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LOCAL HEROES
Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

John Whipple

Scott Ritter

Scott Ritter, 41, Delmar, former Marine Corps Intelligence officer who served as chief weapons inspector with the United States Special Commission in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. Ritter has been a vehement critic of President George W. Bush’s ominous march toward war.

Scott Ritter just won’t shut up. He just won’t let the war in Iraq happen. He has been seen almost everywhere—The Today Show, CNN’s Talk Back Live, Crossfire, the O’Reilly Factor, CSPAN and MSNBC. His interviews have been popping up in newspapers around the world: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde. He has been called a traitor and a spy for Israel, has been accused of taking bribe money from the Iraqi government, and a case has been opened against his wife as being a KGB spy. But none of this can silence him from speaking out against a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“I do this because this is the death of America,” says Ritter. “We are presiding over the death of the United States, and it is not something that I want to participate in. I want to preside over the life of America.”

The 6-foot-4-inch ex-marine, Gulf War veteran and former United Nations weapons inspector has been one of the loudest voices opposing a possible war with Iraq. Ritter says that President George W. Bush has been using weapon inspections as a mask to further his own agenda, which, he adds, is to drive Saddam Hussein out of power and to take control of the Middle East. “Iraq is a case study for neoconservatism new unilateral global domination,” he says.

As chief weapons inspector with the United States Special Commission in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, Ritter’s job was to track down weapons of mass destruction. Ritter contends that even back then, the United States had the same ulterior motive for being in Iraq, and this latest call to war is just an extension of that mission.

“Government officials have been stating as fact that Iraq has reconstituted its program, that Iraq is in possession of biological weapons and that Iraq is working hard on a nuclear program, but they have not given us any proof,” says Ritter. “The situation is not reflective of the facts as I know them to exist. Therefore, I think it is necessary for me to speak out and put the facts that I am aware of on the table so that people can consider a whole range of information in determining whether or not our nation should go to war.”

Ritter says that although having United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq now is a positive sign, it doesn’t necessary mean that the threat of war is over.

“I take a look at what is happening, and I realize that if I don’t do something then I am not doing my part as an American citizen,” says Ritter. “I feel strongly about what my country stands for, and I am not going to stand by idly while people hijack my children’s future furthering their own political future.”


Teri Currie

Shokriea Yaghi

Shokriea Yaghi, Albany, member of Women Against War and fund-raiser for Arab-American families whose fathers have been detained by the FBI since Sept. 11, 2001. Yaghi’s own husband was detained and deported back to Jordan in June.

In October 2001, when someone called the police and complained that Ali Mounnes Yaghi had made anti-American remarks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he was detained by the FBI. Shokriea Yaghi assumed her husband would be released within a couple of days—but as days, weeks and then months passed, it became clear that he wouldn’t be allowed to come home at all. In fact, her worst fear came true on June 24 of this year when Ali was deported to Jordan on an immigration violation and told that he could not return to the United States. Yaghi, who is an American citizen, said that she had two choices for herself and her family: She could either allow the situation to drive her from her adopted homeland, or she could use it to educate others about the mistreatment of Arab-Americans since Sept. 11.

“If I did nothing and packed up and moved to Jordan, I would be admitting that my husband did something wrong,” she says. “I chose to stay and help educate people about Islam and the Middle East. I feel it’s my duty for my children, and my responsibility to my husband, to try to make a difference so that the future will be a better and safer place for them.”

Since her husband’s arrest and deportation, life has not been easy for Yaghi. Overnight she became a single mother to three boys, ages 9, 7 and 5, and has had to find a way to provide for her family. Even still, she has managed to use her struggle to help other women in the same situation.

“You know, in many ways I don’t have it so bad,” she says. “Many of these other women can’t read or write in English, many of them are here illegally, therefore can’t find a job, and were completely dependent upon their husbands for everything. I try to help them by going to area mosques and raising money for these families.”

In fact, just last month Yaghi organized a toy drive at the Islamic Center of the Capital District in Schenectady with the local peace organization Women Against War. The two groups collected toys for families that cannot afford to buy their children gifts for the Muslim holiday Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan.

“People associate us with bin Laden,” she says. “What many don’t understand is that people risk their lives to come to this country for a better life—many of these people didn’t come here to commit crimes. I hope I can get that message out so people will have a different understanding that many of these men being detained are not criminals.”


Joe Putrock

Yusuf Abdul-Wasi

Yusuf Abdul-Wasi, 53, Albany, gang-prevention director at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany. He targets at-risk youth in Albany’s inner-city neighborhoods, and tries to get them involved in activities that take them outside the often- constricting worlds they live in.

