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Local Heroes

Heroism takes many forms. It’s easy to recognize in its most dramatic forms, when people sacrifice or risk their lives or safety for a good cause. But it also involves the tireless everyday work of people who sacrifice their time, energy, comfort, and sometimes peace of mind to do good for others or for the planet, to come face-to-face with hard truths, or to disrupt an established way of doing things that is past due for some shaking up. All of Metroland’s 2006 local heroes do this in one way or another, whether it is providing health care to the poor, speaking out against religious prejudice, prodding a stubborn City Hall to serve its constituents, or bringing the love to an after-school program. We also cite three small organizations this year, whose members work innovatively and often tirelessly to promote independent media, improve the local arts scene, and offer sustainable and human-scale alternatives to economic problems.

We salute their energy and their vision.

 

Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

 

Corey Ellis

Corey Ellis, Albany, freshmen Common Councilman and community activist who is fighting for Albany’s neglected neighborhoods.

 

Corey Ellis says he isn’t a hero. Standing in front of Albany City Hall to have his picture taken, Ellis is a bit distracted, maybe a little uncomfortable. And he offers a few suggestions of people who are more deserving of the designation than he deems himself.

Despite his protest, Ellis has certainly been acting like a hero as of late. He has taken his upbringing, which grounded him in the importance of his community, into his first year as a common councilman. Ellis has been unwavering in his insistence that the council should serve its constituents and not City Hall. He has ruffled some feathers, but according to Ellis, the first year has only been a warm-up. He plans on introducing legislation this year to deal with abandoned buildings, getting streets paved in the city’s worst-off areas, establishing Little League in Arbor Hill and creating a public-access television channel for Albany.

Ellis insists that council members need to take back their power as a legislative body and stop waiting for the mayor’s office to tell them what to approve.

Despite his obligations to the council, Ellis has remained directly involved in the community, knocking on doors, holding community meetings, and mentoring kids as part of the district attorney’s Bring it to the Courts program. Ellis insists that his mission as a councilman is to re-establish the sense of community in his hometown.

“Right now, people feel as if their community has been left behind and no one cares,” he says. “We have enough good things going on that if we do it the right way and let them know what is really happening, we will see that things are starting to turn around in Arbor Hill. It’s more than just a couple of buildings going up. We can build as many buildings as we want, but people don’t feel ownership of the community. Until we give them a sense of community, the number of crimes will not stop, the number of complaints won’t stop. Community ownership, feeling a part of what goes on in everyday life—from seeing sidewalks paved, to getting street signs to go up in their community, to having a relationship with the police department and being active with the city council and mayor’s office—once that happens, that’s when the community begins to change. That’s when the community will say, ‘People are listening to us and are taking our suggestions and paying attention to what we need.’ That’s what it takes to start saving our neighborhood.”

 

 

Tony Butler

Tony Butler, Rensselaer, developer and instructor of after-school karate programs for children, which are designed to teach kids more than kicking and punching.

 

‘Some people live into their golden years and never find what they’re really here for,” says Tony Butler. “What purpose did God give you? I’ve been blessed to find mine at a little earlier age. I feel that I’ve been put here to serve and to work with young people, to help them grow, to be better young people. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me motivated.”

Butler, 58, has taught karate—as both an art and a way of life—to children in the Capital Region for nearly three decades. Working through the American Institute of Japanese Karate and Albany Recreation Department, Butler developed several nonprofit after-school karate programs for kids as young as 4.

“I found, at a very young age, that the martial arts is something special that could be used in our education system because the art teaches respect, teaches discipline, teaches self-esteem,” Butler says. “It’s not just about kick and punch. It’s about listening, education, structure, confidence.”

It’s also about teaching children to honor their parents, to commit to their education—Butler continually monitors students’ academic performance—and not to fear failure.

Butler’s largest and most successful program, currently with about 90 participants, has been at Albany School of Humanities for 15 years. When John D’Antonio, commissioner of Albany’s recreation department, approached Butler about creating a first-of-its-kind karate program for the city, Butler used the ASH model to develop programs at Albany’s community centers. After six years of existence, program participation has grown to about 300.

