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Local Heroes

by The Staff on December 21, 2011

Our annual tribute to people who are making a difference. Our 2011heroes are: Occupy Albany, David Soares, Chief Steven Krokoff, Amy Klein, Susan Sikule, Betsy Mercogliano and Willie White.

 

Occupy Albany

At first, some people just scratched their heads.

When the protesters didn’t go away, they were scoffed at, ridiculed, stereotyped, or ignored. At least, pleaded some people who actually wanted to understand the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, be more specific about your demands (“We don’t have demands.”). OK then, take me to your leader (“We don’t have leaders.”).

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

But a funny thing happened as Occupy movements across the country—inspired by the protesters who began their occupation of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17—set up encampments and stayed put. What they appeared to lack in the traditional trappings of a successful movement—namely, an organization hierarchy and a specific agenda—they made up for in resilience, passion and a relentless focus on a few major, related themes. As October passed into November with the tents and placards intact, it became clear to more and more people—and even to the initially chilly mainstream media—what Occupy’s core messages were: The gap between the richest 1 percent and everyone else was too great; corporate America, especially banks, had too much power and had not been held liable for laying waste to the economy; and that their money bought off government and strangled democracy.

And within a couple of months, the Occupy movement had changed the national conversation about the economy and democracy. There are numerous examples of this—see Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue—but one of the most compelling is that Nexis searches and other measures have revealed three- to sixfold increases in newsmedia mentions of words and phrases like “income inequality,” “greed” and “the richest 1 percent.” While the effect has yet to play out in a national election cycle, Occupy has made these issues difficult to dismiss.

Just ask Gov. Andrew Cuomo. OK, he might not admit it, but many think that Occupy Albany did get under his skin. Local protesters challenged him to extend the millionaire’s tax, which Cuomo said he would not do; they carried signs calling him “Governor 1%”; and they drew national attention by crossing over from city-owned Academy Park (where they were not bothered) to state-owned Lafayette Park, and getting arrested by state troopers. Cuomo may still be a popular governor, but he was not winning his PR war with Occupy Albany.

And lo and behold, in early December, Cuomo suddenly appeared with his own plan for reforming New York state’s tax code, and rammed it through a compliant Legislature with shocking speed. And it did increase taxes for the wealthiest New Yorkers (though not quite to the levels of the millionaire’s surcharge).

To the extent that Cuomo was influenced by the changing conversation, tax reform is Occupy Albany’s single greatest accomplishment to date. Other actions have included groups of customers closing their Bank of America accounts en masse, caroling about overconsumption in the malls on Black Friday, and joining the Albany Common Council in a resolution supporting the end of corporate control over politics.

In Albany and everywhere else that Occupy movements thrive, a steady physical presence and a constant hammering away at the realties of economic inequality have brought this conversation into the mainstream and made it much harder to dismiss the protests as inciting “class warfare.” As Ira McKinley, a filmmaker who works for Grand Street Community Arts who has been documenting the occupation since the beginning, told Metroland earlier this month, “We’re right here where they can’t deny us.”

 

David Soares

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

P. David Soares is the Albany County district attorney. His actions during the Occupy Albany protests have been a model for how to deal with the Occupy movement. His stance reveals a deep respect for the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

All over the country, public prosecutors responded to Occupy protests by pushing for fines and, in some cases, jail time for the protestors. David Soares saw things differently, and advised both the Albany Police and the New York State Police that he would not prosecute peaceful protesters.

When state troopers, at the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, made arrests during the period when Occupy Albany protesters were breaking curfew at Lafayette Park (the state-controlled half of the large park between Eagle and Hawk streets that the OA movement calls home), Soares lived up to his promise.

As Soares explained to Keith Olbermann on Countdown, “We decided to apply a different strategy, which was to engage the protesters, maintain open lines of communication and hope for the best. And thus far, the protests have been taking place in Albany, things have been fine. And the relationships couldn’t be better.”

On this and other issues, Soares has lived up to expectations raised when he was elected by a coalition of minority and progressive voters hungry for a change in the way the district attorney’s office operates. And Soares is proud of his office’s record.

With regard to some of the changes he’s brought to the DA’s office, Soares says there has a new focus on community outreach: “We want people to come in and report crime,” people who normally would avoid the criminal justice system. And his office has targeted senior-citizen and the LGBT communities for this effort.

“In a very tough environment,” Soares says, “you must have the confidence that the decisions you’re making are supported by your constituents.”

 

Chief Steven Krokoff

Albany chief of police Steven Krokoff has made an exemplary commitment to community engagement and civility in his handling of the Occupy Albany protests.

