By Shahrzad Makaremi, Aliya Bhatia, and Karla Henriquez
On an overcast Saturday morning in February, a group of 15 USP students packed into the train, exchanging notes about courses and assignments, and getting to know each other. As part of the USP concentration, the three of us had organized a trip for students to visit the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. The hour-long train ride was one full of excitement and wariness. As organizers, we felt excited for the opportunity to leave the SIPA bubble and learn more about New York City. However, there was also some wariness.
According to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, Brownsville is the largest public housing project in the United States. While the average age within the neighborhood is 31, the majority of residents are under 18. Frequently mentioned in the news as one of Brooklyn's “most dangerous neighborhoods” or the “worst neighborhood for children,” the Brownsville neighborhood is constantly stereotyped. With this negative coverage, it is easy to minimize and reduce the neighborhood to these descriptions. But Brownsville, like many other neighborhoods in New York, is a dynamic and complicated community. Many of Brownsville’s empty lots have been turned into community gardens. Currently, the city is concerned with boosting the safety and participation of the major thoroughfares in Brownsville after daylight. NYCx, a laboratory of public solutions for public problems, is soliciting requests from citizens about creative and technological solutions that can help change the disparaging narrative around the community. There are also real fears among community members that the policies and projects proposed are too broad to serve the specific needs of the community. Even more, they are concerned that these new policies will not serve the two communities in Brownsville that need the most services: youth and seniors.
Considering that so many SIPA students are not familiar with New York and the history of its diverse neighborhoods, it is difficult to navigate the line between curiosity and the desire to learn about different neighborhoods, while avoiding the potential to make assumptions and generalizations about neighborhoods and communities. Generally, we didn’t want this field trip to turn into an opportunity to “other” or reduce the experiences of many New Yorkers in low-income neighborhoods. We wanted to avoid this by connecting with community leaders that could provide an honest and open insight into communities.
Albert Kakudiji, a Brownsville native, grew up in the community and is a community leader in the neighborhood. After a career in investment management, he brought his skills and experiences back to Brownsville as the Chief Operating Officer of Made in Brownsville. Made in Brownsville describes itself as a “youth creative agency and innovation hub” that provides opportunities for young people in Brownsville to gain marketable skills in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math), access to postsecondary education, and achieve economic mobility. Made in Brownsville achieves this by offering mentorship, classes, and access to lab space.
Albert, guided us through the neighborhood and provided information about the needs of the community and the exciting innovations happening in the neighborhood. Students learned about the hardships that community members face, including high crime, lack of access to financial institutions, lack of WiFi and Internet, and underperforming schools. Albert and his colleagues at Made in Brownsville are working within the community to change this by working with youth to promote the needs of the community with city government.
Albert finished off the tour with a visit to the Brownsville Community Culinary Center, a culinary training program aimed at training participants in all aspects of restaurant work, from waiting tables to baking pastries. The BCCC, as it is colloquially known, is a social enterprise and a collaboration between the Brownsville community and the Melting Pot Foundation. The BCCC prides itself on serving as a forum that allows the Brownsville neighborhood to address and organize around issues of food injustice. Over a delicious lunch, we spoke with MJ, one of the Operations Directors at BCCC and Lucas Denton, one of the co-founders, about the history of the BCCC and the details of the training program.
Most students come to SIPA excited about the opportunity to learn about innovations in policy and how cities, states, and organizations can improve. Somewhere between regressions, investment curves, and supply/demand graphs, some of that passion dwindles. This trip was a great reminder of why so many of us are here at SIPA. Even more, it was an educational tale. So much of the incredible innovation and successful programing in Brownsville was developed by community members for community members. As future policy-makers, we must not only be aware of community needs, but we must also work with communities to develop these solutions.