By every measure, we are in for a long, hard winter, one that has already turned punishingly cold on the streets, in City Hall, and in Albany. It is colder yet for thousands suddenly out of work, sucked under by Wall Street’s grasping greed. Others, who never knew the security of a decent, steady job even before this savage downturn, face the severing of government lifelines as politicians scramble to slice their budgets, starting from the bottom up.
All of which is good reason to take a moment to give thanks to those in the city’s trenches who have quietly gone about the tough, everyday work of remedying inequality, as well as those who have stood tall against abuses of power. Their deeds ennoble this city more than a trainload of the fatuous celebrities who soak up so much of the media’s attentions. Late Voice writer Jack Newfield began this Thanksgiving tradition in 1976, in the depths of the city’s last fiscal crisis, a time when the powerbrokers were again working overtime to remake New York in their own image. Newfield called his honor roll an ode to “heroes and heroines, the sung, and the unsung.” Here are just a few of the many New Yorkers who deserve a round of such applause.
Eight years before Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School with a vague yearning to do some good in the world, another young African-American with a brand-new Harvard Law degree in his pocket moved to Harlem. James O’Neal knew that he wanted to help high school students learn about the law and prepare for college. In 1983, O’Neal launched Legal Outreach, a program that today boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate (the citywide rate is 52 percent). Two-thirds of its students have won admission to top colleges. A whopping 14 percent have gone on to law school—a group that may include the next Barack Obama.
Andy Scherer is another lawyer making a daily difference. Scherer has spent 30 years at Legal Services of New York. He started in the late ’70s representing tenants in the Bronx Housing Court, a true trial by fire because arson was a frequent eviction tool. He’s served as the program’s executive director since 2001, battling to ensure that New Yorkers faced with loss of homes, income, and their families don’t go without adequate legal representation.
Former city deputy budget director Barbara Turk is not only one of the smartest ex–city officials, but she’s also one of the few to put her brains and talent into neighborhood improvement, rather than high-paid private employment. When the Brooklyn YWCA on Atlantic Avenue fell on hard times a few years ago, Turk stepped in to help turn it around. Today, Turk is a roving expert troubleshooter for Community Resource Exchange, which assists local grassroots organizations.
Ana Aguirre, a dedicated health educator, directs one of the city’s best-kept secrets: United Community Centers, in Brooklyn’s East New York. In the midst of one of New York’s toughest neighborhoods, UCC runs a successful day care and after-school program, as well as an astonishing urban farm that teaches local youngsters how healthy food is grown and offers affordable and nutritious produce for residents.
Alex Truesdell runs an extraordinary program called Adaptive Design, which uses common, everyday materials like cardboard and plastic to fashion pricelessly effective, custom-made devices to assist children with severe physical disabilities. In a society that squanders billions on overpriced medical equipment, her West Side workshop produces daily small wonders at low cost, while fighting a constant battle for its own funding.
Since the ’70s, public-health advocate Judy Wessler has been on an often lonely mission to defend the city’s magnificent chain of public hospitals and clinics, while also making them accountable to those they serve. Wessler’s Commission on the Public’s Health System goes to bat for the 1.6 million New Yorkers without health insurance and is a vigilant watchdog on government to ensure adequate funding.
The Lower East Side has a long history of great organizers, and one of the inheritors of that tradition is Damaris Reyes, leader of the housing- and tenant-assistance group GOLES—Good Old Lower East Side. Reyes lives in Baruch Houses, the sprawling public-housing project by the FDR Drive, where she was born and raised. She regularly fights evictions on behalf of those living in public housing and those battling with private landlords. She has also battled for wage justice, helping to win a $1.4 million settlement this year for employees cheated by the downtown apparel retailer Yellow Rat Bastard.
A few years ago, an old friend named John DeWind grew tired of teaching college literature and went looking for tougher challenges. He found them in Brooklyn’s public high schools, where his Comprehensive English Preparation Project offers one of the few independent creative-writing programs available. The program runs on a shoestring, yet produces and publishes remarkable prose and poetry from youths eager to find and stretch their own literary muscles.
Forty years after its founding by theater press agent and public citizen extraordinaire David Rothenberg, the Fortune Society remains one of the only institutions offering a hand up to ex-convicts trying to reintegrate into society. Directors JoAnne Page and Glenn Martin oversee a network of housing, incarceration alternatives, and education. It’s why the state’s corrections commissioner said recently he “could use 2,000” groups like it.
For decades, the city’s schoolbus drivers labored under crooked operators in league with mobbed-up union leaders. City officials ignored the problem. It took a group of courageous drivers and bus matrons calling themselves Members for Change—led by drivers Simon Jean-Baptiste and Warren Zaugg—to challenge the old guard at Local 1181 after a federal probe began. The worst of that crew is now either in prison or banished, but members are still fighting to bring democracy to the local, assisted by veteran organizer Eddie Kay and labor attorney Carl Levine.
Harlem state senator Bill Perkins didn’t budge when New York’s Democratic establishment pushed him to back hometown gal Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries. Perkins, himself a former tenant organizer, liked what he saw and heard from another ex-organizer, Barack Obama. Even with Charlie Rangel, Clinton’s heavyweight supporter and Harlem powerhouse, breathing down his neck, Perkins stuck by his man. Now they’re both winners.
Without the gutsy leadership displayed by Brooklyn city council members Tish James and Bill de Blasio, Mike Bloomberg’s demand for legislation allowing him to seek a third term might well have simply rolled over a council that’s been notoriously compliant with his agenda. As it happened, James and de Blasio helped force one of the closest votes in recent council history and focused a bright spotlight on Bloomberg’s shameless maneuvering.
Think it’s easy standing up to a multi-billionaire mayor whose power reaches into every fold of the city’s fabric, both public and private? When Bloomberg’s term-limits bill passed the council, a clutch of lawyers loudly vowed to sue. But by the time the papers were ready, only two were left standing. Norman Siegel is always there. A veteran anti-poverty and civil rights lawyer, Siegel has long been the city’s steadiest defender of civil liberties and an innovative advocate for the powerless. His odd-couple partner in the term-limits lawsuit is Randy Mastro, once a relentless Giuliani deputy. But this is more like the Mastro I first met 20 years ago when he was facing down mobsters and fighting to bring democracy to the Teamsters union. Redemption is a powerful force, and hope springs eternal. Who knows?