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Organizing Action in the South Bronx

By Phil Bors on June 6th, 2018

A Conversation with Yineska Guerrero

In 2015, the New York Community Trust (NYCT) began investing in the Hunts Point community as part of its South Bronx Healthy and Livable Neighborhoods initiative. Urban Health Plan (UHP), a federally qualified non-profit health system, became the lead agency for a multi-year initiative to increase healthy food access and safe options for physical activity. Yineska Guerrero, an attorney by training, who lives, works, and grew up in The Bronx, is UHP’s Healthy Livable Communities Coordinator.

In collaboration with her partner from the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, Yineska organized the Healthy Hunts Point Action Group, a dedicated team of residents who are making improvements in Hunts Point through community mobilization and advocacy. What began as an idea for a small advisory group grew into a team of over 25 mothers who wanted to improve neighborhood safety.

The action group identified street lighting as a significant safety priority in Hunts Point. Seven resident data collectors led a survey process, collected over 200 signatures from other residents, and pinpointed the most urgent locations for better lighting in public spaces. The action group created a “heat map” of street lights throughout Hunts Point and presented their findings at a city Participatory Budgeting session. One of the mothers spearheaded a successful proposal to light up an intersection near one of the local Hunts Point school Hunts Point School, resulting in $100,000 for “School/Community Lighting,” which was presented by NYC Council Member Rafael Salamanca, Jr. The action group will continue to work with Council Member Salamanca to improve lighting and safety in Hunts Point.

I asked Yineska to share more about her impressive work in the South Bronx and what motivates her.

I’m curious about your story prior to your role as Healthy Livable Communities Coordinator.

I’ve been in The Bronx since I was 12 years old, where I still live and work. Before coming to UHP, I graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Law and worked in the New York State Assembly. I was very interested in and worked locally for fair housing, legal rights, and court re-entry programs in Buffalo. I was helping parents fight for visitation rights with their children when I learned about UHP at a conference.

As a housing and legal advocate, why did you choose this role as healthy communities coordinator?

Health is another leg of human rights that I didn’t think was in doubt. But for many people, it is. To highlight this connection, I wanted to branch out from the work I was doing in Buffalo. I saw how Hurricane Sandy threatened Hunts Point. After the storm, many worried about the vulnerability of the Hunts Point Market, one of the largest wholesale produce hubs in the world. But Hunts Point residents are already vulnerable every day because many can’t afford expensive produce or other healthy food. When asked what I do, I say that I don’t just provide fruit and vegetables to people, but that I also empower people to make their communities healthier.

When you began working with the residents as an action group, how did they choose to take on street lighting?

We first proposed creating an advisory group of providers and community members. Instead, seven moms gathered at a meeting to plan for a Healthy Hunts Point. We posted a blank piece of paper and wrote down what they said was important to them: access to parks, healthy food, Zumba classes, and being able to cross the street without getting hit by a car. When asked where they wanted to start, they said lighting first. Then the Participatory Budgeting process came along as an opportunity for the action group to move forward. We were able to coach women about how to approach council members and work through the budgeting process.

Reflecting on your organizing effort and the action group’s success, what most surprised you?

Those ladies are amazing! They are always fighting [for what they believe in]. I was impressed by how loyal the group was to the whole process and how much they looked out for each other. After we were told that our broader street light proposal was too big for the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process, I was so proud and surprised to learn that one of the moms developed a proposal for the schools just four days before the deadline. And when it came to setting up PB voting sites, the moms created and staffed a volunteer ballot location.

They even went one step further by making the PB materials more accessible to residents and non-English speakers. Because of the current conversations about immigration, people were afraid to participate in a government process and unsure whether they could vote for community improvements without putting themselves at risk. The moms helped make community members feel better about participating.

Now they know how they’ll change what they do next year and how to make that happen. They said, “We could do this together.” It’s like a little fire has been lit and continues to do things for the community.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time