Saturday, January 13, 2007

Brick By Brick: A Civil Rights Story

In 1985, the US vs. Yonkers ruling challenged the institutionalized housing and educational discrimination of an entire city. It was the first time housing discrimination was linked to a segregated school system and this ruling codified a remedy for both.

The fallout from the litigation exposed the naked bigotry of Yonkers, New York as the white community resented any effort to expand access to better, more integrated housing for minorities. I attended Sarah Lawrence College located nearby in Bronxville from 1987-1991 and followed the racism with disgust. Sadly, the city of Yonkers found being in contempt of court preferable to addressing their legacy of racism.

On February 9th, at 9:00 PM, Brick By Brick: A Civil Rights Story, a one-hour documentary about Yonkers will air on New York’s local PBS station Channel 13. This important documentary was produced and directed by William Kavanagh. Kavanagh is a good friend who I came to know through regularly reading his blog. I’m hoping with the help of the progressive netroots, PBS will be persuaded to show his documentary to a national audience.

Kavanagh’s filmmaking career is dedicated to illustrating the human dimension of public policy issues. In 2001, Kavanagh was the field producer for Enemies of War, a PBS documentary on the civil war in El Salvador. Kavanagh went to El Salvador and interviewed rebel commanders, Jesuit priests, officials from the Salvadoran and US governments, human rights workers and ordinary Salvadoran citizens. He covered the first elections after the ceasefire and interviewed the late Congressman Joe Moakley and his aide, Jim McGovern, who broke the wall of silence around the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter by the Salvadoran military in 1989. Enemies of War was shown nationally on PBS.

With Brick By Brick, Kavanagh and his production team illustrate how a ghetto was created through public policies. It is the local people themselves from different backgrounds, who describe their experiences with housing and educational discrimination. This is contrasted with still other local people living across town who enjoyed superior opportunities and access to a better life.

Kavanagh’s film also informs viewers how local public school divisions emerged in a neighborhood overwhelmed with 7,000 units of public housing, “further entrenching the city's color line.” The community reacted to these conditions in their children’s schools by fighting back and compelling Yonkers to change.

Essentially, Kavanagh’s documentary follows three families in Yonkers, New York as they navigate through the volatile maelstrom of racial politics and discrimination law in housing and schools that transforms their hometown. As Kavanagh put it to me,

“The fact that Yonkers (as well as other cities which were not held to account in court) essentially kept their foot-dragging and evasion going for so many years after going into contempt of the Federal courts in 1988 is symbolic of the turn that civil rights enforcement has taken since the end of the Carter Administration, when US vs. Yonkers was originally filed. The film title is a bit of tribute to the folks who pressed on, despite the odds, to fight for an equitable end to the situation there.”
This story merits maximum exposure and support by the progressive netroots. Yonkers is no different from many of our hometowns and neighborhoods. First and foremost the project needs money if it has any chance of ever being seen by a wider audience. I hope anyone reading this with the means will consider making a donation. The New York Foundation for the Arts (NFA) sponsors Brick by Brick and is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations can be made through the NFA by clicking here. When completing the online form please type “William Kavanagh” for artist’s name and “Brick By Brick: A Civil Rights Story” for project title.

As many reading this post are not New Yorkers and don’t have access to Local WNET 13, please click here for the contact information of Kavanagh Productions to request a press screener for bloggers. Upon viewing the film, if you approve of it, please contact WNET 13 praising it (click here for their contact information).

Our country is confronted with challenges ranging from war and peace to millions who don’t have health insurance. So many issues and causes competing for the attention of progressives. Civil rights are a core value that must never be allowed to slip through the cracks as we work to improve society and bring peace to the world. William Kavanagh reminds us with his documentary about the importance of standing up for justice in our own neighborhoods.
CLICK HERE to listen to my podcast interview with William Kavanagh about his documentary.


Anonymous said...

Just finshed watching the show. I was deeply disturbed by the portrayal of suburban middle class people being portrayed as racist.
Low income housing is a criminal offense. The politicians are stealing from one comunity to placate the hoplessness of another.
The only thing accomplished by low income housing is the further division of working families who should be united in gaining progress tword economic viability.
It is my belief that programs like low income housing and equal opportunity only exist to divide the electorate on ECONOMIC lines, not racial ones.
Blaming the upror in Yonkers on "racism" is huge mistake. Its about money. Its about forcing the middle class to molify the angst of the impovrished while sparing the wealthy elite from having to invest in our infrastructure to create jobs.
When the middle class riles against this unfair taxation, call it racism and divide the working classes.
The elites kill 2 birds with one stone. Mollify the poor with subsidies while dividing(and conquer) the electorate.
Grats PBS for adding to the destruction. said...

I just watched the documentary on the housing desegregation.I enjoyed it and feel it was a good picture of what went on. I was on the board of education as a trustee and also the first female hispanic to become vice president and president. I was motivated to be involved on the board because of the desegregation . What I endured as a trustee was similar to the city council and mayor. I served on the board from 1988 until 1992. I witnessed first hand how racism and ignorance played a role in the desegregation of schools. Unfortunately we did have many incidents and acts of racism which affected many of the children including my own.I encountered numerous inequities as I learned the role of the city council and its relationship to the board of education. It would be nice to see a follow up documentary which might include the impact that the desegregation had on Yonkers schools. There are many areas which unfortunately continue to remain the same such as the role of Hispanics in Yonkers and their voice in City politics.

I worked together with Gene Capello when Wasizco was running for a second term and can tell you of the humiliating moments at board of education meetings where we (Robert Beane and myself)were hummed down by hundreds of Spallone supporters sitting in the audience.They were refusing to accept the desegregation of the schools and as a result threatened and caused white flight due to their refusal of letting their children work side by side with majority students.
Even when we attempted to rename schools after prominent minority figures we had to research negotiate and then sell the plan. We were also influenced into choosing schools which were in non minority areas instead of trying to place them in significant neighborhood schools which would influence the population which was there.

There are many articles and documentation of the tough decisions made which allowed the desegregation plan to prosper within the schools.

Please call me if I can be of assistance to you