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Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

“Hero” often refers to people who stick out, go above and beyond their peers in sticking their necks out, risking or excelling in some unusual way. They almost never act alone, but they soar above somehow. Metroland’s local heroes issues have for many years celebrated these kinds of heroes.

This year, however (perhaps as a backlash to go-it-alone cowboyism), we’re instead recognizing people who have worked with others—from two-person teams to group efforts of thousands. It takes a particular kind of heroism to both work for a dream and work in coalition, to take heroic measures and still be one in the crowd.

Underground arts entrepreneurs Chip Fasciana and Tommy Watkins and internationally known culture jammers the Yes Men and are teams, the former bringing art to Albany’s abandoned spaces, the latter bringing double-takes and humor into the greatest bastions of corporate and media doublespeak.

The Rev. Sam Trumbore has gotten a lot of deserved attention for his role officiating marriages for two same-sex couples, and declaring them legally binding, this spring. But he couldn’t have done it without the couples themselves, who made the decision to open a truly personal moment to the world for the greater good.

This year also saw many impressive gatherings in our region that remind us what it looks like when movements are born. The outraged members of Save the Ballet forced open the closed, highly questionable dealings behind the doors of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The dynamic group of people who came together around Chris D’Alessandro and David Soares—themselves a team in many ways—and made themselves a political force to be reckoned with. And the largest group of all, the swing-state volunteers, whose lack of sleep, worn-out shoes, and persistent faith may well have turned the tide in key states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Working with others is rarely easy. But doing it well may be the most important thing we can do.

 

The Yes Men

The art-and-activism outfit the Yes Men must have an extensive team of mischievous elves working around the clock for them, to get done what they get done. Or, rather, what they get undone. “Mike Bonnano” and “Andy Bichlbaum” (otherwise known as RPI professor Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin, respectively)—and their unnamed compatriots—stage actions designed to expose the extent to which corporate interests and government have worked hand-in-glove, with rapacious zeal, to pursue profit over public good and to avoid all accountability for the destruction along the way.

Most recently, the Yes Men stirred up controversy when Servin was invited—via a phony Web site established by the Yes Men, DowEthics.com—to speak on BBC World Television about the chemical company’s stance on the 1984 Bhopal chemical spill at Union Carbide factory. (Union Carbide is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow.) Servin, as “Jude Finisterra,” took the offer and appeared, claiming that after 20 years of negligence, Dow was finally willing to own up and remediate the results of the disaster that killed thousands (the lingering contamination of which is estimated to claim a life a day in Bhopal still). Within hours, the fake story was Google’s top news hit.

Dow, of course, denied that it would take such action, and the Yes Men helped them along that path by issuing a retraction on behalf of the company: “Dow will NOT commit any funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care. . . . Dow’s sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.” This phony—though true enough in spirit—retraction also topped Internet news lists, generating active discussion and debate about a disaster that has been mostly ignored for two decades.

The group has tackled other sneaky entities, such as the World Trade Organization (as illustrated in the recent documentary The Yes Men), and punk’d such sketchy string-pullers as the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. (Remember the news item that claimed the foundation had advanced Ed Meese as a more appealingly right-wing presidential candidate for 2004? Yep. The Yes Men were behind that one, too.)

Pundits—including some local scolds—have tsk-tsked schoolmarmishly about the irreverent manner in which the Yes Men have pursued their agenda, claiming that such high-jinks do no actual good and may, in fact, cause harm by inflating expectations or giving false hope to victims of corporate greed—as if the greatest tragedy facing the victims of capitalism’s inhuman appetite is disappointment. Point is, nincompoops, Bhopal’s been out of the headlines for 20 years; now, it’s back. You wouldn’t have wasted your column inches on a decades-old issue if the Yes Men hadn’t given you a timely hook and the opportunity to soapbox while calling them egomaniacs, now would you? So, we applaud the Yes Men for bringing this—and other such examples of ongoing corporate and/or governmental malfeasance—to the fore, and for calling into question the accuracy and reliability of the news media that pitch this falsity so confidently. It’s important to be reminded from time to time not to eat everything you’re fed.

