What does a community arts center do when, under the threat of a growing world-wide pandemic, it’s forced to suspend the in-person art and education services it had been providing for the past 25 years? In the case of DreamYard, located in the Morrisania district of the South Bronx, you find other ways to meet the community’s needs. DreamYard is keeping its front doors open a few hours each weekday, by acting as a distribution point for free lunches provided by World Central Kitchen (founded by chef José Andrés) between 1:30 and 3pm. In other words, its volunteers and employees have not suspended their commitment to serving their communities, but instead have pivoted to find other ways to fulfill their mission while all our social and economic systems contract under the pressure of the coronavirus outbreak.
While visiting its arts center located on Washington Avenue, I spoke with DreamYard’s programs director, Austin Greene, who set out precisely what this mission is. He said, “Our mission is to create pathways for equity, justice and sustainability for people in the Bronx, using the arts as a conduit.” As we spoke, Greene, who has been with DreamYard for 13 years, beginning as a teaching artist, then serving as a social justice pedagogy coach before attaining the director position, greeted people who came in to pick up the free lunches arranged on a table near the front entrance. He greeted each one and often explained that the lunches, which consist of a turkey and cheese sandwich (or pizza), carrot sticks, and an apple are available to all who need them. The only request is that each person take what they’ve touched.
The available statistics bear out that the need is great: DreamYard is located in the most economically impoverished congressional district in the nation, the 15th, which has, as of 2017, a median household income below the city’s poverty threshold of $33,562, at the time. Greene told me that the staff at DreamYard, “felt it’s important that the lights remain on, especially as everything else starts getting dark.”
At one point, a 69-year-old retiree since 2017, Sophia Wiggins walked in and asked about the sandwiches. She genially answered my questions, telling me that she had never been to the center before, though she had lived in the neighborhood for a long time. She told me that her retirement income does cover her rent and utilities, but she also admitted that she was waiting on her children (who live far away) to “make it” before asking them for help. Eager to chat while social distancing leaves many US inhabitants at arm’s length from each other, she tells me that she is also hoping for grandchildren, but since her daughter is 46 she is giving up on getting them from her.
Another person who wandered in, Francisco Castro, who is in his 50s, also said that he has been in the neighborhood for several years and lives close by but had never thought to come inside until he saw the sign outside advertising the free lunches. Now, he says he wants to come back because he’s noticed that the space offers information on various resources (financial, career, and arts-related) in the Bronx. He took three lunches, thinking that they could tide him over through the next day.
According to Greene, lots of people, perhaps like Castro, in this neighborhood are food insecure. He said, “This community is historically marginalized — it has primarily people of color, an immigrant population, a Muslim population, young people [who deal with] high rates of food and job insecurity, issues of literacy and language learning [plus] gentrification.”
Emily Castillo, a 45-year-old mother of two, also dropped in to pick up lunches for her two children Brandon and Emily. She told me that both participated in the after-school programs where they made art and engaged in learning about music. Castillo has been in the neighborhood for 11 years and has availed herself of the resources of DreamYard for most of that time. She says that her children get free clothing from the center, backpacks, and her son even received a “very nice watch” for Christmas, this last holiday season. She found out about the lunch give away through flyers placed in the neighborhood.
Emily Perez also walked in with two of her children, Danelys and Fedarys. Fedarys explained that both she and her sister had participated in the after-school programs where they had painted and danced and studied poetry. They have lived next door for nine years and feel that DreamYard is important to them. As Greene further explained: “We are not just arts; we are childcare, health care, mental health, food.”
The idea to provide lunches to the Bronx communities originated with local Assemblyman Michael Blake, who teamed up with World Central Kitchen and Beatstro Cafe and Lounge (which acts as the primary distribution point in the Bronx). Each morning either Greene, or the co-executive director, Jason Duchin, get in their cars, pick up about as many lunches as they think will serve, and take them to the center. Blake reached out to DreamYard, asking whether they were interested in acting as another distribution hub, and the emphatic response was “yes.”
Before leaving the space Greene asked me to recognize the work of a few key Black women who laid the groundwork for the mission that DreamYard continues to pursue. One is Robin Walker Murphy, who worked at DreamYard for 10 years, first as a teaching artist and then as director of the art center. Another, Renee Watson, was key in her role as a leader of professional development workshops and leadership training for DreamYard. And the third, Ama Codjoe, was also a teaching artist, then a coach and director of the dance program before becoming an associate director of the art center. These women and those on the current staff ensure the lights stay on so the people they serve can continue finding their way.