With violence and crime rates in East Harlem increasing, we’ve taken on the challenge of creating opportunities to get kids off the streets; this is what inspired Zing!, Vince's music education program. The program also creates opportunities for a couple of young adults we’ve brought on board to help build a sense of community within our program. The two community builders we’ve hired are Jonathan Benitez (left photo) and Zaire Hutchinson (right photo). Amongst other things, Jonathan and Zaire have been helping us recruit students for our music classes. Jonathan wanted a chance to introduce himself so that our OPEN DOORS community could learn more about him.
Jonathan: “I come from a background where I was raised around Latinos and African Americans. I always got along with everybody. When I was young, I was exposed to video games through a Nintendo entertainment system my father got me and from then on, my passion for gaming was born. As I got older, I’d make a lot of friends but once I entered high school I’d have issues with certain people because of how they treated others. Despite all that happened in my life, I still want to help others better themselves. As somebody who struggled with school, dropped out of school, and went to several alternative schools including adult ed to pursue my high school equivalency diploma. If you struggle in high school, it might not be for you like how it wasn’t for me. Maybe Zing! would be good if you also needed alternative education and are a big fan of music like I am."
We look forward to our continued work on Zing! with the help of our two new team members.
How do we stop it? There is no ‘’sure-fire” way to stop it. Every organization has different views on gun violence. One factor always comes up: "mental illness" seems to be the cause of most acts of mass shootings. The thing is, only a small percentage of gun violence is committed by people with mental disorders. What about the everyday gun violence which adds up to thousands of people - men, women and children - injured or killed each year? How do we put the brakes on that?
Personally, I believe that all members of a community, whether you are teachers, clergy, parents or every day Joe, can contribute. The NYC police department makes a request of the citizens of New York: "If you see something, say something". I would like to add to that: " If you know something, do something". It’s not snitching. “The life you save could be your own”. In many communities, residents know who these shooters are, but won't step up and do something for fear of retaliation. There is strength in numbers. Community is a powerful word. You can't have a community without ‘unity’. When entire communities come together things will change. Stopping gun violence in one community could trigger a national movement that would put the brakes on gun violence.
Someone has to step up, but who? Don't wait for it to come knocking at your door. America has always been a country that comes together for a common cause. If gun violence isn't a common cause, I don't know what is. Gun violence has reached epidemic levels. Most politicians talk about gun control after there’s been a mass shooting. They want gun shops to stop selling assault weapons, but here is the thing: a semi- automatic handgun holds between 7 and 18 bullets. That is 7 or 18 lives lost. Is it less of a tragedy to lose fewer lives, more of a tragedy to lose more lives? One is too many. There is the old cliche: "guns don't kill, people do". Well, how about if there were no guns? There would be no gun violence.
I get it, gun ownership is umbrellaed under the second amendment. Maybe it's time to look at that second amendment. Or at least the second part of it. The entire second amendment reads "a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". The second part? No, let's analyze the whole thing:
1. “A well-regulated militia is a supplementary military when there is no military in case of an emergency. It is made up entirely of civilians.” That was not written for the times we are living in now. OK, so keep the first part, just reword it so it would apply to law enforcement and military who would be able to carry weapons. Now, here comes part two:
2. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Who are these people that have the right to own guns? Some people believe this is their unalienable right (or as Donald Trump says,’God given’). Not so. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights given to every human by the creator, or whomever or whatever you believe to be the creator of life.
America has the highest rate of gun violence on the planet. How is this possible? When you read the 2nd amendment it gives every American the right to own a gun. It shouldn't be too hard to figure out why there is so much gun violence. No matter how the law varies from state to state, that law was written by the people and for the people. So, who has the power to change the status quo? It would seem that everyone would like to put the brakes on gun violence, yet have the right to own a gun. To solve this problem, you would think, is simple: no guns, no gun violence. But this will never happen because of all the politics involved. Politicians and gun control organizations have been trying to come to terms with this problem since the 1960’s, when handgun violence spiked in America.
