A Vintage Community Organizer Recalls 1971, A Good Year

It was our time in history – the Great Society budgeted for creative ways to get people involved in having a say in their future!

I had majored in English, hoped for a career in theater in NYC, found instead a life partner and a new idea: teaching young children. I took a masters at Bank Street College of Education and, very green, began to learn the ropes of teaching first and second grades.

From a private school where I taught small classes in the E. 90s I found my way farther uptown to East Harlem where parents of kids who needed day care had partnered with licensed people to create a parent-directed preschool.**
1976_graduation
By then I was helping the parent-assistant teachers learn to apply a method called Cuisenaire-Gattegno mathematics to the teaching of arithmetic and number concepts. I wasn’t a stranger to East Harlem; Steve, my husband, had also migrated there from downtown where he had been in two Episcopal Church parishes as an assistant clergyman. When I met him, he worked out of a storefront parish in East Harlem. So many people there were addicted to heroin. Steve and a colleague started the East Harlem Protestant Parish Narcotics Committee.

It took a while to learn what helps addiction. The team found they could reach people who wanted to start over while they were in prison and help them with re-entry. The learning process was long, painful and very worthwhile. Kindness was only part of the formula.

By the time we had been married seven years and our son James was three years old, Steve was running a state facility for drug treatment, part of a program created under Rockefeller’s administration which died after eight or so years. Just for the record, it was a good program and saved lives.
1975_james
I was able to have James enroll in the East Harlem Block Nurseries daycare program, as I continued my relationship with mentoring teachers at the schools. We were deeply fortunate to have James experience the Block Nurseries.
1975_parents1
The teachers were wonderful; the children were well-fed and cared for. Andrea, the cook, made the most wonderful bacalao and other Puerto Rican delicacies. The feeling of being part of a mixed community of White, Puerto Rican and African Americans was intoxicating in its hopefulness. There was a lot of love swirling around.

I received so much more than I gave or was able to give at that time. I learned a lesson I still carry with me. That is, affirming the strength and beauty of people who have been poor and discriminated against has huge effects. United, we learn from one another.

At the time I’m describing, the early 70s, the euphoria surrounding CETA and other programs infusing some cash into East Harlem for community organization was so great that I didn’t learn the lesson of myself as the racist-oppressor. Nobody bothered at that time to make me feel my “whitey” self in a painful or shameful way. It was all about accepting one another. Yes, we had arguments and hurt feelings, just like any people, but it didn’t seem to be about our racial and economic differences.

The years that followed were the years of cutbacks to funds for improving public education, cutbacks of all kinds to public programs. The Block Nurseries still exist, and some of the parent-assistant teachers I knew and worked with are now licensed New York City elementary school teachers. Some have even reached retirement age and have good pensions. This means that they made it through college courses and licensing requirements during that period of the flowering of the Block Schools. They found their confidence and became part of the mainstream. The same kind of growth is to this day part of many good HeadStart programs, where parents and assistant teachers develop and attain credentials to become teachers. However, the atmosphere surrounding the process has changed because of the lack of general public and government support for excellence in education and opportunity for all US citizens and would-be citizens and visiting workers.

A new chapter of support for Community Organizing is way overdue. It’s not about Giuliani’s ha ha ha or Palin’s demeaning put-downs. It’s about justice and democracy and a modern interpretation of the US Constitution.
– Caroline Chinlund, Granny Peace Brigade

** The book which tells the story is “A School of Our Own” by Tom Roderick , Teachers College Press, 2001

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