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Don’t Waste Food Waste! Join the Radix Center’s Community Compost Initiative!

Poor soil is the biggest obstacle to urban food production Much of the once fertile Hudson River Valley is now polluted and paved over. How can people who live in the most contaminated parts of Albany access healthy soil? The answer is simple: use local organic (once living) waste to produce fresh compost. Food waste, dead leaves, wood chips, and grass clippings can all be diverted from the landfill and reintegrated back into the environment as compost, a nutritional soil supplement used in gardening. Finished compost is amazing for a number of reasons: it restores nutrients and microbial processes to sterilized soils, improves moisture retention and pH, creates soil where none exists, and reduces the risk of exposure to soil-bound lead.

Albany’s Rapp Road Landfill is slated for closure. Composting is a good alternative to the dump.  In fact, it may be the sustainable solution that helps bring vegetables to food deserts and mitigates climate change.

The Radix Ecological Sustainability Center in Albany is kickstarting the way for the Capital Region to compost more efficiently. Radix is a non-profit educational learning center and urban farm based in Albany’s South End. Ten years ago the site was a derelict parking. It now has a solar-heated bioshelter greenhouse that is managed as an indoor ecosystem with fish and flora integrated in an aquaponic system. Microlivestock like chickens and ducks live on the farm and eat food waste. The gardens use a rainwater collection system and electricity is provided by photovoltaic panels. As a demonstration site, Radix runs sustainability education programs and a farmshare. Radix works with the community advocacy organization A Village… Inc., to increase access to healthy, farm fresh food in the South End (classified as a food desert) by distributing at the Health Market, the only farmer’s market in the South End. Radix also encourages food waste diversion through the Community Composting Initiative (CCI).

The CCI is a weekly compost collection service in which subscribers get their food waste picked up at their curbside. The CCI also provides a hands-on example of sustainable waste management for our education programs. Volunteers, youth participants, and interns can touch, examine, and engage with all aspects of the compost process, from adding food scraps to the pile, to sifting fresh compost soil to garden beds.

Radix utilizes several techniques for composting. First, microlivestock such as chickens and geese eat food scraps, and thus lay eggs and defecate manure. Though they eat a significant amount of food scraps, not all is edible; what does not get eaten by the animals is mixed into compost piles with wood chips. When nitrogen-rich food waste is mixed with carbon-based woodchips, aerobic microbial composting begins and the compost pile heats up. As a result of the microbial metabolism, the internal temperature can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, we harness some of the biothermal heat by running water pipes through the compost pile, and into the greenhouse. Over time, the pile cools and shrinks by almost 50% of volume, and earthworms take over the next part of the process. The finished product is a beautiful broken-down organic matter that is dark in color, with a sweet, rich earthy scent. This resulting soil can then be added as a fertilizer to our raised-bed gardens, replacing the nutrients that are lost with the previous year’s crop.

We believe that it is just as important to keep composting local as food production. When food waste is transported over long distances, the greenhouse gas emissions negate the atmospheric benefits of composting. Furthermore, in local “microbrew” composting, there is greater care put in to what materials get added in to the compost pile, screening out plastic trash, which in industrial scale compost end up getting processed anyway.

We offer a number of practical solutions: some organizations and businesses voluntarily donate their food waste to us; for those who don’t have time, we offer the compost collection subscription; and for those who want to compost local, but aren’t local to Albany, we offer to help match farms to food waste producers.

Composting food waste is an essential component of creating healthy, equitable, and sustainable urban ecosystems. Keeping food out of landfills and making soil helps fight climate change, addresses food scarcity, maintains employment, educates youth, and regenerates soil ecosystem health.

To support Radix, or learn more about our programs, check out www.radixcenter.org.

This article was produced in part with funding provided by the NYS Pollution Prevention Institute through a grant from the Environmental Protection Fund as administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
 Any opinions, findings, and/or interpretations of data contained herein are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions, interpretations or policy of Rochester Institute of Technology and its NYS Pollution Prevention Institute or the State.

People of the South End: Sandra McKinley

Sandra McKinley is the founder of D.I.V.A’s for Christ, also known as D.I.V.A's, an organization she created around the same time that AVillage came to be. D.I.V.A's means “Divinely, Inspired, Victoriously, Assigned sister”. The mission of D.I.V.A's for Christ is to empower, strengthen, and encourage individuals living in low-income communities as well as those coming out of jails and other institutions through a network of services and programs designed to help them succeed and survive in today's world. Although D.I.V.A’s still needs a 501c3, one of its most significant focuses is in helping people gain access to construction jobs and the rebuilding of their community and themselves.

Sandra McKinley’s connection with God has been a throughline of her life. Her faith not only continually brings her guidance and restoration, but served as an inspiration for her community work.

“D.I.V.A's was revealed. It wasn’t something that I thought up. It was something that was revealed to me through my heart, through my situations and my struggles and my life. So as I grew to know who God was, he taught me who I was.”

Sandra McKinley cares deeply about fighting the oppression that black men and women face, and wants to break through the wall that separates our communities from true success. She thinks community members need to be empowered to hold non-profits responsible for the change they commit to make, and knows that connecting marginalized people to resources is a round-the-clock job. “D.I.V.A's is here to try to help them get to an open door. We can get them to the door, and they can stand and stare at it all day but if they don't walk through it then nothing’s gonna happen.”

Sandra McKinley’s organization is run by willpower and determination. She values the importance of getting the community the information that will help them the most. She knows that the systemic issues facing black people in poor communities loom large, and that even huge organizations can’t find resolutions for every problem. But as sure as Sandra’s faith serves as a guidepost for her values, there’s a Bible verse for that.

“If I was to use one sentence to describe what I do for D.I.V.A's it would be, ‘To walk someone through to the other side of where they are.' The bible tells us that we should be helping one another. Philippians 2:4 says, ‘Let each of you look not to his own interest, but also to the interests of others.’ And hopefully as I grab hold of somebody and walk with them, they will grab two.”

Sandra McKinley is a healer, a leader, a friend, and a coach, all in one. She aims to build the faith of those who feel that they have none left. Although Sandra is still trying to build her organization’s capacity, she doesn’t let that stop her from bridging the gap between youth and the type of opportunities she missed out on herself. “God shows us where we wasted time and by investing in someone else and my hope is that they won’t waste so much.”
She is an incredibly self-reflective individual, and talks about the lessons she wishes she could tell her teenage-self. “Somebody has to water your dream. Somebody has to encourage us. It puts joy in people’s hearts that makes them blossom. That makes that flower come up and their backs get straighter.”

I ask Sandra what brings her the most joy. After all, so much of her life has been intertwined with helping people through the hardest moments of theirs. Her answer comes with a brief pause, a bright smile on her face. “When I see someone who was down, get up.”

If you would like to support D.I.V.A’s, or know someone who could help the organization get a 501c3, e-mail Sandra McKinley at divasforchrist2017(at)gmail.com.


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.   


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.


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.”