Street life and gang violence are not new concepts for Yusuf Abdul-Wasi. As a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, he was a member of a notorious gang called the Marcy Chaplins. But it was his experience in the Vietnam War, he says, that prepared him most for the work he does today.

“I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from all that was going on around me while serving in the war,” explains Abdul-Wasi. “And I see that many of these kids suffer from the same symptoms. They have witnessed people being shot, police calls throughout the neighborhood, fatherlessness and abused mothers. These are the kids that are likely to join gangs.”

Abdul-Wasi targets the blocks where violence is the highest. He said the challenge is to get them to come in to the Boys and Girls Clubs, get involved in the programs, and stay off the streets.

“We want to get them to start thinking outside of the box,” he says. “We try to show kids that they have other options than joining a gang, becoming a basketball star or rap singer.”

Part of his approach is to take the youths on road trips to various universities in New York state. He also takes them to job fairs, and on camping, fishing, hiking, and skiing excursions.

“Kids don’t get enough exposure, especially to the outdoors, and there is a spiritual connection in that,” he says. “But even if they just gain an appreciation for a front stoop with plants on it, or they realize that there is so much more than the corner of Lark and Orange Streets, that is more than what they have now.”

A connection with nature is something that Abdul-Wasi takes very seriously. As a member of the Environmental Awareness Network for Diversity and Conservation, he encourages black and Hispanic youths to pursue careers working for the environment. This, he said, will only help combat environmental racism in inner-city neighborhoods. Just last year, nine kids from the center were granted a five-day stay at the Syracuse College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where they learned about environmental science.

“If more African-Americans become forest rangers, landscape architects or environmental biologists,” he says, “then they will demand that more trees get planted and more parks get built. They will put a stop to inner-city neighborhoods becoming a dumping ground for toxic sites, and demand that brownfields get cleaned up.”


Leif Zurmuhlen

Nadya Lawson

Nadya Lawson, 35, Albany, copresident of the women’s foundation Holding Our Own, and a member of In Our Own Voices, an Albany-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization.

The number of issues Nadya Lawson is actively involved in—racism; sexism; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; homophobia; war and peace—are so wide-ranging that one might wonder how she could find time to be passionate about them all. But, time and again, she has shown a rational and realistic approach to organizing and leading on important progressive causes.

Looking back, Lawson explains that activism has always been a part of her life. When she was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, social activism was an ever-present legacy of the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. To her, it was an integral part of being an African-American.

“It was an expectation that my teachers had,” she remembers, “and the women and the people in my church had. So I was always involved in something.”

First, there were youth groups in her church and high school. Through her undergraduate (and postgraduate) tenure with the New York Public Interest Research Group—where she was actively involved with a variety of issues, including attempts to prod the New York state comptroller’s office into divesting its investments in South Africa—Lawson’s interest and commitment continued. Though Lawson enrolled in the graduate English program at UAlbany, she still found time to work with progressive groups and be active in student politics. She ended up leaving graduate school without a degree: “I’ve got 60 credits, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back,” she laughs, adding that “it’s a badge of honor, really.”

Also while at graduate school, Lawson became involved with a group for people of color called SABil, which stands for Sisters and Brothers in the Life. Remembering that time, she says that “I came out somewhere in there.”

These days, Lawson can be found at her main job, working with In Our Own Voices, an Albany-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization. This is a health-and-wellness program, she explains, “with the idea of making the connection between racism and homophobia and how people access health care and human services.” She is also still active with the Dismantling Racism Project: “We’re conceived specifically to work with activist organizations which want to deal with racism,” Lawson says.

Lawson is copresident of Holding Our Own, which, she explains, “is a women’s foundation that gives money for feminist programs for women and girls.” This year, they’ve turned their focus toward violence: “We’re trying to broaden the perspective of what is considered violence against women.”

As if that weren’t enough, Lawson has been active in the post-9/11 peace movement. She recently took part in Women’s Fast for Peace, sponsored by the Capital Region’s Women Against War. As she says, “it’s always been something. It’s either been student organizing, or feminist organizing, or lesbian and gay people of color, but everything that I’ve tried to do has tried to make the connections between oppressions.”


Leif Zurmuhlen

Maude Baum

Maude Baum, 50-something, Albany, cofounder and artistic director of eba, the umbrella organization for five programs: eba Dance Theatre, the eba Theater, Maude Baum and Company Dance Theatre, eba Center for Dance and Movement, and Kids Dancespace @ eba.

