Hannah Cressy ’13 reflects on Ritual, Health and Healing, co-taught by Gillian Goslinga, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science in Society, and Jill Sigman, Choreographer and Founder of ThinkDance.
Last Saturday, our Ritual, Health, and Healing class took our first trip into Brooklyn to begin the service learning aspect of the course. The class is cross-listed in Anthropology, Dance, and Service Learning, and during the month of April, we meet three times per week: once for a classroom seminar, once in a dance studio, and once in St. Nick’s community center in the heart of Williamsburg. We have been invited to participate in a project with the citizen-activists of Greenpoint-Williamsburg that mixes community building, archival, art, and oral history, and found on Saturday that these three weeks will undoubtedly be more influential for our own ideas of community, activism, citizenship, art and democracy than we’d thought possible.
We arrived very early Saturday morning to St. Nick’s Alliance, and entered a former hospital basement and homeless men’s shelter that is now filled with the brilliant paintings of local children. We were introduced to community members who’d lived in Greenpoint-Williamsburg their entire lives, and a few who’d just moved into the area. Much like many post-graduate Wesleyan students, they were just beginning to learn what it means to live in the neighborhood.
We went around the circle to introduce ourselves; even in these first moments, we heard everyday people begin to tell their stories, naming lists of organizations they’ve been involved in for ten, twenty, or thirty years. Issues faced by the community seemed endless, but so did the people and grassroots organizations that have long worked to better the area’s social and environmental climate. Personal histories arose of unfair housing situations, families plagued by the same disease, identification with toxic sites—but never a hint that anyone wanted to leave. This is their home, and they will stay and fight to make it safe. Other community issues that came up in open-circle discussion included environmental justice, in reaction to a high density of waste stations in the area, fairness in education, the struggle to unify across ethnic, racial and income boundaries, gentrification and rising housing costs, and the loss of a community feel due to modernization.
Smaller groups formed to address more specific issues with organizations such as GREC (Greenpoint Renaissance Enterprise Corporation) and OUTRAGE (Organization United for Trash Reduction and Garbage Equity), while others took the opportunity to hold one-on-one conversations with community elders and longstanding citizen-activists from Greenpoint. Three students, including Haley Perkins ’13, Val Pucilowski ’13, and myself, will be conducting further archival research at the Brooklyn Library on the history of the Greenpoint Hospital complex that now houses St. Nick’s, affordable housing, and a smaller homeless shelter. The use of the remaining unoccupied space is highly contested, and neighborhood activists are currently battling real estate developers to reclaim a building to be used for a much-needed affordable senior home.
In class on Monday, we discussed the most striking idea we’d heard on Saturday: we agreed, nearly unanimously, that Jan Peterson summarized the day’s most personal and influential message: wherever you live, you must be involved. “You can’t just have brunch.” Because we are in a community, we must give to it. We should know our neighbors. We are lucky to have the opportunity to join this community for the next few weeks in helping to preserve its spirit and connect its population while ourselves learning what it means to be a neighbor.