Save the Ballet

Save the Ballet, a group of concerned arts boosters and local business owners, was organized in response to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s attempted termination of the annual residency of the New York City Ballet. They are an excellent example of something fine and rare: grassroots organizing in the arts.

It’s safe to say that neither the Saratoga Performing Arts Center board, nor the organization’s long-serving president Herbert Chesbrough, had any idea of the controversy that would follow when SPAC announced on Feb. 13 that the New York City Ballet’s annual summer residency would be canceled after the 2004 season. The news hit the local arts community like an earthquake, however. The SPAC amphitheater, after all, had been designed and built (nearly 40 years ago) with the ballet in mind. The ballet had become as much a part of summer in Saratoga as horses and fancy hats, and its economic impact on downtown was significant.

Within days, ballet supporters began circulating petitions to keep the NYCB at SPAC. John and Janice DeMarco, owners of the Lyrical Ballad bookstore, started one; so did Saratoga Springs resident Lisa Mehigan, who set hers up online. Within weeks, “Save the Ballet” signs began appearing in the windows of businesses in downtown Saratoga Springs, as an ad hoc Save the Ballet Committee was formed (and quickly endorsed by Saratoga mayor Michael Lenz). By March 15, committee member (and Saratoga County Arts Council executive director) Dee Sarno reported that $90,000 in pledges had been collected from people who intended to buy tickets to the ballet.

Save the Ballet, which now included the DeMarcos, Sarno, Mehigan, Claire and Kathy Stancampiano, and Jennifer Leidig, incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and began a long summer of fund-raising and activism. They worked on attracting corporate support, and reached out to local politicians; their seriousness and dedication helped enlist the support of Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Assemblyman James Tedisco (R-Schenectady), as well as the participation of an initially disinterested Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.

Through the efforts of Bruno, the state offered a two-for-one matching grant to help fund the NYCB residency; it required SPAC to raise $600,000 by July 31, 2005. By early August, Save the Ballet had helped collect more than $400,000.Their activism kept up the pressure on SPAC, too, which responded to the mess they’d created by, among other things, hiring an Albany-based PR firm.

While still not thrilled with SPAC’s current management—“To say that SPAC is run like a circus is insulting to circuses everywhere”—Save the Ballet’s Jennifer Leidig is pleased with the direction events are moving. A recent audit by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation revealed that, among other things, the numbers SPAC offered as justifying the termination of the ballet were dramatically incorrect, and that the SPAC board was guilty of, at best, terrible mismanagement. Leidig says this has given the folks at Save the Ballet a true sense of vindication: “I was so happy for the community. This [the report] is what we’ve been screaming about from the beginning.”


photo: Shannon DeCelle

The Wedding Party

Bob Barnes and George Jurgsatis have been together for well over two decades, but they never believed they would be able to get married. “I personally never visualized having a wedding,” says Jurgsatis. “I never thought the day would come.” Last January they began to discuss going to Canada in the summer to get married, but figured it would be “a very civil thing, quick . . . not personal.”

Every time Lynne Lekakis and Elissa Kane went to a wedding for the past several years, they would discuss the parts they might incorporate if they ever had their own, and the parts they wouldn’t. They talked about getting married when it became legal.

For many years, the Rev. Sam Trumbore of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany has believed that it should be up to him to decide who he would marry, not the government.

When the San Francisco and New Paltz weddings started last spring, these five people came together to add Albany to the history-making gay-marriage map. Trumbore knew the moment had come when he heard that two of his UU colleagues, Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey, had been arrested for performing marriages in New Paltz. He considered joining the rotation of ministers in New Paltz, but decided he wanted to do it in Albany, and with people he had some connection to.