“Eba is a fluke,” says Maude Baum. The organization, which began in 1972 as Electronic Body Arts, was founded by a bunch of diverse artists who simply wanted to work together. “That’s kind of where eba came from,” says Baum, “as a place for people who really wanted to explore how things could interact, how the different art forms could interact. Just as importantly, how they could maintain their integrity when they were balanced with other art forms.” Over the years, though, this “fluke” has become an inclusive—and intense—community of artists and teachers.

What began as a company that performed multimedia concerts throughout the Capital Region has grown into an organization with five programs. Not just a dancer-choreographer-teacher, Baum—who has been at the helm since day one—has worked tirelessly for arts-in-education. Eba Dance Theatre, the organization’s arts-in-education program (eba, in this instance, stands for Everything but Anchovies), allows area schoolteachers to collaborate with eba teachers and artists on curriculum-based creative learning activities.

“It was really a development of the work that I’d been doing on my own prior to starting eba,” Baum says of the arts-in-education program. “I opened my first school of creative dance in 1962, and then went on to college and graduate school, then started teaching at the University of Albany. So . . . when we started eba, it seemed totally appropriate to have arts-in-education in our mission.”

Baum is critical of the compartmentalized nature of education in the United States: “For kids who don’t make connections easily, it’s a very difficult way to learn,” she says. “And one of the things that our arts-in-education has always tried to do is link all of the areas of the curriculum together through the arts. I think that the arts teach people things that they would use in every aspect of their lives, for the rest of their lives, even though they don’t know where it came from—they’ll still have it and it’s part of who they are.”

Baum’s arts-in-education philosophy is pretty simple: “Let the kids do it. Give them structure and the opportunity and what they need to be able to do it and then let them. And it might never become what I envisioned it to become, it might go in a completely different direction, but if they’re learning what they need to learn, it really doesn’t matter. If I stick to what I want them to do, oftentimes it’s a horrible experience for them, which means they haven’t learned. So give them what they need and let them go.”

Asked how long she plans to continue all this, Baum states, “Till they bring me out on a stretcher or find me on the stage with my last gasp. I don’t see why there needs to be an end.”


Shannon DeCelle

Jeanne Casatelli

Jeanne Casatelli, baby boomer, East Greenbush, founding member of Community Action Network. Casatelli has relentlessly fought to keep sprawl from destroying the natural and historic beauty of her community.

Jeanne Casatelli isn’t opposed to development—she just doesn’t correlate progress with sacrificing a community’s historic or environmental character for more jobs and a bigger tax base. But that mindset is one that Casatelli often encounters in her fight against sprawl—a battle she has waged with developers and local governments for the past 20 years.

Casatelli most recently embroiled officials from Nigro Developers Inc. in a battle to save the 164-year-old Defreest-Church House, on Route 4 in East Greenbush, from being razed. The historic building was one of the town’s oldest, and offered a direct link to the area’s Dutch heritage, but was to be demolished to make room for a 125,000-square-foot Target retail store. The house had recently been renovated to the tune of $1 million and was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, says Casatelli, but she could not convince Target officials to save it. Casatelli and others had to be restrained by police as developers demolished the house on Nov. 7.

“We hope that will be the last stupid thing to happen in this county,” says Casatelli. “It’s the Joni Mitchell song: They paved a legacy and put up a parking lot. But we don’t want this to be a bitter memory. We want it to be a lesson learned.”

Casatelli learned from teachers early in life, and from a number of years spent in Boston, that a city could use its heritage as an asset. In Boston, she witnessed the conversion of the Faneuil Hall, or Quincy Market, from a run-down building into Boston’s downtown tourist destination. Upon returning to East Greenbush, Casatelli became a member of various groups pushing developers and officials in local government to make use of her community’s existing assets.

“There is the nightmare . . . where all we’ll have is a nondescript landscape distinguished by huge roads connecting big boxes,” Casatelli says. “The only way you’ll know you’re in a new town is when the franchise signs start to repeat themselves.”

Among her more visible battles, Casatelli tried to keep Crossgates Mall from smothering the Pine Bush, and continues to work for a “people-friendly” downtown in East Greenbush despite the widening of Routes 9 and 20. Many of Casatelli’s crusades against sprawl have not been successful, but she hopes that she’s setting an example for generations to come.

“You grow up being taught you can’t change city hall, you go along to get along,” Casatelli says. “But we need to try and raise the bar, and enlighten officials, and make people understand that if you don’t care about where you live, no one else will.”


Leif Zurmuhlen

Michael Kink

Michael Kink, 40, Albany, legislative counsel for Housing Works, New York state’s leading AIDS advocacy group. Kink leads the crusade for funding and rights for disenfranchised communities living with HIV/AIDS.