Butler’s programs are highly structured and disciplined, yet infused with love. He’s quick to scold, but he’s also warmhearted, and he jumps at the opportunity to praise students’ accomplishments.

“You have got to be able to give a hug,” Butler says. “Some of these kids don’t get hugs or a, ‘That a boy,’ or, ‘That a girl.’ They thirst for that.”

The passion Butler feels for teaching and for his students is evident in the way he smiles widely and speaks excitedly about his karate programs. It’s genuine fervor that’s untainted by profit. For nearly 30 years, Butler has worked nights for Amtrak to feed and educate his three daughters, all now in their 30s.

“I teach the art for my heart, not for my pocketbook,” he says. “When it comes to teaching martial arts, this is a gift that God has given me to go out and give the youth of our country. That’s the way I’ve always done it. That’s the way I intend to do it until the day I die. . . . I’m not going to put a dollar value on my love and what my martial arts mean to me.”

 

The E.F. Schumacher Society

The E.F. Schumacher Society, South Egremont, Mass., studies and creates alternative economic models that are community-based, human-scale and environmentally respectful, in the spirit of the society’s namesake, who wrote Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

‘Study how a society uses its land,” wrote Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, “and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be.” Schumacher was a German-born economist and thinker who wrote extensively on land use, decentralization and sustainable communities, and how modern economic theory tended to leave human beings, communities and nature out of its profit- and growth-driven equations. His writings and “Buddhist economics” gained him a loyal following, and after his death in 1977, several of his friends and colleagues founded the E.F. Schumacher Society to keep his ideas alive—and put them into practice.

Besides presenting lectures and educational seminars, and offering researchers the use of its library (complete with Schumacher’s personal archives), the organization researches and develops projects that turn conventional economic theories upside-down and show communities innovative ways to sustain and strengthen themselves. Among the society’s projects: support for a local community land trust, which protects land from the speculative real-estate market; a microcredit program in which citizens help collateralize loans to small local businesses; and, most recently, BerkShares, a regional currency designed to promote buying locally.

“It takes a village to support an organic farmer . . . and a hundred local restaurants,” says executive director Susan Witt (pictured), referring to a statistic she heard that there are a hundred or so restaurants in southern Berkshire County—only four of which are chain.

Witt answers a land-use question by describing one of her favorite places in the world: Lake Baikal in Siberia, the world’s deepest lake, around which the Buryat people, shepherds, have lived for centuries, moving their herds around and keeping the land unspoiled. “There was no private ownership. Today there is private ownership moving across Russia. What would occur if lake frontage of the world’s deepest, most extraordinary lake were divided up into little plots? It would be so tempting to sell these plots to the highest bidder.”

Asked how the mainstream views the society, Witt first relates how a Great Barrington deli owner came to them in 1991 looking for a microcredit loan because banks wouldn’t finance his relocation. Instead, he was offered a more innovative solution: Raise the money himself by offering discounted “deli dollars” to loyal customers. It worked, and the media coverage was positive—except that it offered no context on the theoretical underpinnings of the idea. “Our role wasn’t even covered,” laughs Witt. “It was ‘Local deli owner does good by using yankee ingenuity.’ ”

But the times are changing, and the national zeitgeist may be bending toward ideas like Schumacher’s. “We looked like a curiosity in the beginning,” says Witt. “But the obvious problems that have developed with the global economy . . . have turned more and more people into the recognition of the importance of supporting local economies. So they come back to the Schumacher Society and say, ‘Haven’t you been working on this for 25 years?’ Seemingly marginal ideas have taken on more relevance in mainstream thinking.”

 

Upstate Artists Guild

Upstate Artists Guild, Albany, is a Capital Region artists collective that organized the 1st Friday Art Openings.

‘Renaissance” is the word Michael Weidrich uses to describe what’s been going on in the Albany arts scene recently. Weidrich is a board member of the Upstate Artists Guild, a new-ish collective of artists who not only want to see the arts scene thrive in Albany, but see that artists feel like they have a supportive home here.

