New York City creates nearly 36,000 tons of garbage each day. That’s the weight of about 800 subway cars or the fully-loaded weight of the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier-museum docked on the West Side of Manhattan. About 40 years ago, this waste was trucked to one of a handful of waste transfer stations located throughout the city’s industrial neighborhoods, then loaded onto a different truck to be sent to a landfill.
Eddie Bautista of Red Hook started organizing communities based near these transfer stations in the early ’90s after many residents reported extremely high levels of asthma, most likely caused by the trucks’ diesel emissions. Bautista’s work represented one of the first large-scale environmental justice coalitions in New York.
“We were organizing at a time when the South Bronx, Williamsburg and Sunset Park had asthma rates many times higher than the national average,” said Bautista, speaking to a group of 100 in a Pratt Institute auditorium.
Bautista and others gathered Friday for a conference of Brooklyn nonprofits, held in the spirit of his environmental collaboration. Organized by the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the conference was a large-scale skill share of sorts for nonprofits representing neighborhoods from South Williamsburg to East New York to Sunset Park.
Representatives came to discuss strategies on issues related to urban agriculture and design, nonprofit management, and best practices in retrofitting homes and offices to save energy.
In one workshop, titled “Engaging Young People in Environmental Justice and Public Health,” four representatives from community organizations throughout Brooklyn discussed their common interest — how to organize young people around environmental and social issues to benefit their communities.
One of these organizations was El Puente, a community group based in the south side of Williamburg that was founded 30 years ago — at a time when, organizers say, one person under 18 was dying every week from gang violence.
By providing arts programs for youth, said one of the organization’s directors, El Puente is able to provide kids with a positive use for free time and an outlet that also helps prevent chaos in the classroom.
“They are invested in something because you’re invested in them,” she said.
Moe Awawdeh, an organizer for UPROSE in Sunset Park, agreed. He also addressed the difficulty of keeping kids involved after they turn 18, when many are pressured to work instead of focusing on their education or the community.
Still, Awawdeh added, “At 18 years old, there is always going to be space for you to do work on something you feel passionate about.”
The conference was organized by the Brooklyn Community Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the borough. Originally devised by its president, Marilyn Gelber, the conference started when three different community groups, based in Cypress Hills, Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, submitted very similar grant applications.
“They’re retrofitting Southside [Williamsburg] apartment houses, Bed-Stuy classic brownstones, and small frame one and two-story houses in Cypress Hills,” said Gelber. “We wanted to see what we could all learn from the experiences of each of these communities.”
The project will provide the three organizations with $750,000 for local environmental improvements over the course of three years.
“The conference is the culmination of a full year of work,” Gelber explained. “We wanted to help see how three different neighborhoods, each looking to create greener and healthier environments and educate young people, can perhaps work together by sharing knowledge and information, and by inspiring people to do more.”
Awawdeh put it another way: “If we can’t take care of our own people, then who will?”