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Creating a miracle in Hamilton Hill

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Creating a miracle in Hamilton Hill

Photos by Thom Williams

“Put out the aprons, one on each chair,” Rosa Rivera orders. Her voice is soft, but she wields her authority like a rod — it’s there, it can be felt.

Forgetting, briefly, that I am here just to observe, I grab the bag of disposable plastic aprons and put them on each seat; just as she asked me. Journalistic objectivity is already out of the question, I reason. The organization I’ve come to cover, Miracle on Craig Street, is one that I am very familiar with — a fact I must disclose. I was a core team member of Miracle for about a year — enough time to appreciate the work this organization does on an intimate level.

Miracle on Craig Street is a community initiative, founded by residents of Hamilton Hill, to reopen the Carver Community Center, a legendary community center whose doors shuttered in 2013. Carver’s closure left a community bereft of a place to congregate, and left kids in the neighborhood with limited options for safe socialization.

In 2015, when Carver first went up on the auction block, Rivera and Damonni Farley, a community activist and friend of Rivera’s, were in galvanized into action. Both of them had spent their childhoods at Carver — they didn’t want to see it turn into another Family Dollar. The neighborhood had too many of those.

“I think we were on the phone for three hours that night,” Farley tells me. “After that, we were meeting until like, three, four in the morning at each other’s houses. We had to cram a month’s work of planning and research into a week.”

“We realized this was something we could do — but it would take a miracle,” says Farley.  

That effort culminated in the 48-Hour Miracle, a community effort to organize a presence at the auction, to raise money to buy the building themselves. Rivera and Farley’s goal was $200,000; they managed to raise just over a thousand. Luckily, no competitors bid on the building.

The 48-Hour Miracle turned into Miracle on Craig Street — the shift in name reflecting Rivera and Farley’s realization that this was an effort that would take years, not hours. And almost two years later, Miracle has raised just over $36,000. The small-but-dedicated core team consists of Raeshelle Frasier, Rivera’s partner and SCCC women’s basketball coach, Sheila Rivera, Rosa’s mother, Kareem Robertson, Shastidy Shamecca Ponce, Farley, and Rivera herself. Together, they have overseen dozens of small fundraisers, they have obtained physical offices at a nearby church, they have developed a small, quality multicultural library that will one day be housed in their future community center. They have developed a community garden program that they hope will one day feed fresh vegetables to the neighborhood, they have have made countless trips to other community organizations and churches to raise money and plead their cause, have obtained 501(c)(3) status, have demonstrated at City Council meetings to exact political promises from Councilmembers — by the end of this month, the premises at 700 Craig Street, formerly known as Carver Community Center, will hopefully, formally, be in Miracle’s hands. (The city is in the process of gaining site control of the building from federal bankruptcy court — once it does, Mayor Gary McCarthy has promised to transfer ownership to Miracle.) Rivera has even quit her full-time job, in order to dedicate herself to Miracle’s mission.

I finish putting the plastic aprons on the chairs; I’m pleased to see that we have more than expected. I turn to Rivera, ask her if there’s anything else I could be doing. She smiles, and says that there isn’t. She thanks me. I pull out my notebook and start to write again.

We’re at the Friendship House on State Street in Hamilton Hill, preparing for the Paint for a Purpose fundraiser. Carver Community Center is a few blocks away. Rivera is placing a blank canvas on each easel. The group will collectively paint Frida Kahlo, the unapologetically feminist Mexican artist.

“I’m just going to say a few quick words,” says Rivera, her voice hardly rising above the happy babble of the room, this Friday evening. “And my voice is quiet,” she says, at the exact same volume. “So everyone’s going to have to bring it down.”

Somehow, miraculously, the room of 60-plus attendees quiets; the din dies away. The painters look towards the center of the room where Rivera is standing, waiting for relative silence so she can finally speak.

“This is about ownership,” she says, looking around the room, seriously. “It’s important that the people who live here are at the center of this project. We’re trying to do something differently from how things are normally done, and that doesn’t come easily or without resistance.”

Farley echoes that theme. “Ownership is the only way to transform a community, not just change it. You can create change with participation in the system, but you transform a community through ownership,” he told me over the phone. “Often what happens is you have centers and programs that are designed, and then they spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to successfully deliver services to the population. If it had been designed for the population in mind in the first place, then it wouldn’t need to be retrofitted. Your foundation would be made with this group in mind.”

And that kind of community-led innovation — it’s rare, at least in this region, according to Farley. “There are a lot of great grassroots initiatives around the nation, people coming together and transforming communities. But it’s rare around here, in the Capital District.”

