare connection between South End residents and the leaders that have an influence on your community.
Last month we were honored to welcome the Honorable Carolyn McLaughlin, who counts educational advocacy as one of the many causes she has fought for over the years. AVillage hopes to help make the connection in the dialogue between residents when it comes to elected officials and school administrators.
Making change starts with helping the people of the community to be heard, no matter what. On Thursday, November 9th, AVillage is excited to welcome Albany School Superintendent Kaweeda G. Adams to our weekly community meeting, in which we hope to shed more light on what community schools mean for our children.
Our newsletter and our Facebook page will keep you informed of future Thursday speakers. The third Thursday of the month will be devoted to speakers on health and health advocacy — a major focus of AVillage and a major concern in our community.
A Conversation with Hon. Carolyn McLaughlin
The Honorable Carolyn McLaughlin is a woman of faith. She shares that through her committed work to public service, and that continued faith has kept her unwavering presence in the fight for social justice in Albany. Serving as a representative of the South End in the Common Council, and then the President, she has rich experiences to share.
“I wanted to be a voice for people who couldn’t be for themselves - or who just wouldn’t because they were intimidated by the process,” She said. Standing at the center of community residents who are closely listening, Carolyn was the embodiment of a leader of and for the community.  Having the pleasure of interviewing her the week before the meeting, it was clear that much of the topics discussed at the meeting rang true to what we spoke about privately.
As Carolyn spoke emphatically about a myriad of subjects — senior services, socio-economic equality,  employment, community engagement, and more — it was clear that her twenty years of public service was mired in passion. She said this of running for office: “You can’t do it if it doesn’t come from the heart”. It’s evident from the way Carolyn talks to her constituents to the plans in her mayoral platform, that she is all heart.
One of the most pressing issues  in the South End is educational justice. One of the ways that manifests is through Carolyn’s role in the Black Women’s Association of Albany. She got involved just over a decade ago, and has since established a scholarship in memory of her late mother which helps young girls go to school. Carolyn sees the uplifting of black women as a crucial marker to our society’s progress. She believes that the Black Women’s Association should continue to embrace women of all ages, and sees the generational gap as less of a chasm and more of as a source of wisdom and an opportunity to pool  collective knowledge and varying perspectives.
The championing of diversity is one of the core tenets of Carolyn’s political career. “You need to have people that represent all interests in every level of government...You need diversity of thought,” she says. “And that comes through having diversity. Because people come from all different backgrounds, and they bring different concerns to the table. Be it the ethnic background, LGBT community, seniors, youth. If someone’s not there that has that global interest, then you very well may be the last person they talk about.
“And by the time they get to your issue, there’s no money, or the team is burned out,” she says. At its best, local government can hold up a mirror to people of the community. Not only in the sphere of local politics, but in the educational system. On a practical level, policies made by a diverse set of people can greatly benefit the marginalized, especially students.
One of the issues that Carolyn hopes to be more vocal about in the future is the lack of black teachers in our schools. “I think we have to look at our schools - we know how diverse the population is or is not because 80-90% of those kids are kids of color. But yet, the teachers in the schools don’t reflect that.”
Carolyn talks about how students of color who see themselves reflected in their teachers can get a needed self-esteem boost. And it’s not about ethnicity alone.  “They seem to have a sense of pride, have a sense of self esteem that comes from that teacher standing in front of them that they’re likely to see in their neighborhood, that they’re gonna see in church, or see in the grocery store. Because that’s another thing: they live in their city.”
Education is largely informed by policies that are made by seemingly distant representatives. And although meetings with people like Superintendent Kaweeda G. Adams are a start, Carolyn makes it clear that the issue is ingrained in our institutions. “You have to look at some of these as a systemic things that affect the outcome of our childrens’ education.
We also talked about what non-profits can do to continue to make sure people have the tools they need to “Never give up on trying to give the information to people. Because one day it’s gonna click,” she said.

Carolyn McLaughlin was one of the original members of AVillage. She remarked on the evolution of the organization over the past eight years. “I think the growth has been phenomenal. And when Willie mentioned that it’s been eight years, I remember when we had the first meeting in the park up here and there was about five of us. And I said to him, ‘Don’t be discouraged. Come back next week.’ ” Carolyn knows Willie White had the vision that the achievements AVillage has made today were within reach nearly a decade ago.
“What AVillage does.” she said,  “is give the ordinary person an opportunity to realize how they can have an impact.”

A Call to Action: The need for local organizations to partner with Community Schools

by Liz DeSantis

The Community School model now at Giffen Memorial Elementary School and four other Albany school gives organizations and community members an opportunity to step up and become active members in our youth’s education.
Community Schools are organized around foundations that are believed to be the most effective to directly address the needs of their students, family members and the surrounding area. Within these schools, students are able to learn under an informal curriculum that has activities aimed to engage students and their families to create strong support systems.
Community Schools help prepare students to become active members in a growing economy through education and learning life skills. By creating connections to resources in the neighborhood, students benefit from an education outside of a set curriculum, such as receiving a hands-on professional education with businesses, environmental organizations, non-profits and art institutions. Giffen Elementary School is in the South End, which encourages the notion that parents and families must receive support in order to support their children. The Family Resource and Support Center utilizes Giffen’s school-community partnerships to provide guidance for families so that their children can succeed as students.

