Mobilizing Young Foot Soldiers

On a cold February afternoon, about 20 teenagers chatted as they gathered in an upstairs loft at The Point, a community and cultural center working for social and environmental justice in the Hunts Point area. Despite their casual attitude, they had a serious purpose: All are members of Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhoods (A.C.T.I.O.N.), a teen community leadership group.

The 25-year-old woman at the center of the room was the one they had come to see. Dressed in  sweats, a beanie and flower-printed Doc Marten boots, Sharon Lee De La Cruz looked like one of the teens instead of the adult program director of A.C.T.I.O.N.

The teens of A.C.T.I.O.N. meet three times a week to discuss community issues. (Photo by Raisa Zaidi)

There was a lot on the agenda that day, but De La Cruz still managed to listen to everything the teenagers had to say, often interjecting to give advice or just to make a joke. One of the teens, Darius — or “Mr. Darius” to De La Cruz — started to complain about not feeling well. He was wearing only a short-sleeved t-shirt and a giant faux fur hat. “The rest of your body is freezing,” she said, pointing out that his hat wasn’t a substitute for a jacket. De La Cruz continued bantering with the rest of the teens — always adding a “Mr.” or “Miss” to their name when addressing them. Finally, after everyone had arrived, she called the meeting to order: “Beautiful people, find yourself a seat.”

To De La Cruz, these kids are the future of Hunts Point, a community that needs all the help it can get. According to a 2006 New York City Department of Health report, almost half of the residents in Hunts Point live at or below the poverty line. Only 6 percent have college degrees. The average birth rate for teen mothers in Hunts Point is two times higher than the overall rate in New York City. Groups like A.C.T.I.O.N. hope to change those dismal statistics. At The Point, the teens learn about the problems in their community, create campaigns to fix things and even get paid a small stipend for their efforts.

Sharon De La Cruz talks to younger kids at The Point about A.C.T.I.O.N. (Photo by Raisa Zaidi)

At one point during the recent A.C.T.I.O.N. meeting, De La Cruz had to leave the room to be interviewed by some elementary school kids who participated in one of the other youth programs at The Point.

“Are you heroes?” a little boy asked her.

“Yes, they are definitely my heroes,” De La Cruz responded.

It’s a very different message from the one De La Cruz heard as she was growing up in the same neighborhood, the youngest of four kids. Her parents named her Sharon after Sharon Stone and Lee after Bruce Lee to inspire her to look beyond Hunts Point.  She was raised to believe that in order to succeed, she had to leave home and never look back.  She followed that plan for a while, but eventually returned with a new purpose. “My mark of success is coming back to your community,” De La Cruz said.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2008 from Cooper Union in Manhattan, De La Cruz won a Fulbright scholarship to Peru, where she taught art to young people for a year. It was a somewhat frustrating experience for a budding activist.   She realized that she couldn’t create change in one year, especially in a place where she was a foreigner. Hunts Point beckoned.

So she emailed Adam Liebowitz, the former director of A.C.T.I.O.N. She told him that she wanted to work at The Point and teach art. He responded that he was looking for an assistant director for A.C.T.I.O.N. “I knew I wanted to come back to the Bronx, and the only place I wanted to come back to was The Point,” De La Cruz said. “It was a place I could make change.” In 2010, one year after being hired, she became the director of A.C.T.I.O.N.

De La Cruz has a special connection to A.C.T.I.O.N. She was one of the original members in 2001 but she ended up there by chance. Everyone she knew in high school applied for the Summer Youth Employment Program because it was a job that would provide students with some extra cash to help their families.

The problem for De La Cruz was that at 14, she looked like she was 12. So the only job she was offered was one that involved picking up trash. Imitating her mother’s Spanish accent, De La Cruz repeated what her mother said to her about her job offer:  “You are not going to pick up trash. I’m not having that for my child.”

So without De La Cruz’s knowledge, her mother called around looking for a “better” job for her daughter. She called and called until she came across a new program at The Point called A.C.T.I.O.N. But what started out as a simple summer job evolved into a life mission: to make Hunts Point a better place to live.

