AWESOME PROJECT: Empowerment Fairs in West Harlem this Summer

Three years ago, 30th Precinct Deputy Inspector Ruel Stephenson called a meeting in his West Harlem neighborhood. It was time, he said, to bring together as many local leaders as possible, to do some brainstorming and to work towards solutions to the area’s drug and violence-related struggles. Elected officials showed up. Clergy showed up. Community leaders showed up. The NYPD showed up. There were about 50 people in attendance, all told.

“We all agreed we needed to do something for our youth in the summertime,” says Signe Mortensen, a neighbor who would go on to take a leadership role in the resulting West Harlem Empowerment Coalition. “Because our youth were challenged. We were having lots of youth-on-youth violence. There were a lot of issues.”

Rather than create something new right away, the group decided to start with the wonderful resources that were already available in their community. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, mind you. We wanted to connect people with resources that already existed in West Harlem,” says Mortensen. “Great organizations. Mostly non-profits that brought housing aid, legal aid, education, mentoring for youth. Whatever the community needed.”

WHEC Empowerment Fair
[The Reverend Donnell Harper speaks to kids on 134th Street. Click for more photos via Facebook]
What that effort has grown into is a series of summertime “Empowerment Fairs,” which take place on some of West Harlem’s roughest blocks, as identified by the NYPD. Every last Friday of the month, the Coalition takes to one of the challenged blocks (last week was West 134th – coming up next on June 19th is 144th), shut the street down completely (with the help of the NYPD), and set up information tables, raffles, basketball hoops, and more. The sports, games, climbing walls, and prizes (signed Yankees stuffed bears, for example) draw people in – youth especially – and the goal is to reach as many neighbors as possible with existing West Harlem services. “Empower people, one block at a time” is their motto. The Reverend Donnell Harper, Chair of the Coalition, speaks at every fair on the theme of empowerment. Local nurses talk to neighbors about programs to help them quit smoking. America Scores uses poetry and soccer to reach youth. The NYPD Explorers program offers youth a way to spend the summer out of trouble.

What are the most needed services offered at the fairs? Mortensen says that legal aid tops the list. Many residents need help figuring out how to deal with a summons, for example, or help reintegrating into the neighborhood after they’ve come out of the criminal justice system. “There are inevitably on these blocks some folks who are dealing with these issues,” says Mortensen.

Housing aid is another big one. The Coalition works hard to get residents the resources they need to stay in their homes, and to help others find affordable housing. “People don’t understand the rules,” says Mortensen. “They don’t understand how it works. For lack of a better word, they often get tricked out of their homes.” When it comes to housing, knowledge really is power.

One of the greatest markers of success for the Empowerment Fairs is that recently, the 26th precinct got in touch with the Coalition, to ask if a similar series could be arranged for their neighborhood. Word seems to be spreading. And this year, say both Mortensen and Harper, when the fair came to 134th street, everyone felt a notable difference in the energy on the block. “This year it felt more like they were with us,” says Mortensen. “They believed in what we were doing.”

Last Friday, at the 134th street fair, Pastor Harper’s speech centered on the struggles of the old testament biblical figure of Joseph (and his coat of many colors) – how he was abandoned by his brothers and imprisoned, yet never let go of his dreams. At one point during his talk, Pastor Harper looked down to see a young woman in tears. The message of hope – that it’s never too late to reach for your dreams – had struck a chord with her. As Carolyn Thompson, the Coalition’s Community Board 9 Liason, puts it, “we know that just because a block has a problem, it doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.”

You can support  the Coalition’s summer Empowerment Fairs RIGHT HERE.

If this grassroots effort inspires you to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’re here to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news:

Come Hike the Heights with us on June 6!

And don’t miss this Amazing Children’s Garden in Delray, Florida, complete with its own BANANA FOREST