In New York City, we fixate on our politicians and power brokers, the wealthy and well-connected. They seize headlines and fire up our imaginations. Yet they are not the kinds of people who really make this city run. They do not pick up the garbage, sweep the streets, or help the underprivileged. If the glitterati disappeared, they would only be missed for so long. The hard, endless work in the shadows would continue without them.
With this issue, we revive a Voice tradition of focusing on the Big Apple’s unsung heroes. The nonprofit leader helping to combat diabetes in the South Bronx. The taxi driver fighting for the rights and livelihoods of his fellow drivers. The Afghani immigrant helping others like her acclimate to a strange new country.
They are not appearing in newspapers and Twitter feeds every day. They are not TikTok stars. As New York recovers from the worst pandemic in a century, it will be these activists, leaders, and ordinary residents who will see us through to better times. In this holiday season, we should give thanks to these New Yorkers, who are there to make the city the best version of itself.
¶ COVID-19, rightly, has been the health emergency all New Yorkers have focused on for the past year and a half. The city’s death toll was extraordinarily high, and the recovery grinds on. But below the surface, many city residents, particularly the working-class and poor, continue to suffer from other maladies. Other epidemics go relatively untreated. And it’s Chris Norwood, of the Bronx, who’s trying to stamp them out. “The diabetes epidemic has gotten worse and worse for 20 years. Fourteen percent of people [in NYC] have diabetes now,” she says. “It gets to the point where the indifference is criminal.”
Norwood has spent decades in the trenches fighting for the most vulnerable. In 1990, she founded Health People as a peer-educator-driven organization that supported women with AIDS. Norwood had been a journalist who reported extensively on the AIDS epidemic ravaging New York in the 1980s, and she saw, at the time, how few programs existed to help those in the most pain. Since the 1990s, the South Bronx nonprofit has grown to help local residents navigate other health challenges, including asthma and diabetes. For Norwood, Type 2 diabetes has become a chief focus, because so many more people now struggle with debilitating health complications from the disease. Unlike some other chronic ailments, though, Type 2 can be managed and treated with better health habits. Norwood organized a citywide coalition of community-based groups, called Communities Driving Recovery, and helps train people to manage their diabetes. Peer educators teach local residents how to stabilize blood-sugar levels, check food labels, and determine how much sugar is hidden in ordinary foods.
“We have the early model of sending educators to homes of families where kids have asthma—they sit everyone down, the grown-ups and kids, and help them understand good asthma self-care,” Norwood explains. “It became clear with the diabetes epidemic, it was taking so many people. In low-income areas now, you can see it, there are so many people in wheelchairs or missing parts of their feet or legs.”
Norwood hopes for more city and state funding to continue programs to help people handle their diabetes. NYC’s incoming mayor, Eric Adams, has said that switching to a plant-based diet helped combat his Type 2 diabetes, stressing the importance of the kinds of programs Norwood oversees. “Diabetes is a chronic disease, and I’m not saying self-care solves everything, but education has a huge, huge impact,” she says. “If people get their blood sugar under control, that’s what self-care education helps with. The risk of complications just plunges.”
¶ In 2018, Richard Chow’s brother committed suicide. He was found floating in the water below the Brooklyn Bridge.
“It’s why I’m involved with fighting for my brother, fighting for myself, fighting for the 6,000 medallion owners,” Chow says. Like his brother, Chow is a taxi driver. Both men bought medallions for hundreds of thousands of dollars, investing in them like they would a home. For the Chow brothers, making a living as a taxi driver was the American dream—immigrants like them poured all their savings into medallions that seemed, like real estate, to always increase in value.
But the market collapsed in 2014, ruining livelihoods and triggering suicides. Industry leaders had artificially inflated the price of medallions, which are regulated by the city, pushing the price past $1 million. Drivers took on loans they could not afford while lenders pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars. To make matters worse, Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hail services had flooded the streets with cars, bypassing the medallion system altogether. Taxi drivers could barely compete.
Chow joined the Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents many drivers, and began to fight for a bailout from the city. Politicians were receptive, but Mayor Bill de Blasio hesitated to help, despite the devastation in the industry. In October, facing the threat of bankruptcy and homelessness, drivers set up an encampment outside City Hall and held a vigil to protest an initial relief plan that provided minimal assistance and no loan guarantees. A leading voice in the Taxi Workers Alliance, Chow was one of eight initial drivers to start a hunger strike, hoping to force the city’s hand. He carried the memory of his brother with him as he struggled to stand upright. “I felt heavy, dizziness, weakness,” Chow recalls. “I was very, very hungry, very weak.”