De La Cruz’s activism isn’t limited to the Point. She is also mentoring a high school student, helping him apply to art school. De La Cruz’s passion for art, especially mural painting, can be seen around the Bronx. She hopes her art will create discussion and influence social change.

However, De La Cruz has a lot on her plate, so she doesn’t have a lot of time to paint. Not only does she manage the teen activist program, but she is also in charge of working on the many campaigns the teens are involved with.  On this day, she had to prepare for a briefing to discuss decommissioning the Sheridan Expressway. De La Cruz and many other Bronx residents feel the expressway is separating their community from the rest of New York City. The Point and many other organizations in the Bronx are fighting to get rid of the expressway. They hope to replace it with more green spaces and small businesses.

De La Cruz says the teens of A.C.T.I.O.N. are the foot soldiers of this and other campaigns. One example is Kendrick Martinez, 17, the 2011-2012 President of A.C.T.I.O.N, who has been a member since he was 13. With help from A.C.T.I.O.N, he has been able to start his own non-profit called Eco-Ryders, a program that gives kids under 14 skateboards and teaches them how they can contribute to their community.

Through his experience working with De La Cruz and A.C.T.I.O.N, Martinez is now convinced that young people can have an effect on their neighborhoods. He says De La Cruz has taught them how to command respect. “When we go out to a presentation, people listen to you,” Martinez explained. “Adults are learning from us because we know the information.”

Assemblyman Marcos A. Crespo of District 85 in the Bronx believes A.C.T.I.O.N. has been influential in their community. “Nothing gives you a sense of reality in your district than listening to the younger generation tell us how they feel,” Crespo said.

Crespo believes that the teens of A.C.T.I.O.N. will have an impact, especially in the Sheridan Expressway campaign. He said his views on the issue are directly influenced by the voices of the community and the youth are the loudest. “They are the ones coming to my office talking to me about their views,” Crespo said, adding that the young people know more about the campaigns and issues going on in their community than most adults.

De La Cruz said most teens in A.C.T.I.O.N. go off to college and have solid plans after high school. Martinez plans to go to culinary school after he graduates high school this year. He says he always wanted to be a chef, but that A.C.T.I.O.N. has given him some direction, especially by working on the food justice campaign. “My perspective and what to eat and how to make it, has definitely changed through A.C.T.I.O.N,” Martinez said.

Before the A.C.T.I.O.N. meeting ended, De La Cruz updated the teens on their upcoming projects, one of which was a plan to teach middle school kids about their food justice campaign. Hunts Point is home to one of the largest food distribution centers in the world, also ironically, it is still a food desert. The access to quality food is limited, so this campaign is about educating kids about eating right and about fighting for better food options in their community.

At one point toward the end of the meeting, De La Cruz noticed some of the teens goofing off. Despite her easygoing manner, De La Cruz takes A.C.T.I.O.N. very seriously. She knows how necessary it is for these kids to be respected and heard outside of The Point. She said it was especially important for them to be taken seriously by the kids who would be their audience for the food justice campaign. “Act the way you want those middle schoolers to act,” De La Cruz said in a serious tone. “Let’s get this together and act like this is a job.”

The sun went down, and the teens of A.C.T.I.O.N headed out of the room. “Beautiful people, have a wonderful night,” De La Cruz said as she sat back down into her chair.

The day was over, but her night had just begun. De La Cruz had a lot of work to do. She still had to head to Jersey City to finish a mural she was painting for her art show. This would be after she finished prepping for the briefing for the Sheridan Expressway campaign. And after she finished working with her mentee, who had arrived after the A.C.T.I.O.N. meeting ended.

De La Cruz currently lives with her partner of one year in the Fordham area of the Bronx. She thinks of A.C.T.I.O.N.’s teens as her second family and she is busy raising young community activists.  “I do not have a family of my own. No. I’m OK. I have 20 of them,” De La Cruz said laughing. “I have 20 kids.”


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