Community schools are important because they embody effective learning styles to prepare youth for a post-academic life. These kinds of institution for educating children can utilize time throughout the entire year to engage students with organizations, rather than primarily during the academic year. By extending time before or after the school day, or during the summer, schools could integrate the time with partnerships to fit into students’ daily lives without taking away from essential academic guidelines. Organizations now have the opportunity to create a program with the school they’re partnering with to ensure that the students are be receiving hands-on experience that will assist them in the future.


AVillage,Inc. Joins Centro Civico to Help Puerto Rico

By Mahalia Cummings
How did this relief drive come about? When Willie White called Ladan Alomar to bring an idea to her for a Puerto Rico Relief Donation Drop Off, she had already been in the throes of organizing and planning relief efforts. But during that call, the idea to collect supplies for people who had lost everything was brought to fruition.
The collection this Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., in front of the Rite Aid on North Pearl Street will mark some tangible evidence of community leaders coming together, but Centro Civico will be leading the Capital Region’s long-term struggle to rebuild the Puerto Rico relief and rebuilding effort for years to come.
Puerto Rico is an island of strong-willed people. But Hurricane Maria would test anyone’s faith. It’s people like Ladan who help to reinforce it. Ladan Alomar is the Executive Director of Centro Civico, a role she has served in for almost thirty years.
Centro Civico is a dual-language not-for-profit that provides immigration services, access to a bilingual daycare center, and support for people with developmental disabilities, English as a Second Language development, and more. All services are provided with the goal of filling gaps within the disparities that low-income and Hispanic communities struggle with. Under Ladan’s direction, Centro Civico has continued to flourish and provide needed resources to build strong families and encourage self-sufficiency for residents across the Capital Region.
The organization’s most recent endeavor is to provide much-needed supplies to the people of Puerto Rico in a desperate hour of need. Ladan has been a pioneer in the Capital Region — advocating and working for women’s rights, educational rights, human rights and economical development among other important issues.
When people don’t know how to help, they often turn to grassroots organizations for clarity. In turn, these organizations and their efforts help to make a “larger impact”, in Ladan’s words. It is that togetherness that Ladan is extremely grateful for, and leaders like she and Willie White continue to do what is needed to help to provide the vehicles for the passion and empowerment of the community.
Most people in Puerto Rico still lack electricity. Drinking water is difficult to find. In many cases, people seeking the support needed to survive find themselves caught in bureaucratic red tape. Within all this, children are suffering the most.
Ladan expresses how she first felt hearing the news of what had Hurricane Maria’s effects on Puerto Rico. “I was hurt. I was worried. I felt powerless. I would say that was the biggest emotion - powerlessness.” But it is this vulnerability that only helps to amalgamate the efforts of people who truly want to make change. Ladan felt grief and despair, but she did not unpack to live there. She channeled that into something positive, and others like her utilized their emotions and connected with each other to pool their resources.
Ladan Alomar makes it clear that she is not alone in this effort, and she hopes that sentiment is reflected for the people of Puerto Rico. She is working with collaborators such as CAPRI, the 100 Hispanic Women, Capital District Chapter, the Capital Region Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Albany Latin Festival Association (ALFA), the City of Albany Poverty Reduction Initiative (CAPRI) and others. They have joined forces with Centro Civico to create the Puerto Rico Disaster Relief Team. When I ask her about the collaboration effort, she says: “That connection not only makes us feel safe as people, but it strengthens us because we know that we are not alone.”
Ladan is not afraid to be emotional, and it is that capacity for feeling what she needs to that lends so much compassion to people who benefit from her work. She says that in the emergency stages of such disasters, the focus is on making sure people have the basics: safe shelter, food, and water. These are the main tenets of survival that are stripped away when a crisis hits. But after that, a different type of rebuilding begins. “Sometimes support from your family, your faith, when you know you’re not alone and there people out there thinking about you. And doing stuff to help you. All of this is emotionally and mentally healing.”
We also talk about the long-term effects of Hurricane Maria. “It is projected that the kids are going to lose a year of education,” Ladan says. She has secured a pledge of 200 backpacks from SEFCU, in the name of providing needed school supplies for students. She has brought up the possibility of students coming to the mainland for their schooling during this academic year, depending on what the future holds.
Ladan shares an anecdote from her childhood, in which she took hungry children in need into her home, without a second thought. She did not take into account the empty cabinets, the empty fridge, the footprints they would leave in their wake. With childlike determination, she could only think of one thing: helping those who need help. She treasures a picture that captures her in the middle of saving her allowance for this very purpose. She says it’s these defining moments of her life that cement her knowledge that we are all here for a purpose.
In times of crisis, it is all too easy to succumb to a feeling of helplessness. Ladan deconstructs some of the common thoughts that come about during international tragedy. No, we cannot afford to be desensitized to what we see on the news. “Images of pain and suffering have an impact on us. We are not a wall. We are human beings. We have to be proud of the fact that we have feelings and emotions and images and stories of other humans have impact on us.” No, our youth are not self-involved and complacent. “You have to take the time to connect with our youngsters and give them these experiences, they have feelings and emotions, too.”

And no, you are not alone. When I asked her what she would say to a survivor of this disaster face-to face, her answer was rooted in physical comfort first and foremost. “First I hug them. Because I think my hug and my touch would say a lot.” But she would ultimately say, “You are not alone.” We can all embody that sentiment, individually and together. As Ladan says, separatism is often stoked or exacerbated, but it is not the truth of what we as connected humans can achieve, one donation or act of kindness at a time.