Upstate Artists Guild formed officially when its members moved into their gallery space on Lark Street, just in time for Lark Fest in 2005. Before that, the collective was based at 4 Central Ave., where they called themselves Art 4 Central.

One of the most tangible ways UAG has been able to facilitate a welcoming environment for local artists is by initiating the 1st Friday Art Openings, an event where area galleries unite to celebrate the opening of new exhibits on the first Friday of each month. 1st Friday is not a new concept: a number of other cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and New York City, have been holding similar events for years.

“Earlier this year we kind of kicked around the idea,” Weidrich explained, “because a lot of us had been to other cities where they have a 1st Friday type of event. It was a just a matter of getting in touch with other galleries and seeing if it was even possible to have that kind of event between the Albany galleries.”

Weidrich, who is also the director of the Romaine Brooks Gallery on Hudson Avenue in Albany, began contacting other galleries to see who would want to be involved in such an event. The inaugural 1st Friday, in September of this year, involved three galleries—Upstate Artists Guild, Romaine Brooks, and another Hudson Avenue gallery, Amrose + Sable (the three galleries now at the center of 1st Friday). Participation and attendance have grown exponentially since then: 11 galleries were involved in the December 1st Friday (including Albany Center Galleries), and attendance has grown from about 200 in September to about 600 at the December event.

By February, the Albany Institute of History and Art will participate in 1st Friday. UAG is currently in discussions to get the New York State Museum involved, as well as trying to negotiate for Albany Trolleys to cart people around during 1st Friday events.

 

May Saffar

May Saffar, Clifton Park, is a cofounder of the Muslim Defense Committee, which is holding weekly vigils to show support for Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref.

 

Every phone call to her parents’ home in Baghdad is an invocation of three miracles. If the phone rings, it is a miracle. The infrastructure of Baghdad is on life-support.

If one of her parents answers, May Saffar says, it is a second miracle. She lives in constant dread that something terrible has happened to her mother or father.

The third miracle is being told that everyone she cares about is alive; and sometimes, she is not allowed that grace. Recently, her uncle was shot and killed while buying bread. Her parents, who had fled to Syria for the month of Ramadan, now are torn as to whether or not to return to their home, their cars, their possessions, their country.

“I was for the war, originally,” Saffar says, “and I remember prior to the breakout of the war, I made a statement that I would rather stay away from politics. And look at me now. This is all I do. Politics is all my life.”

No fan of Saddam Hussein, Saffar, who was born and raised in Baghdad, had hoped that the U.S. invasion would sweep away the oppressive regime, replacing it with democracy and the Western ideals she values. Then the photos from Abu Ghraib became public.

“I immediately changed my mind and that was it,” Saffar says. “I try to be flexible and keep an open mind. But every time I fall into that denial stage, something else happens and proves me wrong. You have to stick with peace activism. Pro-war is not going to work.”

Saffar, an English as a Second Language teacher in the Albany School District, first became involved with activists at the invitation of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. From there, requests to speak extended to other groups: Saratoga Peace Group, League of Women Voters, and so on.

“At this point,” she says. “I can’t keep track of all these groups.”

But it was during the highly contentious terrorism trial of Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref that Saffar found her voice and drew our attention (“Prosecution or Persecution?” Sept. 28). Siding with the many people who felt that the government’s case was flawed, she identified deeply with Aref, a fellow Iraqi, and through his case found a way to fight against hostilities directed toward Muslims.

She became involved early on in the case, lending her knowledge of Arabic to the defense, initiating a fund to support Aref’s family, and visiting the imam in jail. After Aref and Hossain were convicted, Saffer started the Muslim Defense Committee, which has been holding weekly vigils outside the federal courthouse.

“How long are we going to be treated like unwanted guests?” Saffar asks of her fellow Muslims. “It is a bitter feeling. And if I don’t do something about it, who will?”

 

 

The Sanctuary for Independent Media

The Sanctuary for Independent Media, Troy, both practices and facilitates citizen-based independent media with its regular events and workshops.