As we move forward into the future there does not seem to be any resolve for the malignant disease of gun violence. It is difficult to change the second amendment because of the millions who will ‘stick to their guns’ (pun intended), literally because they are law abiding, responsible gun owners. As I write this, and as someone reads this, people are being killed or disabled by gun violence. So, how do we stop it? Let’s start by looking at community involvement, as it’s being done in Oakland California and other U.S Cities:
In most communities residents do not trust the police or are afraid of them but let's face it, these are the people we rely on to make it safe for us. The program in Oakland focuses on building relationships within the community to combat Gun violence or gun related violence. Gun Violence in Oakland has been cut in half using consistent community based programs effectively.
Children today face so many challenges in their communities: drugs, gun violence, domestic violence, having to go through shooter drills and metal detectors at school—a place where they should feel safe to concentrate on their education. They didn't ask for this status quo, they inherited it.
Many of us were part of this problem. It is right that we start becoming a part of the solution by creating opportunities for children at risk. We can start now by giving them the tools they will need. We can educate them on the dangers of gun violence and drug abuse. We also need to create space in their communities where they can make their voices heard, be it with a pen, a microphone or a paintbrush. These should be run by trained professionals, as shown in the Giffords law report. Most of all, we need to give them love, because they will be the change-makers of the future.
My name is Alex Eshelman and I’m a musician studying labor relations at Cornell University. After reaching out to a faculty member in my school about college credit internships for the fall semester, I applied to work for Open Doors. Subsequently, following several phone calls with Jennilie, the co-director of Open Doors, I was given the opportunity to work with the organization over the summer on our documentary Fire Through Dry Grass, The Collection, a virtual art anthology, and most recently Zing!, a music school founded by Open Doors member Vincent Pierce.
So far with Open Doors, I’ve met the Reality Poets through time spent on zoom calls. I’ve met an empathetic leadership team who aren’t judgemental like the people I typically work with in school. None of these people seem to follow the strict conventions of respectability politics, and the different talents each member brings to the table are equally appreciated. Open Doors moves like a family, and I am grateful that they have embraced me. The experience has been extremely refreshing.
Since the organization is largely based out of Coler nursing home, my internship has been entirely virtual. I assumed this disconnect would limit how meaningful a connection could be built between the team and I, however I could not have been more wrong. My life online is contextualized by a justice movement for residents of long term care facilities, so when I think about my own mother who for months has been quarantined in a nursing home, I see a bigger picture. Our fight feels personal and it fuels my rage against those who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. The people I’ve met this summer maintain a positive disposition despite having lost so much to the virus and their strength inspires me. I know the work is important because it is literally for their lives; this has been one of my most meaningful life experiences.
Frustration is at an all time high amongst Coler’s nursing home residents during this coronavirus pandemic. Me, especially. I am a thirty-four-year-old quadriplegic black man. I am also a father, music producer, youth educator and a gun violence survivor. They say everyone has a voice but who can we really express our concerns to if someone in a higher power always denies the accusations.
In response to what Coler’s administration and Health + Hospitals’ CEO is saying, I say: No, we’re not ok. No, we’re not being protected the way we should be. For more than a month, I’ve been quarantined on a unit with residents who’ve tested positive, and only now, after weeks of leaving the infected in bedrooms with the non-infected, are they starting to separate us. But it doesn’t matter because the people who have the virus are still permitted to walk around the dayroom without masks and to use the same ice machine and microwave as everybody else.
Even in quarantine, OPEN DOORS Member Peter Yearwood connects with and inspires young students. As part of Julia Ferguson’s ELL class at the United Nations International School, Pete’s video was shared with students from all over the world—Chile, Italy, Oman, Japan, Belgium, Spain, China, Denmark, and Israel.
“My ELL 7th graders are writing poems and studying poems and they got very serious and engaged when we listened to Pete during class this morning. Very moving...Many thanks to Pete for this ongoing work that made it possible for me to share...”
And from Pete:
“I am so happy I could have inspired your class, this is why we do it because these young scholars will go on to solve so many of our planet's problems. Whenever I am in the presence of smart young people I feel so privileged because I am looking at history. I want to wish everyone good health.”