So Trumbore asked Lekakis and Kane, who were members of his congregation, and another congregation member who was friends with Barnes and Jurgsatis mentioned it to them. “We were very happy to do it here in the United States instead of having to run off to Canada,” said Jurgsatis.

Leaving aside the bit about having only two weeks to plan, most noncelebrities don’t dream of their weddings being an above-the-fold news story. “We’re behind the scenes sort of people,” says Lekakis as she recalls the decision to go forward.

At first “we thought it was going to be just a quiet church wedding,” says Jurgsatis. Then when they realized the media would be invited, adds Barnes, “we thought there would maybe be a radio station, a newspaper, maybe one TV station.” He chuckles. “We were surprised.”

As it turned out, the ceremony was “a perfect combination of political act and truly moving personal experience,” says Kane.

“I think we were a little self-conscious going into it, but when the actual ceremony was going it was very personal. . . . We totally lost track of the media being there,” says Jurgsatis.

The couples are in it for the long haul, having sued the state and county for a marriage license, a case they expect to head all the way to the Court of Appeals. But so far the experience has been more positive than they could have dreamed. Despite the publicity, practically none of the feared backlash or hate mail has manifested. Instead they’ve gotten presents, parties and congratulations from relatives, coworkers, and strangers in the grocery store, plus a lot of chances to talk with the less certain about why they feel equal marriage rights are important.

Trumbore is actually disappointed that he wasn’t arrested, “because that gets it more in the public eye, more attention on the couples.” But the experience has forged relationships between him and many gay rights organizations in the area, putting him more strongly in the middle of the fight. And the gratitude taught him just how significant a small act on the part of a straight person, who doesn’t “have to” stick his neck out, can be.

Kane agrees. The most wonderful surprise was the vociferous support of the FUUSA congregation, she says. “To have a group of older straight people leading the charge. . . . Never 20 years ago would I have believed it.”

Christian D’Alessandro

Chris D’Alessandro had two inspirations to become a police officer: Superman (this has been a lifelong goal) and Frank Serpico, who risked his life and career to expose corruption in the NYPD. His interest in Serpico may have been prophetic.

After working his way to the level of commander, and becoming in charge of the detective’s office, D’Alessandro began to raise concerns to his supervisors about problems he encountered with overtime, record-keeping, etc. Eventually, in May 2002, he was transferred to a different position, in what many see as retaliation. But from what he describes as a real low point, he was ‘reborn’ in his new position as North Station commander when he met up with community prosecutor David Soares and began walking the streets of Arbor Hill and figuring out how to take on-the-ground community policing to the next level. People who’d never trusted a police officer in their lives grew to trust D’Alessandro.

Then politics appeared to intervene, as informal word came to Soares and D’Alessandro that they were causing an imbalance of power where people no longer had to go to City Hall or their councilperson to get their needs met. Not long after, D’Alessandro was suspended and then, this January, fired, allegedly for involvement with a derogatory flyer.

He has been fighting to get his job back ever since, but also to encourage people to continue both the organizing work and the “light-shining” on the APD. Months after he was fired, he still showed up at neighborhood watch events in Arbor Hill to show support. And Serpico showed up at a legal fund-raiser for him, which moved D’Alessandro so much that “I could barely stand, almost couldn’t talk.”

David Soares

Less than a year ago, David Soares was talking to real-estate agents about selling his house. He was frustrated, nay furious, to see the support draining away from his Arbor Hill Community Prosecution initiative, tired of forming collaborative solutions that couldn’t move forward due to a lack of resources, incredulous at the sorts of politics that were intervening in a project that had received so much praise at the start. The loss of Christian D’Alessandro on the streets to work with side by side added insult to injury.

Then his wife Tina had a few words to say. She pointed out how happy the job had been making him—the creative solutions, community accountability board, collaborations with law enforcement, actual communication with residents—and asked if he would have let these guys push him around on the playground when he was young. Shortly afterward, Soares told his boss, Albany County District Attorney Paul Clyne, that he would be running for his position. Clyne fired him, and the rest is history.

