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Op-Ed: The New Major Owens Community Center Is the Solution to Ending the Gun Violence Epidemic in Our Community

'My parents had to drive me to white neighborhoods when I was growing up to experience what our children will have at the Armory.'
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Councilmember Laurie Cumbo says the new Major Owens Health and Wellness Community Center is an asset to the community’s youth.
By: Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, Brooklyn's 35th District

On September 26th, 2021, I took a call from Gabriel Sandoval of The City who was doing what we call in politics a non-objective “gotcha” article on the Bedford Union Armory.

I responded very sarcastically and flippantly to his questions and out of frustration, I stated things like “The Armory doesn’t even exist… The whole Armory is an illusion” … and “I hope that when it opens, it closes” etc. In some ways, I thought if I gave him the most outrageous and outlandish answers I could think of, he might go away and leave me alone as this was not his first call to me, but one of many.

Instead, he utilized it as some sort of impressive investigative interview that would put him on the map. Well, good for him and I hope he becomes a star with many followers. I’m here to help. 

The day Mr. Sandoval called, I was taking a mental health day and I SHOULDN'T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL. I’m working with real people in crisis every day calling from hospitals, nursing homes, mortuaries, and homeless shelters who are dealing with life and death issues and I didn’t have the capacity, bandwidth, energy, or patience to deal with a reporter’s “gotcha” article that is in no way going to assist with helping or supporting anyone in crisis that I am trying to help.

Morale in my office is down, but my staff continues to show up and power through each day. My Chief of Staff just buried her father last week; my Legislative Director's grandfather also died last week and had to fly to LA yesterday; my Chief of Operations' godfather to her son and daughter was shot and killed; my Deputy Chief of Staff's mother died, and our Logistics’ Coordinator’s mother also died last month. I SHOULDN'T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL.

I was dealing with a tough transition of my son going to a new school, acquiring senior services for both my parents who are now over 80 years old, getting a cortisone shot in my knee, and trying to fight to make sure that reckless drivers with over 160 violations like the one who took the life of a three-month-old girl in my District are held accountable and never drive again. I SHOULDN'T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL.

I was watching the recent photos that surfaced of our Haitian brothers and sisters being met at the Del Rio Border in Texas with lassoes and ropes, like something out of the 1800s on a slave plantation. I SHOULDN'T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL.

Shootings continue to plague our community and I have been working with my community partners to form key coalitions to address the violence that has taken too many too soon. I SHOULDN'T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL. 

We are all going through so much and this pandemic has hit every last one of us in some way. I read a quote recently that said, "LIFE STATUS: Currently Holding it all Together with one Bobby Pin." The other one I like is that 1982 song, "Don't push me cause I'm close to the Edge; I'm trying not to lose my head." That about sums it up.

It’s fascinating to me that this pandemic overall has not created that dynamic where we feel a stronger level of empathy for one another because we are ALL going through something really challenging. We don't recognize or create the space and place for the catastrophic level of mourning that we are all going through to varying degrees. You never know what someone is going through, especially now, so it is important now more than ever to be kind. 

I've been talking to a lot of colleagues and people whom I call the "Doers," people who are operating our food pantries, assisting our seniors, heading up our cultural institutions and libraries, setting up vaccination sites, managing our people who are in the shelter system or returning home from prison, and providing healthcare to those most in need. They are becoming weary, exhausted, and frustrated with living up to the high expectations of the people who are attacking, criticizing, reporting, Tweeting, Facebook Live-ing, and posting but also have not delivered or are not delivering anything tangible to build community or to bring people together.

We have metamorphosized into the culture that praises and exalts those that "Call People Out" versus "Call People In" to resolve conflicts. We are more interested in the attack or the political stunt like wearing a "Tax the Rich" gown to the Met Gala versus delivering a new school, creating jobs, or building affordable housing for your District. I find the bigger the social media following, the fewer deliverables for their community because you can't have both.