I have been feeling depressed for a little while now. It started when I applied for an apartment. I started thinking about how it would be for me after I move from Coler. This nursing home has been my home for the last four years. Here I found a new take on life, a second chance to redeem myself of all the trouble and pain I had cause throughout my life. I found out that just because somebody is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean it is the end of their life. I met good people who eventually became my friends. We accomplished so much together, now we are the reality poets, we have become filmmakers, music producers, graphic designers, motivational speakers and much more. So you can say that I’m so used to this place that I might be institutionalized. I started thinking how my days would be away from here, the fact that I will be alone most of the time got me scare. And that’s when the feeling of depression started. Then this corona virus came along … I am a 42-year-old male with some serious health problems, like heart failure, lungs and kidney issues, diabetes and so on. When I heard that this virus would affect critically people with underline conditions I realized that I have to do everything in my power not to get it. But it is so easy to get infected that it is all I think about now, day and night it is in my mind. I have cheated death a few times in my life, but I think this is a different situation. I think about if I get this virus I will have to go to a over crowded hospital, and maybe I won’t get the care that a person In my condition would need. I can barely concentrate on my work now days. I don’t like to feel like this, it’s braking me apart.
-Jay, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and Filmmaker
The NYC Spinal Mardigras Fundraiser was a great experience for people with all kinds of disabilities. Before coming into the venue, you saw many people with wheelchairs outside, at which point we all greeted each other. Once inside we began to enjoy the delicious catering of which the rasta pasta was the best. While I was eating the delicious meal, I also saw fellow members of partner organizations for folks with disabilities that I was familiar with. We also had a chance to hand out a few flyers to build interest in our new OPEN DOORS online journal coming soon.
The whole night was amazing —this was my first experience in a club environment where everyone was a member of the disability community. It was a great experience and very welcoming. Anything you needed, people were there to reach out to you and help out. I would like to thank NYC Spinal for throwing these events for people with disabilities. It shows we’re not forgotten about, and it also allows us to get out of our homes and connect with other people who share and relate to our experiences.
-EL, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and design team member
I want to thank the Fortune Society for having us once again for an afternoon as we kick off our Realness, Resilience & Healing Tour. It was a great event for us to showcase our work and also inspire others to showcase theirs.
From the start of our work together, It has always been a great collaboration working the Fortune Society, such a great organization that promotes social change. It’s an opportunity to share our life experience and see how each other's life experiences are the same or similar by comparison through the art form of poetry.
These performances influence my work as a music producer. Poetry is RAP — these open mic sessions help me by putting minds and stories together to go along with my music.
-Vince, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and music producer
Portraits by Var, the artist
I believe Dr. King’s legacy is very relevant today. We have a white supremacist in the office who was elected so there needs to be a shift in the mindset of America. Even with his disrespect of women, his fear of immigrants and people of color he was still elected. This means that there are still people who are bigoted and racially insensitive in our society.
Racism has changed - they can no longer put a chain around someone’s neck and drag them through the streets - it has changed but it’s still there.
When I started getting politically aware, I was part of the Nation of Gods and Earths - they were called Five Percenters back then. I’ve been around for a while - I went from gangbanging here in New York to the Black Panther Party. The difference between the Panther Party in Los Angeles and the Party here in New York was that the LA panthers were college educated, most of us weren’t. We had just experienced racism personally and were looking for a way to do something about it.
I saw a lot of outwardly racist things in my youth. In 1966 I went from Harlem to East Elmhurst Queens, when my parents bought a house. I had to go to a predominantly white school where there was only a sprinkling of Latinos and African Americans. We would get jumped - there would be fifteen of us and fifty or sixty of them. I have a scar from one of those incidents. There was a time when I had a paper route and had saved up to get a custom made sweater, and the first time I wore the sweater they ripped it to shreds on me and cut me in the process.
Even before that, when I was 5 years old I took a train to the South with my mother. When we crossed through Washington DC, we changed trains and there was a line between the Black section and the White section. I didn’t know any better so I kept crossing the line to play with a White lady I saw in the other section. The driver told my mother that if she didn’t keep me in that section they would arrest her.
I say all that to say that the things that Dr. King dreamed of still haven’t come to pass. We still have a long way to go. The media and education both have a role to play in bettering race relations. TV, books, the internet, music and film can make a difference. They shape how people think.