You could say that Michael Kink has been immersed in social activism his whole life. As a young boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he says, his parents were always involved in some type of protest. “I can remember Earth Day 1971,” Kink says. “I was out in the street with a bunch of signs. That was my first protest.”

When Kink went off to college at Brown University, he quickly got involved on campus, protesting for financial-aid benefits for all students. It was no surprise to anyone when he decided to go to New York University Law School to study poverty law. Today, he’s still out there leading the fight for the underdog. As legislative counsel for Housing Works, New York state’s leading AIDS-services organization, Kink can been seen every day that the Legislature is in session, briefcase in hand, walking the halls of the Capitol. He has gained a reputation as one of the most tireless activists in Albany lobbying for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in New York state.

Anytime there is a budget cut to AIDS programs, Kink gets on the horn, rallying up the troops to come to Albany to give testimony to how “AIDS cuts kill.”

“The most important thing that we do is bring homeless people or formerly homeless people living with HIV or AIDS to the Legislature to tell their story,” says Kink. “I don’t mind being the briefcase- carrying Ivy League graduate—I can talk all day long about needed programs. However, it is much more effective to have the guy with AIDS who just got out of prison two weeks ago tell his story . . . how he doesn’t have a prescription for his meds and how he doesn’t have an apartment with food to eat in order to take his meds.”

Kink says that giving others the opportunity to speak about how AIDS/HIV has affected their lives is the key to his lobby strategy.

“We help people get ready to do that,” he says. “We reach and advocate for the population that nobody wants to go near, the drug addicts, the homeless, the prostitutes, those with mental illness living with HIV or AIDS.”

Proudly, Kink also talks about last year’s AIDS rally in Albany, where a record-breaking 500 people charged the steps of the Capitol demanding more resources for communities of color living with the disease. The result was an increase in AIDS funding directed to communities of color, the first in more than 10 years.

“A lot of what we do is put the pressure on from the outside,” says Kink. “This really pushes forward the agenda.”


Joe Putrock

Rocky Nigro

Rocky Nigro, 92, Albany, proprietor of the Palais Royale Grille. Presiding over one of Albany’s favorite late-night haunts, Nigro plays host to senators, hipsters and housewives alike.

Enter the Palais Royale on any given post-midnight jaunt, and it’ll likely be humming with an assortment of people in varying degrees of inebriation, relaxation and interaction. Habituated by the college set, legislators, neighbors and, hell, any possible category of human life, the Palais is a place to kick back, relax and let your freak flag fly. Breast mugs, donkey decanters and Buddha statues sit on shelves behind the bar; family portraits adorn the walls and beach-ball-size Christmas ornaments dangle from the ceiling.

For entertainment, one can choose bowling or Dolly Parton pinball, or select a 45 from one (or both, for that matter) of the bar’s two jukeboxes. There’s plenty to choose from: Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Dean Martin, Petula Clark and Frank Sinatra join some of the (relatively) newer artists such as Jefferson Airplane, David Lee Roth and the Doors. For food, there’s Jiffy Pop made fresh, a huge jar of sausages brewing in some sort of brine and assorted snacks of the Andy Capp and Frito’s variety.

“Who the hell cares?” you ask. Everyone who habituates the place. It’s a phenomenon—a rare one at that—achieved organically and unselfconsciously. The force behind the force is Rocky Nigro.

Nigro has seen a many a shift in clientele over the years (though he hasn’t touched the décor much since the ’60s), and it wasn’t until 15 years ago, he says, that the place became popular with the kids. The current location of the establishment is the second incarnation, as the first Palais sat on the current site of the New York State Museum and was razed along with many other homes and businesses to make way for the Empire State Plaza. Not only did Nigro lose his place; he lost all of his customers when the Italian population that lived there migrated to other areas of town. “It was very sad for me when all those people moved away,” Nigro remembers. Prior to that, the Palais had been a neighborhood place where people brought their families to play cards, throw darts and watch a ball game.

Nigro actually wanted to be an architect, and had pinned his hopes on attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute following his graduation from Albany High School. Yet his entrepreneurial father—who worked for the railroad after immigrating from Italy, and would never again work for another person—had financial problems at that time (he later went on to own a variety of real estate and begin one of Albany’s first cab companies). Nigro went to work with his dad (whom he claims taught him a mother lode of information), eventually letting go of his dreams of architecture to become versed in the hotel, food and bar business.

The present Palais Royale is the last of his family’s businesses still standing, and its proponents cross all their fingers to see that it continues in the same vein. “They all love it here,” Nigro laughs bewilderedly. “I don’t know why. It feels good in here. . . . To me, it’s like home.” Nigro has few regrets: “I’ve had a great life. I’ve met a lot of people. I loved every bit of it.”


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