When I lived in Brooklyn there was a little park a block away that was the closest, most convenient place for the boys to play. It was run down and decrepit, with peeling paint on the equipment, but was nonetheless well utilized by local families and adults who regularly used the handball courts. Almost all of the people in the park were black and brown and working class. The more affluent white people who had been moving into the neighborhood – it was very diverse when we lived there – walked to the neighboring playgrounds in Park Slope, which were more recently renovated.
Wanting a nice public space for our neighborhood, I met with representatives of the Parks Department and found out that there actually was a large pot of money that had been allocated to fix up the park, it had just been backburnered for years because no one had made it a priority. At their suggestion, I volunteered to be the community liaison to the city’s parks and recreation agency, and set about to change things for the better. I went to community board meetings and spoke out, I met with local elected officials and convinced them to make providing their constituents a safe beautiful recreational area a priority. It was an easy sell and with some back and forth with parks and other city agencies involved with public works, it surprisingly quickly became a front burner project, undertaken with community input and completed right before my eyes. I still remember how good it felt when some neighbors said to me, “Thanks for our park.”
I couldn’t take too much credit, really, all I did was get the ball rolling on a project that had been largely neglected. But on the other hand, that was a lot for one person with no power to speak of to accomplish. When last I visited the old neighborhood, the park was packed, although I noticed with some irony it was filled not with the neighbors on whose behalf I had fought for, but mostly with well-off white families, people who likely had no idea of how different the area had looked just years earlier. The park was now listed as a community asset on Zillow and other real estate websites. What once was a gaping deficit was now a factor that led to the desirability of the neighborhood.
When we left Brooklyn and moved to our new neighborhood – it’s now been 15 years, so it’s not so new anymore – I was thrilled to see the recently renovated playground up the street. I was also happy to see that there were basketball and tennis courts and best of all, one of the town’s three public pools, which one of my fellow swimmers described to me as a little slice of heaven as he exited the lap lane the other day. But I know better than to think the improvement and upkeep that keep this a local gem just happened, or that the integrated schools we so prize in this town did not get that way without an enormous amount of input from regular citizens who had organized en masse to make it happen. But so often we don’t think about the history of a place, how regular people and organizations and politicians — despite all the divisiveness that can hold progress back — still find ways to work together to create change.
So when on June 26th, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law establishing the Bridge Year Pilot program in our state to provide students in graduating classes of 2021 and 2022 the chance to offset disruptions to learning that resulted from a lack of in person instruction in 2020, I was relieved and grateful. Because V is one of the many students who basically lost a year of school and will now have the opportunity to make up for that loss. It doesn’t mean the district will make it easy: while the federal government will pay for instruction, local school districts will have to pay for transportation and other administrative costs, so we may need to hire an advocate if our district balks at the extra expense and oversight an additional, much needed year of school would bring.
I think of all the regular citizens and advocates who made calls to their local elected representatives, who helped to create the coalition that made this program a reality. I know that funds do not just drop from the sky, that bills do not just appear on desks to be signed, that it takes a lot of effort, often over far longer time than this initiative took, and I’m thankful for those who put in the hard work beyond the simple phone calls and letter-writing many of us partake in to have our voices heard.
When I think back to the local park in Brooklyn I feel like a different person. I was visible, empowered, hopeful. Even grappling with V’s recent diagnosis and the rough road ahead it was all so new and I still had plenty of energy for other things, for making change.
I watch more from a distance now, rooting for the infrastructure bill, voting rights, the American Families Plan. I will do my little part to support such measures: a phone call here, a small donation there, but I am no longer in the trenches. I am more consumer than producer, taking advantage of the park’s resources, using public transportation when I can, supporting local farmers whenever possible.
So I’m awed and impressed by people who stick with causes through hardship and downturns, who have the perseverance to forge ahead when their spirits are dampened. I’m more a human being than a human doing these days, and for that I have some regret. When I was younger I used to wonder why everyone wasn’t out in the streets all the time, banging on doors and meeting with others to make change that was so clearly needed to right all the injustices out there. I know now that people get burnt out, that we all have limited time and energy. Still, we can all, myself included, get a little complacent waiting for others to make the change we want to see in the world.
I hope to become more active again, to fight the ennui that has me listening and reading but not doing anything to follow the passion of my convictions; to once again follow the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet. ” Doing my small part to make sure we all have what we need to thrive: education, housing, health and safety and peace of mind, and a little slice of heaven now and then to keep our spirits afloat.