-Roy, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and motivational speaker
I volunteered to work with Momo because I like animals and I grew up on a farm in the Dominican Republic. We had cows and goats and ducks. They would follow me like a pet. They were very playful.
When you interact with animals it's good therapy—it's showing love and being empathic. It's very rare to find someone who doesn't like animals.
Cupcakes at Momo's collar ceremony, January 10th 2020
Momo is special because she was supposed to work with hunters to retrieve the dead birds/animals but she didn't want to retrieve them. She was so well trained that the trainers decided to make her a therapy dog.
Momo and her team at Coler hospital
Dani, our previous project coordinator, connected with Nathan from a company called Healing Pause that places dogs with organizations, and thought that it would be a good idea to have a therapy dog at Coler, especially for the people who cannot leave their beds. They need that love and connection. The Angelica Patient Assistance Program pitched the idea to the administration at Coler and it was a perfect match.
We're looking forward to taking her to events with us to connect with the young people.
-Jay, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and Filmmaker
OPEN DOORS members and Professor Serena after our talk
Professor Serena Thomas of John Jay College of Criminal Justice was kind enough to invite us to talk to her class. She was doing a unit on Treatment. The class that we talked in was focusing on how different people heal from trauma and grow beyond it. We thought the topic fit our theme of healing well. We started out by sharing our stories and some poems from our book Wheeling and Healing. Afterwards we broke into two groups and talked about our stories on a more personal level and led a discussion on growing past trauma.
This is the second time we've gone to John Jay to visit one of Serena's classes. Every time we speak at an event, I enjoy hearing the thoughts and ideas of the youth. I hope to be able to go back again because I had to shut up cause the bus arrived. Next time, maybe I'll be able to share more.
There was even talk about us bringing FADE to John Jay in 2020.
- Roy, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and Motivational Speaker
November 22nd was the culmination of months' worth of teamwork, beginning last spring with a critical race theory workshop funded by Humanities NY and led by Khadijah Abdurahman. Content generated by the Reality Poets in the workshop became the basis for the I Can Breathe map that was used to introduce Milstein Fellows to Roosevelt Island on the 22nd. To make the map, every Friday from early October to late November OPEN DOORS members would go down to the MakerLAB to work with CT students and local artists. The map of Roosevelt Island is created almost entirely out of cardboard and features Elias William's portraits of the Reality Poets. Below the map are buttons that can be pressed to play audio recordings of each members stories, poetry, or music.
The almost finished map resting in the MakerLAB
The I Can Breathe map required mad hours of work from the Reality Poets and friends. Khadijah was the creative lead for the project; Niti worked on organizing everyone; Hufsa and Andrés used the laser cutter to do most of the cardboard cutting and etching; Thom led the gluing and painting; Bil, Hufsa, and Andrés programmed the buttons; and Lauren did the collages behind the portraits. It took a village to complete this map.
Jay leading a Q&A about his film
The Milstein event on the 22nd kicked off with the debut of Jay's short film about Var and Goldwater. Afterwards, Jay talked and answered questions. You could feel the positive vibes in the room. Then El and Micah shared their poetry and everyone was vibing even harder. After the screening and talkback we went downstairs for tacos and to debut the I Can Breathe map. The tacos were free and the map was captivating. It was dope getting to see people react to something we worked with so many talented folks to create.
Micah performing his poetry
We started a computer tech class last week in which OPEN DOORS members and other Coler residents participated. The classes will teach tech literacy and how to be responsible online citizens. We have a great teacher, Tanuj Ahuja, aka TJ, a Cornell Tech graduate. In our first class we learned about a healthy and unhealthy internet environment. TJ described a healthy environment as a place where everyone has access to each other's ideas and one that should be openly innovative in contrast to being limited to certain people posting inappropriate material. We also discussed what else we want to learn. Most of us were concerned with privacy and security because of the possibility of personal information being hacked. It was a fun class with Jay cracking jokes about all the things you can do on the dark web.