You can't implement ideas and build institutions and solve problems and attack folks doing the work at the same time. I believe the attacks on social media by colleagues in government are to distract attention away from what they are not delivering because it is so much more gratifying to draw social media attention by attacking than by doing. 

Doing takes time, focus, concentration, experimentation, trial and error, partnerships, reflection, sacrifice, seeing something through to the end, constant evaluation and give and take, as the public interfaces with your idea and having the discernment to know the difference between constructive criticism versus a hit job critique in the news cycle to pay one’s bills until they can find the next project to "hit." "Doing" is a process that does not coincide with the fast pace of social media attention or press cycles. Doers have come under attack. 

In 1999, I turned my graduate thesis into Brooklyn's First Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). That was back when you had to accomplish something big and show your leadership abilities to deliver for your community before you ran for office. (Back then you couldn’t just say you became an organizer or an activist last year and then run for office). 

I find it interesting that someone could take almost 20 years of their professional life to sacrifice and build a Black Art Museum to now be painted as some sort of "sell out in the pocket of the developers" by folks new to the community and those who follow the loudest voices versus the loudest deliverables, but I digress.  

When I got elected in 2013, I had no idea that I would be able to accomplish all that I have been able to do in these last eight years. In the fight against gentrification, I was able to spearhead efforts or work with colleagues to save Interfaith Hospital, the Brooklyn Plaza Medical Center, the Shirley Chisholm State Office Building (where State Senator Jabari Brisport and Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest are now able to have their offices), the Fort Greene Senior Center and Day Care, Friends of Crown Heights Day Care, the Residents of The Brooklyn Jewish Hospital from having their leases go market rate, Weeksville Heritage Center, The Campaign Against Hunger, the Associated Supermarket on Nostrand Avenue and Moshood Clothing Store, to name a few.

I was able to secure and build permanent homes for Jamel Gaines Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn, Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, Digital Girl, Inc., African Voices Magazine, MoCADA, 651 Arts, Noel Pointer Foundation, Brooklyn Music School, Building 77 in the Navy Yard and Brooklyn Pride, to name a few. I secured $110 million in the height of the pandemic for Medgar Evers College and Medgar Evers Preparatory High School to tear down their substandard trailers and build a world-class state-of-the-art campus.

I was able to secure funding for the renovation of Prospect Park's Carousel, Concert Grove Pavilion, and two brand new entrances, and the new Shirley Chisholm Welcome Center, as well as provide funding for the complete renovation of Elijah Stroud Park, Greene Playground, Lafayette Playground, Betty Carter Park, Cuyler Gore Park, and Fort Greene Park. I've been able to deliver more affordable housing units than the District has seen in decades.

I’ve approved 16 land-use projects in my tenure that have produced 2,592 total units, 1,081 of which are affordable (42%) and 786 at 60 AMI or lower (30%). I was able to secure critical resources to save and preserve our houses of worship such as the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Elim Church, Hanson Place Seventh Day Adventist Church, and Bethany United Church to name a few. I'm more than proud of my legislative wins including creating the Mayor's Office to End Gun Violence, Text 911, and the Pay Equity Reporting Bill.

I mention a few of these wins here because I find it difficult to find time to boast about the work that I'm doing while doing it and I also have not had a minute to look up to defend my extensive record from those that wish to paint a picture of me as some sort of archetype of gentrification.

I am in a constant state of shock as my family has been in Brooklyn for almost 90 years and now a new generation of gentrifiers have come to urban cities all over the country gentrifying those neighborhoods and then calling the long-time residents and elected and community leaders gentrifiers of the very communities that they and their families have fought for generations to build.  

In 2011, I had an opportunity to visit the Bedford Union Armory with the late Congress Member Major Owens. Hearing of his vision to transform the Bedford Union Armory into a recreation center was a dream that I was inspired by. Our children are in crisis. PERIOD. FULL STOP. To not have a community center across the street from Ebbets Field and Tivoli Towers where over 10,000 families live is sabotaging a community for failure, violence, and imploding.