The hunger strike was remarkably successful. De Blasio and Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, announced a deal with the Taxi Workers Alliance and lenders in November that will see their debt written down to $170,000 and amortized so that monthly payments don’t exceed $1,122. The city will guarantee each of these rescue loans in the event of default. Drivers on average owe $550,000 each.
“I love the city, I love the streets, I’ll keep driving until I’m retired,” Chow says. “I’m so very happy.”
¶ A few months before the September 11 attacks, Women for Afghan Women was founded to help Afghan immigrants acclimate to American life and provide them with support services. At the time, few Americans thought much about that country or were aware of the growing number of immigrants in cities like New York.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan changed all that. Following the war and the instability there, more Afghans began to flee the country and migrate to New York, where they hoped to build new lives. Naheed Bahram, in the years after 9/11, was living in Queens and feeling homesick. She missed her large family and had only her husband here. In 2006, she joined Women for Afghan Women, hoping to do more for other women like her.
A native of Kabul, Bahram had lived as a refugee in Pakistan after losing her mother in a bomb explosion, before moving to the U.S. In her travels and in New York, Bahram saw many Afghan women who were isolated at home, illiterate in English and even in their native language. “Domestic violence was the issue in the community,” Bahram says. “People wouldn’t address it and couldn’t find a culturally competent organization to ask for help.”
Today, Bahram has risen through the ranks to become the U.S. Country Director at WAW and the head of WAW’s New York Community Center, in Queens. WAW’s efforts include literacy and empowerment programs for women and girls, as well as for men and boys, along with legal services and counseling for community members going through crises.
Bahram is now overseeing refugee resettlement work for the thousands of Afghan refugees entering the United States in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover. Her labors are only just beginning. There are 65,000 refugees on eight different military bases in the United States, according to Bahram. Once they’re out of the bases, many of the families will be coming to New York. “We help with housing, transportation, case management, and provide legal services,” she says. “We work with JFK to set up their welcome.”
Ensuring that Afghan immigrants, particularly women, are able to get an education in the United States and live safely within their own homes are top priorities for WAW. Intensive tutoring and job-training programs help close some of the gaps. Bahram recently saw a girl, helped by WAW, become the first in her family to attend college. The statistics on the domestic violence cases WAW handles have actually increased over the years, Bahram says, because more members of the community are comfortable coming forward. In the early years, women were too intimidated to seek help. Now, she tells us, with WAW firmly established in New York, trust has been earned in a “holistic way.”
“By no means do we want to break families or separate families from each other,” Bahram says. “We’re working with women to make sure the house is a safe space for her.”
¶ Christina Curry says she doesn’t tell disabled people what to do. “We assist, we don’t help. Help fosters dependency. A person is an adult.
“What is your goal? What do you want to do? It might be the first time a disabled person is asked that,” she says. “So many times, people tell them what to do. We’re about giving power back to the disabled person.”
Curry does not hear out of her right ear and has lost sight in her left eye. She has lost most of her mobility. As the longtime executive director of the Harlem Independent Living Center, which provides services and assistance to people with physical and mental disabilities, she is one of the city’s fiercest advocates for those who struggle as she does. Anyone who lives in Harlem might remember her successful battles to get audible pedestrian signals installed on 125th Street, have curb cuts repaired, or ensure that ramps are installed outside of once inaccessible eateries.
Curry’s goal is to remove whatever barriers might impede a disabled person from living like a person who doesn’t have the same challenges. Much of her time is spent in advocacy, forcing public and private entities alike to comply with disability laws that have long been on the books. For Curry, it’s personal: Her mother lost her sight as a victim of domestic violence. Curry is equally concerned with helping people born with disabilities and those who acquire them later in life.
“For our community, people might be disabled due to violence as opposed to an accidental act, and that means you approach the person differently. Did you become disabled getting shot versus skiing? It’s also about understanding the community, knowing the language of the community. What does your community want? We can’t go out and say, ‘This is what you need.’ It’s about listening to what people want.”