 

The independent-media movement is about exchanging ideas outside of the mainstream corporate (and public) delivery systems, and involving the community in the creation and presentation of what the mainstream media might call “the product.” And, right here in an old church in North Troy, the folks at the Sanctuary for Independent Media are at the cutting edge of that movement.

In just the last three months of 2006, the Sanctuary for Independent Media presented films about the plight of “witches” in Ghana, war in Iraq, cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli fishermen in Gaza, arts-in-education programs in Sing Sing, and urban renewal in the Capital Region; lectures on U.S.-Iran relations by a former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, and independent media by Amy Goodman; and concerts featuring jazzer Billy Bang, porch-rockers the Kamikaze Hearts, and experimental composer Zevin Polzin.

When asked who does the booking, the Sanctuary’s Steve Pierce replies that it’s the “people who come to events.” Yes, Pierce makes many of the phone calls, but, he explains, “more than half” of the Sanctuary’s programming is suggested by members of the community.

It is also, increasingly, a matter of networking. Pierce explains that the Sanctuary has made contacts with other like-minded organizations in the Hudson Valley—notably, Time + Space Limited in Hudson—and Western New York, and each group lets the other know when an interesting band or filmmaker is going their way. (Both Branda Miller and Pierce refer to the folks at TSL as their heroes.)

“We’re looking at redefining the relationship between audiences and viewed media,” Miller adds. On any given evening’s presentation, there will be a meal before a lecture, or a Q & A with the filmmaker following a movie. It’s all about creating, Miller says, “a happening—a scene.”

More than that, Miller explains, is the Sanctuary’s mission to build audiences that are “actively engaged” in media production: “We want to plant a seed, to inspire local [film and video] production.”

Eventually, the Sanctuary is looking to host a broadcast and production facility, expand the media workshops, develop arts-in-education programs—and buy its church building.

“We feel really great,” Pierce says, “about being there.” And by that, he means both the building and North Troy.

 

 

Dr. Bob Paeglow

Dr. Bob Paeglow, Albany, is a doctor whose clinic in West Hill serves patients no matter what their ability to pay.

 

Dr. Bob Paeglow has been celebrated on a national scale. People magazine has deemed him a hero, and last Friday he appeared on Good Morning America. He has been heralded for his charity, and his resolve to provide health care to those who can’t afford it.

Paeglow’s practice in Albany’s West Hill provides health care to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Oddly, despite the amount of recognition he has received nationally, Paeglow’s work has not received the recognition or support one might expect from local authorities. But Paeglow does not mind—he is the kind of guy who knows what is right and gets it done no matter how daunting the task.

In 1990, at age 36, Paeglow, a father of four, decided to go to medical school. His wife’s career as a nurse gave Paeglow perspective on the suffering and struggles of those who cannot afford health care. “I was really going to develop a practice that would care for the poor,” says Paeglow. “That was always my primary motivation in going into medicine. My wife was a nurse, and she would get calls from people who didn’t have health insurance and so forth. So I really felt touched to go to medical school and get as much training I could get to provide as much help for people as I could.”

As a fourth-year student, Paeglow traveled to Mozambique in southern Africa just after the end of its civil war. “It was horrible in terms of conditions and the things I saw there, and really cemented my resolve.”

In 2002, Paeglow decided to start a clinic in the Albany neighborhood he grew up in, West Hill. “I wanted to make a practice where it didn’t matter if you didn’t have anything, where it didn’t matter what you had, what your skin color was, how smart you are. Just come and feel good and feel like you are an important, valuable part of the family clinic.”

Paeglow will celebrate his clinic’s five-year anniversary in a couple of months, and he knows he has been able to help a lot of people. But before things get truly better in West Hill and Arbor Hill, Paeglow says, “It’s going to take the community coming together and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ When we begin to rise up and we say this is not acceptable to us, things will change. But, you know, right now we had an election and the polling place is at my home, and less than 100 people voted. We don’t have any political clout! We’ve got to get people motivated and caring; otherwise we are going to get the bones anyone wants to throw us.”


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