Town Hall meeting spurs conversation about neighborhood needs
Seventeen-year-old Mandy Lopez wants to reform the criminal justice system in Hunts Point; 16-year-old Chenlee Carrasco wants better food options for his community; 17-year-old Erykah Solano wants to make sure residents have equal access to transportation options; and 17-year-old Avery DeWindt just wants to make sure the area stays afloat should there be another natural disaster.
All four and 13 others gathered at The Point last month to inform their community on these issues at a town hall meeting. The students, all part of the A.C.T.I.O.N. program, worked for months on four campaigns: the “Urban Food Justice” campaign, to create better and healthier food alternatives; the “Sheridan Expressway” campaign, to transform the Sheridan Expressway into a boulevard; the “Waterfront Justice” campaign aimed at finding preventative measures to keep the area from flooding should another hurricane hit; and the “Redefining Rehabilitation” campaign to study the jail system. Students gave live introductions and prepared tabletop presentations for the audience; one team even opted to rap about their topic.
For Lopez, the decision to take action was both a blessing and a curse. Like many young people of color, Lopez was stopped by cops as she was walking with a friend. The interaction turned aggressive once her companion chose to film the encounter. “They took her phone, threw it on the ground and said, ‘No. You cannot record anything,’” recalled Lopez.
From that moment on, Lopez decided she needed to be armed with knowledge about her rights in what she sees as an unjust system.
Lopez had another connection to her topic: her father has been in jail most of her life. “Since I was little and that has always been in the back of my head,” she said. “My mother works with the government—IRS, immigration—so I always had that connection and knew what was going on.”
Standing at about 5’5’’ with a blue shirt, black pants, hair in a ponytail and with wide, inviting eyes, Lopez explained that her group studied the jail system, legal rights, the stop-and-frisk policy and “all those things in the system of injustice.” Lopez reminded her audience of the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police.
“I now know that one of the basic rights you are entitled to is to record any police activity,” Lopez said. “There was no probable cause or reason for them to stop us.”
Carrasco’s reason for taking a stand was simple: “I like to eat,” he stated. “I’m trying to eat healthier because I realize that I tend to eat a lot of junk food.”
The “Urban Food Justice” presentation brought to light the fact that although Hunts Point harbors the largest food distribution center in the nation, it is still considered a “food desert,” meaning residents of the area are not able to access quality foods.
Erykah Solano, who worked on the “Sheridan Expressway” campaign, was reminded that the process of reform is not always easy.
“When I first heard about this campaign, it sounded pretty difficult,” the 17-year-old admitted. “There’s a lot of terminology, a lot of technicalities and a lot of history about this campaign; but I wanted to give myself a challenge.”
The Sheridan Expressway was built in 1958 to facilitate truck traffic to the food markets. However, truck drivers still have to use local roads, making it unsafe for pedestrians and increasing street-level pollution.
“Our campaign tries to repurpose the Sheridan; there is a plan now to turn it into a boulevard similar to the Grand Concourse,” said Solano. The teens also wanted audience members to understand the institutional and political systems at play. “I found out that Robert Moses, the creator, wanted to bypass low-income communities as if he didn’t want all the rich folk to see what it’s really like down here,” Solano explained. “That was really a shocker for me because who would really want to do that? These are people too.”
The “Urban Food Justice” and “Waterfront Justice” campaigns offered demonstrations at their tables. The former gave away samples of homemade banana pancakes in an attempt to juxtapose its health benefits against a McDonald’s apple pie. The latter, led by Brian Rodriguez—who, when posing for a picture had his female colleagues swooning over his dimples—used marbles and monopoly-like toy houses to show what would have happened to the Hunts Point area had Hurricane Sandy hit two hours later.
The A.C.T.I.O.N members aimed not only to inform, but to engage. This sentiment of making sure Hunts Point’s residents know they have a choice was reflected throughout the night.
“I’m hoping that people show up to the community meetings where they get to have their own say,” said DeWindt, a confident 17-year-old who throughout the night could be seen summoning people to his table. “These meetings allow people to sit down and input their own thoughts and their own ideas.”