We can’t call Soares a local hero for what he promises to do in the DA’s office—the proof will be in the pudding, which is in the future (though clearly we’re hopeful). But the courage to put one’s self forward on the ballot in this notoriously nasty local political climate is by itself an act that is democracy strengthening. So is taking on an issue, like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, that conventional wisdom says people don’t vote on.

Soares risked his job and ran himself ragged with an effort and a message that inspired hundreds of people to come together, forge new connections, and possibly launch a new movement. “He has lifted the human spirit and the aspirations of our community,” says campaign volunteer Bill Washburn.

. . . and the activists they inspired

Barbara Smith, a nationally known activist and author who has worked in many movements and for many causes, calls the response to Chris D’Alessandro’s firing and David Soares’ campaign “one of the most dramatic pieces of organizing that I’ve ever been involved in.”

Bill Washburn, past principal of Albany High, says that he and others “decided to stand” on this issue “because we believed that the truth in this matter ran deep.”

Smith and Washburn were joined by hundreds of others who mobilized, some for the first time, around either D’Alessandro, Soares, or both. Many were young people. Many were sticking up for their own neighborhoods for the first time. Many felt encouraged to be fighting for something rather than against something for a change. “It was a confluence,” says Washburn, of the sort that births movements.

“You talk about community. This was community,” says Soares, who recalls that along with the incredible demands of the campaign work, people were cooking for his wife (who had taken on two extra jobs), watching their children, and generally “keeping us from suffering” from the vicissitudes of campaigning.

These volunteers let bills go unpaid and hobbies unattended (Smith notes that people knew this was serious when she stopped keeping up with current movies, one of her passions) as they knocked on doors, organized events, and raised funds.

“There were days when I was up at 4:30 or 5 . . . and would return home at 10:30 or 11 at night and get up and do it again,” says Washburn. “There were hundreds of people who gave in the same way, in their own way.”

Early on in the D’Alessandro fight, people turned out to speak at meeting after meeting of the Common Council, even after being called malcontents and rabble rousers. Even as they formed the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government, many worried privately about repercussions from going so public. “Did I have concerns? Yes. Do I still have concerns? Yes. . . . When you make a decision to stand, you can have some concerns about some of the implications and realities, but you know it’s the right thing to do,” says Washburn.

“The thing that was so unique about this was people just did [what needed to be done],” says longtime activist Vera Michelson. “We said, ‘We know we’re asking the impossible, but the impossible needs to be done.’ And they just fell in and did it.”

 

Photo Credits:
John Whipple
Chris Shields
John Whipple


Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Swing-State Volunteers

Whether you manned a phone, knocked on doors or e-mailed until your clicking finger spasmed, your efforts were appreciated, swing-state volunteers. But the question is: Where are you now?

In the run-up to the election, we heard from unions calling fellow members in Florida, organizations like Planned Parenthood and Citizen Action organizing bus trips for door-to-door registration drives and advocacy groups opening their doors—and phone banks—to volunteers. We heard stories about local residents traveling to nearby swing states in order to help the elderly and the just-old-enough-to-vote register for the first time. Heck, we even heard about kids nagging their families about making sure that distant aunts and uncles vote. People lost sleep, spent money they didn’t have, and missed putting their kids to bed to be part of the effort.

But when we recently attempted to contact some of the local organizations that sent volunteers to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other nearby swing states—as well as the organizations that arranged national phone banks and e-mail blitzes—in true selfless form, nobody was willing to stand up and be recognized. We’re not sure why, though.