Why is that?

“When people are in survival mode they’re very rarely afforded the opportunity to think long term and think past the present to what it looks like five years from now,” says Farley. And that comes back to questions of ownership — specifically the low rate of homeownership and community investment in low-income neighborhoods.  “When people don’t own things in their community, they’re less likely to make long-term investments, because they know they’re not in a decision-making capacity.”

“Nobody washes their rental car,” Farley tells me, laughing.

So far, almost all the money raised has come from individual Schenectady residents — both residents of Hamilton Hill and those who live in other neighborhoods. The average donation is small. “I find it very liberating to see people passionate about helping their own community,” says Rivera.

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Part of the commitment to ownership is a realization that there must be justice in at every step in the process — that few compromises can be made on the path to obtaining ownership. This is a hard balance to strike, in the nonprofit world. “I find it difficult, at times, to explain why our cause is worthy,” says Rivera, smiling uncomfortably. “It can be dehumanizing to explain why we deserve to exist.”

Funders have learned to respect Rivera’s determination that Miracle will be treated with respect, no matter what. Robin Schnell from the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady can attest to this. Many nonprofits who serve the city of Schenectady and beyond come to FUSS in order to see if a collection plate could be donated, or if the socially-minded congregation could help in some other way — Miracle was no exception. Rivera asked FUSS’s Social Action Committee if Miracle was something they could support.

“It seemed like a great fit,” said Schnell, when I spoke to her at Apostrophe Cafe. “One of the things we realized is that we haven’t reached out to organizations in Schenectady that are helping low-income people, but aren’t food-related,” said Schnell. Schnell also liked that Miracle had “a large component of people of color on the board,” and that it served Hamilton Hill, a neighborhood that FUSS hadn’t had a lot of contact with in the past. Moreover, Miracle is run by people who belong to the community they want to serve, which Schnell considered “another reason for liking this organization.”

The application process was just as much a learning process for Schnell as it was for Rivera. The vetting document that the Social Action Committee of FUSS uses — a copy of which was given to me by Schnell — is impersonal, official, bureaucratic. It resembles a grant application, and essentially pretends to be one. The document asks, in addition to basic facts about the organization’s purpose, mission, and recipients, how the money will be spent. The money — and hence, the organization — is thereby controlled from afar by FUSS: it is tied aid, to borrow development parlance.

Rivera — a former program associate at the Schenectady Foundation, a philanthropic, grant-making organization — is well-accustomed to the grant-application process, and has little issue with it. Miracle has several large grant applications in now, and expects, in the future, to be at least partially-reliant on grant money. But FUSS is a religious congregation, not a grant-making organization. And for a community partner to be making such presumptuous demands — it chafed.

“Rosa wrote back to me and said she didn’t like the direction this was going. I was shocked,” Schnell says. “We’ve never had anyone say anything like that. My mind was spinning.”

Eventually, Rivera and Schnell met. They spoke about the Miracle organization. They spoke about the community garden that Miracle was cultivating; the food that Miracle was distributing in the neighborhood; what it meant to the residents of Hamilton Hill to have fresh food. And they spoke about privilege; about what it means to be in a community with others; about race and the communities they grew up in.

“I think it was a culture clash,” Schnell tells me, later. “I’m sure it was, actually. This document —” she points at the papers in front of us — “reflects how white people think. It’s how banks loan money. It asks what the likelihood of a good return for our dollars would be. But if you start looking at it from another standpoint, for example, if I think about my family. If I put a bowl of soup on the table, you don’t say ‘you better be using those calories well!’” Schnell smiles, wearily — it’s the look of someone who has learned a hard lesson, but has come out for the better.

The story has a happy ending. “[FUSS] eventually donated about twelve hundred dollars,” says Rivera. “Which was wonderful.” And a lasting, meaningful bond has developed between the two organizations — the two communities. Rivera intends to attend the educational movie nights that FUSS puts on, and Schnell intends to be further involved with Miracle in the future.

Miracle has put out a call for architect proposals — things are getting real. Two proposals have come in so far; one for a rehab of the existing building, one that calls for an addition to the building. It’s impossible to know exactly what is called for, without doing an extensive walkthrough of the Carver property with someone who knows what they’re doing. That all will be possible at the end of April, when Miracle gets control of the building.

“The people with the wealth, they make systems work for them,” says Rivera, thoughtfully.

I ask if Rivera thinks she’s a radical.

“I don’t know that I’m a radical,” she says, thoughtfully. “Maybe I am. People say love is radical.”

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