Spiritual Warfare in the South Bronx--Poverty Breeds Violence Against Women!
In this place of healing is where I find myself, in this place of healing is where I loose it all and in this place of healing is where I am reborn.
It’s the brightest, sunniest block in the South Bronx, 140th street between Brook and Willis Avenue, the address I would be coming to for next 12 years of my life.
I am 24 years old, it is my first day of work and I am walking towards my job thinking, hum, this place is not as bad as people say it is. At the same time I can hear my mother’s voice, why the Bronx? Can’t you find a job in another place? Remember, take off your jewelry, don’t come home late, and definitely do not have any money on you, if you do put it in your socks!
My mother worked in a factory in the Bronx when she first arrived in NYC, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic during the 80’s. For more than ten years, she took the cross town bus on 149th Street and Third Avenue all the way to Manhattan on the other side. Through her window she witnessed the violence that had taken over the community; the prostitution, the crack/cocaine epidemic, the homelessness, the robbing, the abandoned buildings and the sprouting harm reduction organizations providing needles to the community.
Twenty years later, I land a job only 9 blocks away. The Bronx was considered a world away from any other borough in New York City, you just didn’t go there unless you where already there. But today was different, I was going to a “real” job. I had one semester left before I graduated college and this was the start of my career. My major was community health education and I was eager and ready to educate the young women in this community.
I remember it like it was yesterday, it was my first day at work and as I walked down the street, I wondered what my mother was talking about. Why was she so scared? Today all I could see was a tree lined street that had basements filled with not for profit organizations providing programming for the community and I would be working in one of them.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked into Casa Atabex Ache because somehow the sun had managed to light up the whole basement. I was excited to be in this all women organization but I was scared at the end of the day when we had to close down by throwing away the waters in the four corners, turning off the candle on the altar at the center of the room and mopping the floor with peppermint soap to restore the energy in the space for the next day.
As the weeks went by, I started second guessing what I was doing in this place. This is not the community health that I had learned in school, in fact, in my first staff meeting I was told that in this place my diploma did not mean anything, to get ready because I was about to unlearn what I had just learned and get re-educated within a race, class and gender analysis. I had worked so hard for my diploma that I stormed out of the meeting and didn’t know if I was coming back.
While I was mad at these women, something about what they were saying was very intriguing to me so I came back. I started working with the young women in the community and my first participant, I don’t remember her name but I will never forget her arms, her chest, her legs. She was about 13 years old and she had just finished cutting herself with pieces of glass from a bottle she had broken across the street in the school yard park. I thought I was going to die, I had never seen something like this before. Immediately, I wanted to use the skills I learned in school and call the police or social services because clearly this young lady needed lots of help and I was not equipped to handle it. When I told my supervisor what was happening and what my game plan was, she said “ there is nothing wrong with her, please go outside and ask the young women what she was thinking about before she did it and then tell her what her options are; she is an expert of her life; she just needs a safe space to heal” and by the way we do not call the police in this organization, we do not work with social services and we do not do mandated reporting. I did exactly what they told me and then I sat in the middle of our healing space and screamed and cried. I couldn’t believe we didn’t do anything about it, I didn’t want to have this young women in my conscious if she walked out of the organization and killed herself. I screamed for me and I scream for her, I screamed at how contradicting this space was to everything I knew, I screamed until the words “I quit” came out of my mouth and I cried all the way home.
Its 2011 and I am currently the Executive Director of CASA and I have seen the same look and concern in all the women I have mentored and supervised since then. The tables have turned and now I get to defend the need for a sacred space by and for women of color both from community residents and from the funding world. We have been called an organization of lesbians, witches, and santeras by our own community and we have had to defend our spiritual/cultural politics as social justice tools within the funding world. You see, creating and sustaining a women’s organization is hard in its self but when you add spirituality, self empowerment, healing, going against systems and institutions by creating collectives of women on the frontlines, then you are no longer organizing. You can’t measure healing, its not direct action and certainly not service provision under funders request for proposal. Instead women organizations like this are considered terrorist group organizing spiritual warfare against governments.
Since I have been on the front lines I have watched over 20 women of color organizations in New York City close down. I have watched the women of these organizations burn out or die as they balance both living in the community they are fighting for and creating organizations within these very communities to fill in the gaps the government won’t. During these current tough economic times I struggle to sustain CASA as it’s the only organization for and by women of color in the South Bronx and the only women of color healing and organizing center in New York City that is left.
