Last week, I wrote in The Appeal about Brownsville, Brooklyn’s visions for the future of public safety. As I wrote there: “During the town hall and in a dozen interviews with The Appeal, residents and advocates said violence in Brownsville is symptomatic of poverty and a multitude of still unaddressed needs for youth and recreation programs, job opportunities, mental health services, and other basic services. The community can only become safer if those needs are addressed, they said.”
“Many also supported expanding alternatives to the use of law enforcement, like violence-prevention and mediation programs, though a few had concerns about whether these efforts had been effective so far. Many also discussed the need for better training for police, and for residents to have a say in the selection process for local officers, though a couple others pushed back and called for more systemic approaches. Residents’ support for the institution of policing as a whole varies, and some said generational differences are at times at play, with older residents more likely than younger ones to approve of a police presence.”
Following up on this reporting, and seeking to conduct additional research for my novel, I spent time walking around with two Brownsvillians who are on the frontlines of the neighborhood’s violence prevention efforts—Camara Jackson, founder and executive director of Elite Learners, and Ronald Robertson, founder and executive director of Brownsville Think Tank Matters. Both organizations are part of the city’s Crisis Management System, which aims to send outreach workers with street credibility to mediate conflicts and help connect people to resources and more positive paths. I asked both Ms. Jackson and Mr. Robertson for their perspective on Brownsville’s changes over the years.
Both were intimately acquainted with the challenges that Brownsville, but effused a deep love and commitment to the neighborhood. Ms. Jackson grew up in Riverdale Towers in a single-parent household and lives with the invisible disability of sickle-cell disease. She recalled coming into her adulthood and realizing that rather than leaving her community, she wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood. She notes that her launch of Elite Learners coincided with a boom in new Black-owned non-profits and businesses in Brownsville, particularly along the Belmont Avenue corridor where Elite Learners’ first storefront opened. That boom also coincided with the arrival of new leadership, including Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuels and Assemblymember Latrice Walker, she said.
During out interview, Ms. Jackson and others from Elite Learners were also in the midst of a boycott out of a local food eatery; they’d formed a picket line in front of the eatery’s door. Their contention was disrespectful customer service, and some conveyed to me that such customer service would not be tolerated in a different neighborhood. “They think they can do this because it’s Brownsville,” one person from Elite Learners alleged. Eventually an owner or manager arrived on site, and there were words exchanged between the boycotters and the staff of the restaurant—by the time I left, it was not clear to me whether and how the dispute would be resolved. I am not including the name of the eatery, as I didn’t have a chance to interview the staff and therefore cannot judge the merits of the activists’ accusations, but what struck me most was how strongly the activists from Elite Learners were determined to ensure that businesses in the community understood they would only be welcome if they treated the community with dignity.
What was one thing Ms. Jackson wished people from outside of Brownsville understood about Brownsville? That it is not, as the night news would make it out, “covered in violence”—that people thrive and positive work happens in this neighborhood.
Ronald Robertson, born in 1959, remembers Brownsville through many contrasting era. Like many Brownsvillians of his age and older, he recalls the popular Jewish-owned stores that used to draw customers from afar. He also remembers the disinvestment crisis that hit the city in the 1970s, the Blackout of 1977 and subsequent riots , and the years when the neighborhood’s beloved Betsy Head Park pool became an unsafe place, with sneakers stolen from the locker rooms, and the dead bodies of residents suffering from drug addiction were sometimes found floating on the pool.
There are ways in which Mr. Robertson is still fighting for resources to address the neighborhood’s poverty and disinvestment. Like Ms. Jackson, he’s pressing the city to provide greater funding for the Crisis Management System; his organization spends a great deal of his time helping to resolve conflicts in the nearby housing complexes. He also recently reached out to the city to ask for street safety improvements along the New Lots Avenue corridor,, which is overgrown with plant-life and dark at night.
At the same time, Mr. Robertson is worried about gentrification and the potential for Brownsville’s residents to be displaced as the neighborhood improves. He’s noticing the new medical facilities, bike lanes and housing developments rising up around him (though the ones I already know about are income-targeted, city-subsidized buildings; I would need to look into whether there’s also market-rate housing on the rise) . Brownsville activists are contending with their fear that their very efforts to improve the neighborhood might end up pricing out their own people.
I was also grateful to receive a copy of Mr. Robertson’s book, The Blueprint for Personal Transformation (co-written with Thomas W. Holley), in which Robertson reflects on how he changed his life path after spending many years behind bars. During all my interviews in Brownsville this summer, I’ve learned a lot about PTSD in this commmunity, the way people who are violent are often people who’ve experienced trauma or feel profoundly unsafe themselves, and how important it is to ensure every individual has the opportunity for personal growth and transformation.
As strange as it may sound coming from me, a person with considerable privilege, I’ve found it all very relevant and relatable and interconnected to my own life. As someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and as a member of a 12-step program (Obsessive Compulsives Anonymous), I know just how much fear and a deep sense of “unsafeness” can shape my actions in profoundly irrational ways. As someone who is impressionable and craves belonging, I know how much my desire to please others can take me away from my goals. And I know that when it comes to overcoming a mental illness—at least mine—there’s a complicated range of factors at play that do influence one’s recovery. On the one hand, we cannot expect individuals to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they are facing all kinds of survival challenges and emotional stresses. On the other, I do also believe that changing one’s mindset and partaking in personal, internal growth is vital. What is truly nauseating is the right-wing notion that advocates who want resources to address the first factor—to tackle poverty, meet essential needs, and create programs to address people’s mental health—are in anyway denying that internal work is also valuable. As our society we must be able to satisfy people’s basic needs for shelter, food, and safety, even as we recognize and honor the agency of each individual.