Sunset Park’s matriarchs and patriarchs enter a modest Fourth Avenue storefront with bag lunches in hand and questions in mind. They come to UPROSE, a community organization that has served the Brooklyn neighborhood for 32 years, to learn about changes in welfare and immigration laws or to have official letters translated into Spanish. They stay to talk about their children and their community.
“They feed their children. They dress them. They try to set a good example,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, UPROSE’s executive director. “But then [the kids] drop out or start hanging out in the street.” Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban–the men and women sit in the office, eat their lunches and find some common ground in a neighborhood that has seen precious little of it over the last few years.
Michelle De La Uz, director of constituency services for neighborhood Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, says these residents have grown up with the organization helping their families. “I call them repeat customers,” she says. “They say, ‘You helped my mother, you helped my daughter. Now you can help me.'”
In addition to assisting immigrants in navigating the welfare system, UPROSE is working in local schools to help troubled kids. The group is also building a base of political activism against the state’s plan to rebuild the Gowanus Expressway and re-route traffic down the community’s avenues. Yeampierre says all of UPROSE’s work has another underlying component as well: building unity among the community’s fragmented ethnic enclaves.
Despite its deep roots, however, UPROSE has been through hard times of late, weakened by inconsistent leadership–and by the loss of city funding that has hit scores of similar small neighborhood organizations over the last few years. An independent study published by the Arete Corporation in October found that more than half of all small nonprofits that held city contracts when David Dinkins left City Hall have since lost their funding. UPROSE is part of that disinvested majority.
Fifth Avenue is Sunset Park’s outdoor living room. Pizzerias compete with Mexican fast-food taqueritas. Dominican and Puerto Rican flags label the ubiquitous car services. And shoppers in the discount stores spill onto the sidewalk, as young people stake their claim to street corners.
UPROSE has served this neighborhood since 1966, founded by Puerto Rican activists to support newcomers to what had been a mostly Scandanavian community. The United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park and Education Services, as it was called, provided day care, after-school programs and assistance with welfare and other benefits.
Recently, the group bowed to the neighborhood’s changing demographics by dropping its full name and adopting the acronym, UPROSE. Sunset Park’s Latino population is now a turbulent array of ethnicities–and the neighborhood’s long-established Asian community is growing quickly as well. Ethnic tensions occasionally flare into open violence: Three Latino teenagers beat and nearly killed a Chinese man last August. Police say it was a bias crime.
“What weakens [the community’s] political presence is a lack of unity,” says Yeampierre, who took charge of the organization in 1996. “We really do have issues in common: immigration, education, sweatshops and bilingual education.” Keeping the racial and ethnic tensions at bay has become part of the directive for UPROSE and a personal mission for Yeampierre, who hopes a new focus on political activism can pull Sunset Park together.
Two years ago, it was unclear whether UPROSE would even survive. During a six-month leadership vacuum before Yeampierre’s arrival, the group failed to file reports on city-funded projects and didn’t even start a contracted program to teach English as a Second Language. We were in a very precarious position,” says Juan Beritán, UPROSE’s board chairman.
Ten days after Yeampierre became executive director, the city’s Community Development Agency, which had provided $40,000 to run the ESL program and provide information about entitlements, canceled its contract.
“The timing was consistent. Organizations of color–aided by the Giuliani administration–were disappearing all over the city,” Yeampierre says. “The city’s shift [away from the smaller community groups] occurred just as the organization was not running as tightly as it should have been. It may have been only $40,000, but it made a big difference in how we were able to function.”
UPROSE now depends on volunteers to help local residents with public assistance. The group relies on money from the United Way and other private sources to sustain its budget, and no longer runs after-school or day care programs.
But UPROSE still maintains its presence in three area high schools and one junior high school, where its five staffers work. In stay-in-school programs at each school, 30 or so students considered at risk of dropping out learn about activism and ethnic tolerance–and study their academic subjects. “We never lose sight of our objectives to teach them to read, write and be good in math,” says Yeampierre, a former civil rights attorney. “Once they know how to do that, they can take charge of themselves and their community.”
Teresita Rivera-Neri, UPROSE’s program counselor at John Jay High School in neighboring Park Slope, noticed students carving out Puerto Rican, Dominican and other enclaves in the lunchroom and classrooms. So she started a Latino Club, where students read literature and perform dances from all over Latin America.
“They suddenly find themselves in a new country,” Rivera-Neri explains. “There’s a fear of the unknown. In class they’ll say, ‘I’m better than you,’ or ‘My country is better than yours.’ [The Latino Club] really helps them to realize they have so much in common.”
One of the things all the residents of Sunset Park have in common is the proposed $700 million reconstruction of Gowanus Expressway. UPROSE is educating residents about the potential health threats of the construction and re-routed traffic. The neighborhood already is stricken with the third highest asthma rate in the city.
The group is organizing residents and pushing for a comprehensive study of alternatives such as building a tunnel to replace the Gowanus. Lucy Lopez–a former Work Experience Program worker and a mother of three–lives two blocks from the expressway with a 7-year-old asthmatic son. With UPROSE’s help she’s begun speaking out. “With all the pollution, how’s every child who lives in the community going to stay healthy?” she asks.
Despite the organization’s state of transition, women and men from the neighborhood still file into the office looking for advice and company. “I don’t have the sense that the community knows all the changes we’ve gone through,” Yeampierre says.
Still, the troubles have had consequences. “In small community agencies like that, if the board isn’t constantly fundraising or there’s no development component, their projects last as long as the money lasts,” says Sister Mary Geraldine of the Center for Family Life, another neighborhood organization that has served the neighborhood for 20 years. “Yet [UPROSE is] still around, committed to the community.”
Preparing for the future, Yeampierre hopes to hire an Asian tutor for UPROSE’s school programs and set up workshops to teach residents how to advocate and get answers from the city for themselves. “UPROSE is here to stay,” she says. “We’re here to be reckoned with.”