Mott Haven families walk for change

A young marcher rallied for cleaner and safer Mott Haven streets on April 18.

A young marcher rallied for cleaner and safer Mott Haven streets on April 18.

Streets are filthy and dangerous, they say

Safer and cleaner streets are two of the most pressing concerns facing Mott Haven, according to a group of local families who staged a march through the neighborhood on a recent Friday afternoon to draw attention to those issues.

Some 50 parents, children and advocates from the East Side Settlement House took part in the Safety Walk, an hour-long march that began and ended at the Mott Haven Early Childhood Center on East 143rd Street on April 18. They urged other residents to get involved as they walked down Third Avenue before turning left at 138th Street, hoisting placards and posters that the children had made. Parents and educators handed out t-shirts and flyers to parents and passersby along the route, and dropped off informational sheets in local stores.

One of the primary objectives was to encourage their neighbors to be more proactive, said the participants.

“We don’t march in protest,” said Carmen Valentin, East Side Settlement House’s director of community engagement. “We want to reach out to community members to help improve the community they live in.”

The decision to stage the walk stemmed from a three-year initiative led by East Side House, which administers the Childhood Center on the grounds of Mott Haven Houses. The group says it hopes to strengthen relationships between area parents and children, Valentin said, at a time when public debate is intensifying over the value of school testing, teacher quality standards, and questions over whether charter schools or public schools are the solution for children’s educational needs.

The initiative was financed with grant money provided by the National Centers for Families Learning, a Kentucky-based organization that hopes to include parents in conversations over hot-button educational issues in communities around the country. Representatives of the group say parents must set the agenda.

“This is not a prescriptive curriculum,” said Patricia Lovett, an English language learning assistant for that organization.

Last October, local parents formed discussion groups at the Early Childhood Center to narrow the community’s concerns down to the ones they said were most crucial. The group christened itself the “Mott Haven Stars,” and eventually decided on safety and sanitation as the two worries that most parents and children seemed to share.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but parents are the secret sauce,” Lovett said. “It’s going to take a village to create these changes.”

At the Childhood Center’s gym just before the march, Yudith Fleary, one of those parents, watched as a group of young children ran around the card tables.

“You could walk around at 6 in the morning or 6 at night and not know what you’ll see,” said Fleary, who owns a local daycare center. “There are streets that are unlit, there’s trash on the ground.”

One of the children in the gym was Fleary’s daughter. She ran up to her mother and tugged at her hand.

“That is not something I want for my baby,” she continued. “I want something more.”

Yamileth Gomez, the parent of a four year-old in the program agreed, but added that stemming crime was just as important as cleaning dirt off the streets.

“I want to see less violence, more tolerance and cleanliness,” said Gomez.

Lisa Avetisian, the National Center’s director of communications, said East Side’s approach was unique among initiatives she has seen around the country.

“What’s different about this is it is dual-generation. Parents and children are doing it together,” she said.

When the march concluded, the marchers offered pep talks and celebrated with cake.

“I love it here. We just need to work a little bit harder,” Fleary said. “We need to try to reach out to people’s conscience.”