Opinions & Observations: Why investing in B’klyn parks bolsters community self-empowerment

June 17, 2020 Sheila Barksdale-Gordon and Dionne Grayman, co-founders of We Run Brownsville
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You may not know it from what you hear in the media, but the Brownsville community is strong and beautiful.

It is true that we are facing far more than our fair share of challenges. The poverty rate is twice the national average. The employment rate, prior to the pandemic, was four times higher than the national rate. The incarceration rate is 3.5 higher than that of New York City as a whole. Thirty-two percent of our residents suffer from obesity, and 15 percent have diabetes.

These facts and figures are easy to find in much of the reporting on Brownsville. And yet, policy-driven solutions have failed to adequately address those challenges. Our community wasn’t being given access to the tools and resources necessary for our rebirth.

That’s why we started We Run Brownsville, a 12 week walk-to-run program that prepares women in Brownsville to complete a competitive 5K race.

In our first year, with a grant of just over $2,000, we hired a running coach who came out to the track at Betsy Head Park every week, and in just 12 weeks we trained a group of 18 women who had never run before, to run the East New York 5K.

We Run Brooklyn co-founders Sheila Barksdale-Gordon, front, and Dionne Grayman.

We now offer year-round programming, have 50 members, and two professional coaches. We’ve successfully completed eight 5K runs, and conducted our own two-mile community run, the Brownsville Royal Run, which had over 100 participants. We also conduct workshops to support team members develop a better understanding of the value of the mind-body connection through yoga, guided meditation, and visits to local gardens and farms.

A few years ago, after years of advocacy and activism by the local community, the City committed more than $10 million to reconstruct the track at Betsy Head Park, with an initial projected completion date of February 2021. We were thrilled when this happened, because prior to this the track was full of holes and the park was in disrepair. We felt seen and heard because the city was finally showing the same kind of love and appreciation for our park that we’ve always felt.

It means even more to us now as we navigate through the pandemic, when the connection to our community is so strong and essential.

But now, funding for City parks is on the chopping block. Pools have been shuttered, playgrounds are closed, and now the City also plans to cut at least 340 parks maintenance and safety workers on July 1. With those jobs eliminated, who will take care of the investment in Betsy Head Park we fought so hard for?

That’s why we’ve joined New Yorkers for Parks and over 250 other members of the Play Fair Coalition to call on the City to fund the open spaces that our community – and countless others across the City – depend on for our physical, mental, and emotional health.

In many ways, Brownsville is extraordinary despite the challenges we face. But after fighting decades of systematic injustice and disinvestment, staid status quo thinking could cripple us. The women of We Run Brownsville need our parks, playgrounds and community gardens to be safe and well-maintained so we can continue our work empowering ourselves, each other, and our entire community.

Sheila Barksdale-Gordon and Dionne Grayman are co-founders of We Run Brownsville. 

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