While some might argue that the results of the election drove our local volunteers into hiding, the facts say they should be standing proud. More than 12 million new voters added their ballots to the mix this election, making it possible for both the Democrat and Republican candidates to set records for supporting votes tallied. On top of all that, many attribute the blue-state victory (by less than 10,000 votes) in New Hampshire—a red state in 2000—as well as Democratic candidate John Kerry’s wins in Pennsylvania and Maine, to the efforts of regional get-out-the-vote campaigns. While we’re at it, some kudos go out to the volunteers in Ohio, who helped that state record more than 1 million new votes this election (as for how many were actually counted, that’s another story). According to Internet-based advocacy group MoveOn.org, volunteers helped turn out more than 27,000 new votes in Wisconsin, where Kerry won the state by only 11,000 votes.

Numbers were up all around the Northeast, thanks to the efforts of local volunteers. So stand up and be counted, swing-state volunteers. We know you’re out there, and we know that all of the miles traveled, long-distance calls and keyboard wear-and-tear weren’t in vain.


Photo: Joe Putrock

Chip Fasciana and Tommy Watkins

It all started because Chip Fasciana and Tommy Watkins wanted more places to show art—theirs, and their colleagues’. Their answer was a new project called Albany Underground Artists, which provided an unexpected and awesome boost to the local art scene.

About a year ago, Watkins had put together a show at ego, the now-defunct Lark Street men’s clothing store, and Fasciana (who had held quite a few shows at Lulu’s Wine Bar at 288 Lark St.—now DeJohn’s Restaurant) had staged a show called Five Starving Artists Surrounded by Cheesecake in a friend’s downtown storefront. They decided to join together and put on an art show in an empty building on Lark Street that used to house the Carosello Bakery. About 500 people showed up for their first collaborative effort, and a phenomenon was born.

The unassuming duo have been collaborating for about a year now, putting together art exhibits like the Bakery Show and the very successful Bank Show. The shows have become so popular that the duo worry that maybe there has been just a bit too much hubbub about the project and that it may be in danger of losing its grassroots feeling.

“It was called Albany Underground Artists because that’s really what it was—we were having truly underground shows,” says Fasciana. “And then it got so big that now it’s like the Albany Aboveground Artists.”

How do they get permission to use the empty buildings?

“At first we didn’t,” Fasciana says.

“By staging one-night shows,” explains Watkins, “by the time that the city and code people caught up with us, we’ve already had our show, and it’s too late.

“I mean, they’re not going to come to our door,” he grins, “at least, they haven’t yet.”

Currently, the Albany Underground Artists have a city-sponsored exhibit that is being held in 16 empty storefront windows in downtown Albany. The 16 Windows of Art is being exhibited in empty spaces’ windows on downtown streets like State and North Pearl. “[The windows] are celebrating those spaces just like our art shows. . . . You want to see businesses go in these spaces, so one of the impacts of [these shows] is that it’s a way for people to take notice that there’s a space and they might be able to do something with it,” says Fasciana.

Fasciana and Watkins do not consider themselves heroic—in fact, they appropriately deem themselves more like enablers of the visual-arts scene and underground artists.

“Albany sort of has an identity crisis that we’ve had going on for a while,” Fasciana says, “like it’s a hip city, we have a lot of culture and creativeness, but we’re just on the border of not having our shit together enough for people to live here and be like, ‘Yeah, Albany is cool.’ But we’re right there. So what we’re trying to do is make that better. I mean, you have all these people who can’t hang their work anywhere.”

Fasciana and Watkins, ironically, are planning a big show for next September that will happen at the Institute of History and Art. Their Underground Arts project has evolved into a city-sponsored, wildly popular phenomenon. “The city sponsored the Bank Show,” Fasciana says, “and the city has embraced us and we’re doing all sorts of stuff now.”

Though to be more successful and more recognized by the community means that the original dynamic of Albany Underground Artist is inherently gone, Watkins and Fasciana seem determined to keep the vibe from their original, independent effort going strong.

“I’d like to think that no matter what happens,” Watkins says, “we’re always going to have underground shows.”


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