After years of pressure on the Jennings administration and the Albany Police Department to transition to community-oriented law-enforcement methods—and after a race-oriented scandal forced the previous chief of police from his rank—Albany citizens finally gained a police chief worthy of the title “public servant” in Steven Krokoff.

Photo by Julia Zave

A year and a half after taking over the department, Krokoff made national news this October when he allegedly defied an order from the mayor’s office, believed to be issued originally from the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to arrest several hundred Occupy Albany protesters, peacefully assembled in Academy Park, across from the state Capitol. As images filled the media of riot-gear-clad police officers pepper spraying members of the “99 percent” and clearing encampments across the nation, Krokoff distinguished his department and the Albany occupation by avoiding violent confrontation.

The approach can be seen as consistent with his stated commitment to community-policing strategies. Earlier this year, Krokoff told the Albany Common Council that breaking down the “us and them” mentality both within his force and between the force and the community is a major part of his job. The precedent for this was set by a noticable increase in beat cops, committed to engaging with the residents of the neighborhoods they patrol so as to curb crime before it’s allowed to arise, as well as a vigorous effort to recruit minority officers. The ongoing goal is to make the 92-percent-white force better reflect the 30-percent minority demographic profile of the city, based on 2010 census information.

In a press conference last month, Krokoff reiterated his commitment to such strategies, boasting of the ongoing relationships his 27 beat cops are developing and the improvements this can bring to the city.

 

Susan Sikule

Veterinarian Susan Sikule is the founder and director of Scruff, an all-volunteer organization which addresses the problem of feral cat populations. Scruff, which also stands for Spaying Capital Region Unowned Feral Felines, operates a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return program.

Building locally on the work of national groups like Alley Cat Allies, Scruff has been responsible for spaying and neutering more than 2000 stray cats since 2006, which, in turn, has prevented the births of thousands of ferals.

When asked why a trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) program is preferable to the traditional policy of euthanizing unwanted cats (“catch and kill”), Sikule explains that, one, it’s more humane, and, two, it’s cheaper; euthanasia is approximately $100 per cat; spaying/neutering is only $35. And, she notes, when a colony of feral cats is removed, it is often quickly replaced by another cat colony.

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Sikule’s interest in the issue began in earnest six years ago.

“I had a feral cat that had come into my clinic at Just Cats [in Guilderland], and he was rabid,” she says. The cat was euthanized, and all of the Just Cats staff exposed to the rabid feline were required to get treatment for rabies, too.

After some research, Sikule discovered that while there were many animal rescue groups in the Capital Region, “there was no centralized nonprofit organization dedicated to helping manage the feral cat population.”

Scruff does its work through a network of volunteers who come together on “Sunday Spay Days,” when the “trappers” bring the cats to a clinic. At the clinic, the cats are vaccinated for rabies and other common feline diseases, and are either neutered or spayed. Finally, the cats are returned by these volunteers to their original colony. (The cats also have their ears trimmed for identification purposes.) It’s organized like a military mission—a mission of mercy that benefits public health.

Scruff, Sikule notes, could not succeed without the help of these volunteers, area veterinarians and the financial support of the public. In addition to giving presentations to interested groups, Sikule is also involved in Scruff’s many fundraising efforts.

Eventually, Sikule says Scruff is moving toward expanding its efforts. The organization would like to host two spay days per month, see more TNVRs done an area veterinary clinics, and expand collaborations with local officials and local animal shelters.

“This is a manmade problem because these animals are not indigenous to the area,” Sikule says. “Therefore, man has a responsibility to solve it.”

 

Betsy Mercogliano

Photo by Joe Putrock

A New York state-certified nurse midwife, Betsy Mercogliano is respected as a leader and pioneer in the Capital Region’s natural childbirth community.

Drawn to midwifery when in her early 20s, the 57-year-old health-care provider and advocate believes that all women should have access to legal home births. The “midwifery model of care” is a woman-centered, hands-on approach to childbirth. There is a commitment to natural birth, as opposed to medically induced birth. And Mercogliano is a forceful voice for her patients. Albany obstetrician Jeffrey Altman has known her for more than 10 years, and told Tania de Rosier in a Metroland story last spring that Mercogliano “has a lot of conviction. She’s willing to go as far as she needs to go to support her clients.”

Mercogliano works through the Family Life Center, which she helped establish in Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood in 1976. This year, Mercogliano says, “We’ve expanded, adding more classes and serving more women.”

Community outreach, with groups like the Trinity Alliance in Albany’s South End, has expanded.

“We now have three offices, one in Saratoga and two in Albany—and we’re the only midwifery service in Saratoga, an area that’s hungered for it.”