ZING! is a new project led by OPEN DOORS member Vincent "V" Pierce. V grew up in Newburgh, New York. As a teen, V moved down south to North Carolina where he studied music and played on multiple basketball teams. In his early twenties he moved back to New York. Today, V’s focus lies in music production and his 11-year-old daughter, Nuatej.
For the past few weeks Tito and I have been leading workshops at the Roosevelt Island youth center to teach children about music production, sound engineering, and song writing. We're also partnering with Island Kids Moving Forward Initiative which teaches teens trade skills. Our collaboration involves us giving a stipend to teenagers who come to the Coler studio. The end goal is to have the teenagers well trained enough to help teach the younger kids about music.
We're trying to partner with other organizations to bring kids from off the island to the studio. Our biggest goal is to build the ZING! brand and give back to the community by keeping kids off the street and in the studio. We at OPEN DOORS believe in the healing power of art. Providing this outlet to the youth is a gift. Seeing their eyes light up when they hear their work coming together is a priceless sight.
When we first heard about the Fall for the Arts Festival we knew that it was something we wanted to be a part of. Fall for the Arts is a festival held every year on Roosevelt Island. Artists submit artwork to be considered for a mural spot. Once the artists have been chosen, they paint murals on various parts of the island. We thought this would be an incredible opportunity for OPEN DOORS member Var AKA the Vartist. However, Var doesn't have much control of his arms or hands. He holds a stylus in mouth to create his art on his phone. So, we did the best thing you can do in times of need, turned to our community. We reached out and with the help of many hands we were able to bring Var's artwork to a bigger scale and audience.
the "Martha Stewarts"
Thankfully, the weather at the Fall for the Arts Festival was beautiful. The area we were painting in was filled with a whole bunch of artists with their own boards. One of those other artists was Paolo Tolentino, a graffiti artist who we collaborated with in the past for Figment Arts Festival. Our board was positioned in the sunlight. We wouldn't have been able to paint it without the help of a group of Girl Scouts (the "mini Martha Stewarts") and a "Martha Stewart" group. They were very crafty and artistic and were led by OPEN DOORS Advisor Lauren Blankstein. Everyone was working together; and that was very enjoyable. To create the mural they used a little bit of paint and different colors of tissue paper. They did an excellent job. We were there for two to three hours; all of them enjoyable.
Paolo's mural for Fall for the Arts
"They were able to make the painting look exactly like the picture I made."- Var
For Photoville's opening day we took the bus. It was misty and rainy, but there was still a great turnout. Not every member was able to attend, but everyone's presence was felt because of the power of the exhibit. Initially, we were pretty skeptical. We weren't expecting a lot of people to come check out our container. But once we got in there we'd see a few people come in. Then another, then more came, coming in and out. People would come up to us and tell us how seeing our work had impacted them and made them feel. There were even people snapping photos of us from the top of the stairs. The whole experience had us feeling like superstars. The folks at Photoville made our experience even better. They provided us with shelter from the rain and food. The food was marvelous, especially the cheeseburger and french fries. We've had many cheeseburgers, but nothing like that. That shit hit different.
"I liked being able to impress people with the art I made. They saw that I don't have a lot of control of my arms and they'd question me about how I made the art. I enjoyed telling my story." - Var
The second time we went to Photoville we used Access-A-Ride to get there. It was a lot sunnier and there was an even greater turnout than opening day. The first day had us feeling like superstars, but this day was even bigger. Our exhibit was filled to the brim with people. In fact so many people were checking it out that we didn't even have room for our chairs to be inside of the shipping container! We even got to see some of the people that we saw on the first day come back and ask to take pictures with us. An exciting experience all around.
We took the ferry the rest of the days we went to Photoville. Each day was as fun and as inspiring as the last. BIG shout out to photographer Elias Williams for doing such an excellent job. The way Elias presented and designed the exhibit, it was more than we could have ever dreamed of! On each side of the walls were the portraits he took of us, Var's artwork right next to them, our written stories and poems, and audio recordings of us and our music. In the back was our banner and a TV showing some of Jay's video work. Because of Elias, the Photoville team, and everyone that came out, everyday was a success. Thank you all for showing the love!
Left to Right, Vince, Tito, Elias, Jay