Casa Atabex Ache found its home in Mott Haven, South Bronx in 1994. Rising from the ashes of a once “ Burning South Bronx”, Casa stands as one of the pillars of the movement building that was happening in this community; given the repression it suffered during the late 1970's and 1980's when it lost many activists to imprisonment and the social ills of oppression such as alcoholism and drugs. According to the US News MSNBC, there were two events that caused the destruction of the South Bronx, “ the opening of the massive Co-Op City complex in the East Bronx and the passing of rent-control laws in the city which left landlords with no option but to find a new way to compensate for the rise in vacancy and deteriorated buildings :arson. This time was called the “Bronx is Burning”, as it lost over 40 percent of its housing stock to fires the landlord started and more than 300,000 residents left the community.”
However, in an article by Spring Into Action New York City, “the troubles of the South Bronx can be traced to 1963 with the completion of one of Robert Moses’ urban development projects, the Cross Bronx Expressway. This highway physically divided the area, displacing families and businesses”, which in turn gave rise to a huge migration leaving the vulnerable behind.
In essence for three decades the Bronx was abandoned by the government and left to its demise. Abandoned buildings and abandoned people create a community where poverty thrives. Poverty breeds violence and as a result you get a crime infested, drug trafficking and drug addicted people, prostitution and dis-ease infected neighborhoods like that of the South Bronx well into the 1990’s killing generations of families.
In the same way, poverty also breeds revolutions amongst nations and within countries & communities. Often times these revolutions are created by the women in the community because the men are in prison, addicted to drugs or serving in wars. Noting that a majority of Mott Haven households in the South Bronx are headed by females, Casa Atabex Ache correctly chose to implement community change via the female. Inspired by a shared history in community activism the founders of Casa envisioned a grassroots organization that would provide women of color with the necessary support and information needed to embark on journeys of self healing and recovery; unlike the multitude of service providers in the South Bronx that sought to “diagnose and treat” community residents.
Further, Casa strategically based itself in Mott Haven as the aftermath of the “Burning of the South Bronx” resulted in it becoming the poorest congressional district in the nation, with the highest teen pregnancy and infant mortality rate. Recently, it was just ranked the unhealthiest of New York’s 62 counties by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s report on County Health Rankings 2010.
What was once referred to as a war zone, is now bombarded with non-profit organizations in harm reduction, mental health service provision, HIV/AIDS organizations, and housing projects filled with recovering residents. It is surrounded by four jails, group homes, foster care agencies and domestic violence shelters keeping the residents sedated and imprisoned in their own community and looking for answers outside of themselves.
Nevertheless, for the past 6 years Casa has had to fight to sustain itself in this community. As the Director, being on the frontlines has been an extreme challenge because I am receiving resistance on all fronts. Fighting over already scarce resources and not fitting neatly into funders request has left the organization to come up with a innovative ways of sustainability. Casa is completely run by dedicated volunteers who provided pro bono workshops, collaborating with organizations to events. Staff recycles money and asks their families to make food, going to pantries to get food, investing personal money to create merchandise and medicine for those without healthcare while stepping up our spirituality and intent fully creating abundance, prosperity and health altars, praying and lighting candles.
In addition, spirituality continues to be a taboo in communities of color. Immigration has strategically stripped us from our culture to take away our individual and collective power of healing and transformation. Internalized oppression continues to fold women spaces and communities at large. We no longer need institutions to imprison us, judge us or medicate us, we know how to do it ourselves and to each other. Recently, the article, “Out of the Spiritual Closet: Organizers Transforming the Practice of Social Justice”, validates the need for a movement with spirituality at the core. “ Many of us come into this work because we, or the people we love have experienced deep injustice, without awareness, we recycle trauma and create new wounds within the movement”.
In conclusion, the fight is far from over. Women will always be the backbones of their families and by extension their communities, however, women must first over come historical and persistent social, cultural, and institutional norms that keep women silenced, dis-empowered and invisible. As funders go green, give money to the prison industrial complex and government money go to sustain wars, women will still remain the largest population of the world and we have needs. Creating CBO’s is not a choice and will never be an option for poor communities and forgotten places. Our liberation depends on women’s ability to create the world we want to live in today!
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.