Learning the ins and outs of the insurance side of the “business” has been challenging, but Mercogliano is eager to talk about the future: “We’re going to expand our outreach work to underserved communities.”

 

Willie White

The founder and chief organizer of A Village, Willie White has become one of the most outspoken voices for urban renewal in Albany’s South End.

“I give the heroism to my community,” says Willie White in a humble gesture of deference. There’s more than modesty behind this sentiment, though, as the very name of his organization insists that a community effort is required to effect lasting change. For two and a half years, A Village has been partnering with nonprofits, departments of city government and local businesses to fight for one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—and this year, their efforts have really started to pay off.

On Nov. 13, more than 200 residents celebrated the maiden voyage of the Mid-City Belt No. 100 bus, a line that South End residents have been pressing the Capital District Transportation Authority to establish for some 20 years to link the neighborhood with uphill shopping, business and medical resources. “[A Village] amassed 1,400 signatures, went to meetings and told them we wouldn’t go away,” says White of the group’s victory. “The bus situation proves that when the community comes together, we can accomplish almost anything.”

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

A Village’s projects range from simple campaigns to get more municipal trash cans placed along Morton Avenue and beautification efforts directed at the neighborhood’s many vacant lots to unwieldy subjects like voter disenfranchisement, education and economic development. “We don’t have time to fight for minute things,” says White, “but if we have to, we will. We want to tackle bigger issues.”

The group helped organize a South End farmers market on the corner of Morton and Eagle, and is working to accept EBT for next season to serve the 50 percent of customers who rely on the service. The project also provides on-the-job training for A Village’s Youth Entrepreneurship Program. As the chairman of the city’s Youth Engagement Committee, White has made youth education and employment a primary focus. In May, A Village successfully petitioned the city to restore funds to the Summer Youth Employment Program and is trying to rebuild the program to help kids, who may not have role models, learn career skills.

Responding to what author Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow,” A Village has worked closely with the Albany Police Department on crime-related issues and has joined with the NAACP to resist the ways felons, elderly, disabled and minority citizens are increasingly disenfranchised from the voting process. Perhaps the group’s most ambitious project yet is a partnership with UAlbany’s Albany Promise and the Albany Family Education Alliance to enact some of the community rehabilitation projects that Geoffery Canada pioneered in Harlem. On top of all this, White has been an active voice in the Occupy Albany movement.

“What inspires me about the organization is that we’re made up of a bunch of ordinary people,” White says. “We want the community to feel like, if they put their blood, sweat and tears into it, they own it, so they’ll want to see it prosper and move forward. In the words of the African proverb, ‘It takes a village.’”

 

Amy Klein

The executive director of Capital District Community Gardens, Amy Klein, provides access to free and low-cost produce that reaches more than 40,000 people in the Albany, Troy, Schenectady and Rensselaer regions.

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

“I’m one of the fortunate people that can hop in my car and go to Price Chopper or a farmer’s market and access fresh, healthy food anytime I want,” says Klein. “When I see people who live in Arbor Hill, Hamilton Hill and Central Troy without important, nutritious foods, we wonder why obesity, heart disease and diabetes are rampant: They don’t have access to healthy food.”

CDCG’s urban beautification and horticultural mission started in 1975, but in the 17 years Klein has been executive director, she’s expanded the initiative outside the garden and into the streets and the classroom. She’s created an educational program for preschoolers and first graders, called the Taste Good series, that teaches the importance of what nourished eating can do for a growing body. Additionally, Klein reaches out to an older demographic with the Produce Project, which brings at-risk teenagers together with local farmers, chefs and entrepreneurs to learn practical life skills.

Her most well-known fixture out of CDCG is the Veggie Mobile. It’s hard to miss the leafy-green truck as it crisscrosses the Capital Region daily. The Veggie Mobile is a “produce aisle on wheels” that delivers inexpensive fruits and, yes, veggies, to assisted-living homes and public housing projects.

“What makes me feel good about the work we’re doing as an organization is when I see people that we’re helping in the community that we’re impacting on the Veggie Mobile; they’re visibly healthier because they’re eating food that’s good for them,” she says.

Winter might seem like a relaxing hiatus for Klein, as most gardens are blanketed in snow and ice, but there’s “definitely no down time,” she insists. It was only last Monday that CDCG, in partnership with Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Services, launched the project Veggie RX, which tracks the health of 50 individuals who have been diagnosed as vulnerable to diseases as a result of poor eating; they receive free vouchers to the Veggie Mobile weekly.

“Essentially, they’re getting prescriptions for vegetables and we’re going to see the outcomes for those ‘prescriptions.’ It’s a focus on prevention but, in its basic form,” says Klein of her work at CDCG, “we give people access to healthy food in order to live healthy lives.”