Curry has been the executive director at HILC for 20 years. Before that, she worked with the deaf and with victims of domestic violence, particularly Black and Hispanic victims of intimate partner violence and child sex abuse. In all of her work, equity is at the forefront. Her belief is that any improvement made to a sidewalk or a train station will benefit everyone—the man on crutches, a person hauling packages. Along with other independent living center leaders, she has joined class-action lawsuits against the MTA to make their train stations more accessible.
“When elevators are accessible for me, they’re accessible for you,” she says. “Think about the parent with the stroller, the person lugging that suitcase. That’s what I would say—remember the laws already in place, but just enforce them.”
¶ It would be difficult to find an all-volunteer group anywhere more dedicated to the preservation of a natural resource than the Jamaica Bay Eco-watchers. A collective of more than 50 kayakers, fishermen, birdwatchers, and local residents living along the massive estuary at the southern tip of New York City, the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers are committed to protecting the long-term health of the waterway. And Dan Mundy Jr., a battalion chief in the Fire Department who grew up and still lives in the Queens neighborhood of Broad Channel, is one of the Bay’s fiercest advocates.
“For a lot of kids in the city, this should be their Yosemite, their Yellowstone,” Mundy says. “You can take the subway to a wildlife refuge.”
Along with his father, Dan Sr., Mundy has been an active civic leader in Queens for decades. The Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers formed in the 1990s when it came to the public’s attention that New York City was dumping sludge into the ocean. After protests from locals and environmentalists, the city built four treatment plants to clean the sludge instead. But Jamaica Bay only worsened: The water turned a rust color and fish began to die off. Locals like Mundy protested to the city. They were dismissed at first because they weren’t scientists or experts of any kind; their only qualification was their lifelong love of the Bay.
It was discovered that nitrogen loading from the treatment plants was causing algae blooms and the death of marshlands. Eventually, the Ecowatchers were able to launch a successful lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg to get the Bay cleaned up. Bloomberg, Mundy says, later became an ally—the nitrogen was reduced and the water quality improved.
These days, Jamaica Bay is in far better shape. Marshlands have been restored, a new boardwalk is being built, and a baby humpback whale even showed up. The Mundy family’s efforts, along with those of the rest of the Ecowatchers, were the subject of the 2016 documentary Saving Jamaica Bay, and Mundy is now dedicating himself to lobbying members of Congress to provide federal funds to create more wetland islands in the Bay. Wetlands can help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and combat climate change.
One power of the Ecowatchers is their ubiquity. Mundy, a regular scuba diver, is always keeping watch, regularly diving or boating in the Bay, as are other members of the group. The scientists who study the area can’t be on-site as frequently, and have come to depend on the Ecowatchers to provide updates, take pictures, and share what they come across.
“It’s amazing what you see—osprey, bald eagles, massive schools of small bay fish, followed by big bay fish,” Mundy says. “It’s been a sort of renaissance for Jamaica Bay. We’ve been very encouraged. Years ago, it felt like we were banging our heads against the wall.”
Quick-takes for the NYC Honor Roll:
More leaders and organizations that deserve our thanks and any help we can give
Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin runs the New York City Housing Authority’s family reentry program, which is designed to provide individuals recently released from incarceration, or who have been in the community for fewer than three years, with the opportunity to reunite with their families living in public housing for a temporary two-year period. (NYCHA currently denies residency to people convicted of Class A, B, and C felonies—the most serious under state law—and some misdemeanors.) Johnson-Peterkin helps participants work with organizations that assist with securing employment and continuing education. After successfully completing the program, participants can request to be added to their family’s NYCHA lease permanently.
Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, has been on the front lines of fighting for the rights of tenants across New York State for more than 10 years. Advocates like Weaver helped ensure that Democrats in the legislature would follow through on their campaign promises and significantly strengthen tenant protections in New York for the first time in decades. Today, rent-stabilized apartments can no longer be deregulated, thanks to changes in the law made in 2019.
Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America—formerly known as the New York City Coalition Against Hunger—is a longtime voice for those struggling most with hunger and food insecurity. During the pandemic, the hunger problem only worsened, and Berg’s organization opened a Bronx field office to expand the city’s community-based SNAP and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) outreach. During the holidays, or anytime, no New Yorker should go hungry. Berg is doing his best to make a hunger-free city a reality. ❖