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Spiritual Warfare in the South Bronx--Poverty Breeds Violence Against Women!

Broken Promises/Falsas Promesas

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.

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Comments

Potter's picture

Taina=Courage and Determination

You are one gutsy woman. And I mean that in the most admiring way. It's emarkable what you have learned and unlearned and accomplished in the process. I love the statement, "she is an expert of her life." That says it all and through CASA you have made it possible for many women to articulate their expertise. Inspiring!

Dear Dayanara,
Your story is beautifully told and deeply moving. Your courage, honesty and persistence come through loudly and clearly, and I marvel at your energy and determination.
You have done, and are doing significant, crucial work for your community.
May you find the ongoing support required to continue in your leadership role, making a positive difference in the world.
With Admiration ,
Sarah Whitten-Grigsby, Mentor

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

Greta's picture

Dear Dayanara

Thank you so much for sharing a story that gives me a window into this world.
Your persistence is absolutely amazing to me and I admire you deeply.
It is through the good work that you are doing that so many lives will be altered and changed in
positive ways. I know that the struggle may be ever present, but determination will also be
ever present with strong women like you leading the way!
You are a force for change and empowerment!

With Great Admiration,

Gretchen

semeyer's picture

wow

I love this piece so much. You paint such a detailed and beautiful picture of your work and really show how difficult it can be to construct lasting change in a community. You also do a nice job of tracing the historical trends that contributed to the destruction of the Bronx in the 1970's, I find the cross-bronx expressway particularly interesting as it also contributed to the start of the hip hop movement in the United States. Well done well done well done.

Also I love your opening, it really grabbed me!!

Sarah Meyer

ArtByMia's picture

Warrior Goddess are you

Thank you for sharing this brave story of yours. You are a Warrior Goddess and there is nothing that can break that spirit. Continue to share your voice and lift women one day at a time. Your spirituality and faith in yourself will take you a long way no matter the obstacle in the way YOU will overcome the adversity and shine bright!

Palante Hermana!!
Mia

warona's picture

Well done dear!

Dear friend,

Am excited to your piece, am aware of things far away from me. Here am captured i cant come out dear....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 .

You rock my world.I hate poverty, i dont want people to sleep without food, oh God forbid.Keep voicing my friend you are a hero among all.The sounding is very clear, roar as much as it takes you.

All the best

Warona

"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

Tina's picture

Dear Dayanara, I loved your

Dear Dayanara,
I loved your writing here as always. You are indeed a very gutsy woman as one of the other posters above here described you and you come across as being a true warrior for women, fierce and protective. I would love to come to Casa Atabex sometime and see how your organization works to create that sacred space for healing. It is an interesting idea to spend time creating a sacred space for women to come and heal by themselves and for themselves and I would love to learn more about it.
Tina

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Powerful

Dear Dayanara,

I was immediately sucked into your story. It is incredibly interesting to find out about this neighborhood and community in the US that I knew almost nothing about. You hear about different boroughs in New York, and about the violence that thrives there, but rarely do you get to hear an insider's perspective.

Casa sounds like it is doing some great work, but I would love to know more about the specific programs you offer. I think it is very interesting to focus on creating a healing space for people, instead of focusing on diagnoses and treatment. I think a lot of times, social services do forget that people are the experts of their own life, and often do know what they need (not all the time, but at least a good part of the time!).

I am curious about your tone in regards to the other social services (such as foster care, half way homes, etc) in your community. You seem to have a negative perspective towards what they do, when you state "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." Could you explain this a little more to me?

Great job, keep up the good work!
Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

tainadelsol's picture

Great Observation

Hi, Rachael

Thank you for response and your observations. I love your use of the word tone because as I am learning how to be an objective writer and, Yes, I thought about it while I was writing but i didn't want to make the piece about Casa and its programs. Now though, I see how I could have written more about the programs at casa in reference to how they counter some of the violence that women experience in the institutions placed in my community that are said to support their clients or patients. The use of both of these words "clients" and "patients" are a clear example of how the people accessing services are put in a often times voiceless and powerless position as there is an authority figure outside of you telling you what to do, they have the credentials, the expertise and you do not.

While i understand the original intent behind the creation of institutions like mental health, drug rehabilitation programs, prisons, and foster care agencies I feel like when we talk about violence against women in the South Bronx or other communities in the United States, we cannot leave out that the major players in the cycle of violence are the very institutions within our communities including the prison system, religion, education, health etc. These institutions are set up in our neighborhoods with multiple purposes neither addressing the root causes of why our communities need these services ie: poverty, lack of education, lack of resources, and racism to name a few. In addition, these institutions are also fragmenting and displacing families, they are the communities biggest judges and they have a rotating door so no one ever gets out of their cycles of violence or poverty.

I say this because the majority of the women that come into my organization come with their complaints of these institutions and come after experiencing trauma in these institutions which leaves me to support the healing process of institutional violence on the mind, body and spirit of the womyn, men and children. Not too mention that my co-workers and the founders of the organization where women who worked in these institutions and saw first hand the damage that was being done. They felt powerless within them, had no voice and as women felt invisible as men both hold leadership positions within and engage in sexist behaviors contributing to the rise of sexual assault in the workplace.
In addition, while these institutes are strategically placed in poor communities they are neither culturally, or linguistically safe, they are xenophobic reporting immigrants and undocumented folk, trans and homophobic.

I recently did a documentary with the young womyn in the program about their experience with child sexual abuse with in their schools and within the foster care and child welfare system. Here is a summary of the video and the link so you can see an10 minute excerpt. I am sharing this with you to give you a visual about what i am talking about and also to show you one of the programs that we have and the work that we do. Below you will find a link and summary.

In conclusion, I can see how women in other countries are asking for the creation of these services and institutions in their communities and their desperate need for them. Yet, 1. I would always caution everyone to question the politics that come with it or behind it. and 2. Maybe in another country they would work, however after going to the UN this week, patriarchy reigns everywhere but living in the US, capitalism prevails and institutions are making profit off of the needs and dis-ease that is created by the inequality and injustice the the very government creates. So I would also challenge communities to make sure that any institution that is created be by and for the people , we must create liberated and autonomous communities all over the world if we truly want to be free.

http://www.youtube.com/user/casaatabexache

In 2008, in response to the increasing child abuse cases in Administration of Children Services, the young women from our Fuerza/Power program produced a cutting edge, 20 minute video documentary, "Yo Tengo Fuerza/ I Have Power", video that tells the story of three young women lives and their journey of self-healing, resiliency & social justice in the mist of the pervasive violence they face -- at home, in school, within the community and in the foster care system. The documentary reveals the impact of child sexual abuse and neglect on their reproductive health, the choices they make and their relationship to themselves, their families, communities and partners.

In Bold Rebirth
DEE

Dear Dee,

I definitely agree with you about your assessment of the potential for violence within these institutions--and that much of this stems from a lack of cultural responsiveness, and just plain old institutional racism and sexism that is inherent in many of our systems!

Thank you for your detailed and very thoughtful response. I thought your piece was brilliant, and I love hearing you say how you could make it even better with more comparison between Casa and the other institutions.

Great work!

R

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

tainadelsol's picture

apologies..

hi Rachael

my apologies for such a long email. I think your questions pumped me to want to clarify and really think about what I was saying. I also wanted to be careful to leave options to other opinions about institutions while at the same time stating their role in my community. I am excited to continue to learn how to write more concise and still tell the story.

Love DEE

In Bold Rebirth
DEE

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