In fact, Central Brooklyn has never had a world-class, state-of-the-art recreation center to serve the thousands of children that call Brooklyn home. The need to revitalize the Armory for not-for-profit organizations, athletic programming, a health center for the uninsured, and the most affordable housing that Crown Heights has seen in over fifty years, was a project worth putting my life on the line for. Sounds extreme but that is the reality.

In 2017, at the age of 42 as a Black woman who had previously miscarried four years ago, I was pregnant, running for reelection, and preparing to vote on the Bedford Union Armory. I had a pregnancy complicated by gestational diabetes and had to be on bed rest for most of. I had an amniocentesis and I had to have a procedure to stitch my cervix closed so that the baby would not come out because I refused to be on bed rest towards the end. It was a tough time, enduring debates, protests outside of my office, and social media attacks from my own colleagues demanding that I KILL THE DEAL. At the same time, the people around me that love and care for me were telling me to kill the deal so that I could win the election or for the sake of the baby. But I had to make the toughest decision of my life to put my health and that of my unborn child on the line as well as an election because the future of thousands of children was more important.

What I've shared here is tough but the really tough parts of this process can't even be shared.  

I can no longer post my condolences on social media to a family who has just lost their child to gun violence or watch how the circle of mothers who have lost a child to gun violence continues to grow. I can't face them any longer with no solution in sight.

When I told reporter Gabriel Sandoval that I hope the Armory closes the day it opens was me expressing the tipping point of my outrage of almost eight years of constant attacks on something that is going to be a game-changer for Black children in the midst of this BLACK LIVES MATTER era. I've grown exhausted with electeds, candidates, journalists, so-called activists, and social media trolls using the Armory to advance their careers and social media followings while risking destroying the Armory before it opens so that it can lay dormant for decades to come like the Armory in the Bronx.

This is what we never had. My parents had to drive me to white neighborhoods when I was growing up to experience what our children will have at the Armory. There is no community in New York City that will have the offerings of the Armory.  So many people are trying to uncover some conspiracy theory behind what's going on at the Armory. But I will tell you what I've seen. I've seen my team and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the Advisory Board, the Mayor's Office, and BFC Partners show up day in and day out to attempt to deliver a recreation center and housing for our community in the midst of a global pandemic.

I've seen agency heads and construction workers risking their lives to work through the complications of this project. I’ve seen the Project Manager, Eric Woodlin, battle through his own COVID diagnosis while continuing to manage the construction site from home. I've seen pregnant women on the EDC staff come to meetings double-masked to work out the complicated matters of opening the Bedford Union Armory, and there are many.

There are original agreements and community benefits agreements that we are trying desperately to implement to make the Armory accessible and affordable to all while recognizing that the capacity of the Armory is now greatly limited because of COVID restrictions. Many of the instructors of the not-for-profits refuse to get vaccinated and many parents of children aged 12 and older do not want to get their children vaccinated. 

That is the age group the Armory was designed to serve.

Many of the organizations that were closed during the pandemic are now operating in the red, have lost the audiences that they once served, and are having difficulty revving up to perform at the capacity needed to meet their operating costs. The issues are many but solvable if we are able to focus on them versus taking time to respond to people who are hell-bent on seeing the project fail.

We are finding ways to serve every child despite their vaccination status.
What we need right now is for everyone to roll up their sleeves and offer solutions to assist this project in getting off the ground during the most challenging time in world history. This project is TOO BIG, TOO IMPORTANT, TOO CRITICAL TO FAIL.

There will be false starts, trial and error, and organic growth that will be driven by the community to best serve the needs of central Brooklyn as well as lots of evaluations during the process to get it off the ground. THIS IS THE SOLUTION TO ENDING THE GUN VIOLENCE EPIDEMIC IN OUR COMMUNITY and right now we need all hands on deck to help get this right for our children and future children. We can't afford to lose any more of our children.


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