Bed-Stuy’s Everyday Heroes Celebrated in Public Art Installation

August 5, 2022 Ella Napack
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Last year, the Bedford-Stuyvesant community honored over 20 everyday heroes that have helped the neighborhood to flourish. A year later, on Aug. 3, the community gathered again to listen to each featured “Community Hero” speak as the project came to a close.

The year-long public art installation, “Community Heroes,” wrapped up Wednesday at the St. Andrew’s Playground in Bed-Stuy. Large banners showcased local leaders in the Bed-Stuy community – coined “Community Heroes” – with artwork by local artist Yen accompanying each banner.

The walls of St. Andrews Playground were lined with the “Community Heroes” banners through the past year. Photo: Ella Napack

The Partnerships for Parks (PfP) Catalyst program is a long-term community development program, working in historically under-served NYC parks. PfP Catalyst partnered with Photoville, a Brooklyn-based organization that works to amplifying visual storytellers through activating public spaces, to create this project.

The cooperation of these organizations yielded exciting storytelling celebrating the lives and work of Bed-Stuy’s heroes. The public art project allowed local creatives, youth and community members to celebrate the residents who have dedicated their time to strengthening the neighborhood.

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A group of “Community Heroes and some project partners gathered to celebrate. Photo: Ella Napack

Each “Community Hero” was given a commemorative banner that was hung on a wall surrounding St. Andrew’s Playground. A piece of artwork from the vibrant and abstract painting series by artist Yen titled “Secret Heroes” was displayed on the other side of the banner.

Artist Yen’s painting series is full of colorful patters. Photo: Ella Napack

“Community Hero” Wilma Maynard drew a crowd as she sat in front of her banner and spoke about her experiences. Ms. Maynard is a lifelong resident of Bed-Stuy and has been an important figure in the community for decades before she was honored as a “Community Hero. “

Ms. Maynard told the group a story from her time as a PTA President for P.S. 93, when 2 children attending the school were tragically killed by a vehicle at Marcy Avenue and Fulton Street. She gathered a group of parents and teachers, and they protested at the intersection. A traffic light was installed just days after Ms. Maynard set her mind to fixing the problem.

“Nothing gets resolved if you do not speak out,” Ms. Maynard said.

Ms. Maynard explained to a crowd of eager listeners that much of the work has not been easy, and that it takes cooperation and persistence. She explained you cannot let your pride get in the way of doing good work, especially when things get challenging. “You can’t be too proud to do what needs to be done,” Ms. Maynard said.

Catalyst organizer Jose Disla converses with Hero Wilma Maynard in front of her poster. Photo: Ella Napack

Ms. Maynard became focused on improving the state of the St. Andrews Playground in the center of the community. She, along with many others that attended the event on Wednesday, formed the FOSAP, Friends of St. Andrews Playground organization, in 2017.

Ms. Maynard explained that the park is worth protecting, and she will continue to fight for its improvement with FOSAP. “This park is a landmark to me,” Ms. Maynard said.

One of her 5 children, Helena Crump, is also a founding member of FOSAP, and was honored as a “Community Hero” last year as well. “We have lived in this neighborhood forever, right around the corner,” Crump said. “I am still here 66 years later.”

The Friends of St. Andrews Playground banner features nine heroes that are working to improve the park. Photo: Ella Napack

“My brothers and cousins used to run activities and trips from this park,” Crump shared. “It is amazing to see the kids I took care of in the neighborhood grow up with their own kids here.” Crump is now dedicated to helping the park get the repairs and care it needs to remain a center for community life through FOSAP.

Married duo Elder Ronald John and Minister Colleen John were also honored as “Community Heroes” in the installation for their work with the Faith of Assemblies of God Church. Their church becomes a kitchen and pantry every Saturday, October through June, where they feed around 400 families every week.

The program began over 35 years ago by founder Gwendolyn Haynes, but over the past decade, Pastor Ronald John and his wife Minister Colleen John have built up the pantry for the Bed-Stuy community. The two have perfected a system that allows people to pick what they need when it is their turn, from a wide selection of fresh groceries, canned goods and hot meals.

“We don’t force anything on anyone, we let them decide what they need,” said Pastor Ronald John. “It’s well organized”

Pastor John and Minister John stand proudly by their commemorative poster. Photo: Ella Napack

The two have been married for 33 years and have been devoted to community work their whole lives. Although the past pandemic years have been difficult, their pantry lifted the community through the tough times as a reliable resource.

“We don’t turn anyone away, it doesn’t matter what you look like where you came from. And we don’t look down on anybody, everyone gets served,” Pastor Ronald John said.

Minister Colleen John explained that there is a reason that people travel from all over the metropolitan region to utilize their pantry. The hundreds of families that show up to the Faith of Assemblies of God Church on Saturdays come from as far as Staten Island and New Jersey.

“I think the reason we make such a difference is that we tell our volunteers to listen,” Minister Colleen John said. “We don’t know anyone’s story; we have never walked in their shoes. We never want anyone to feel like they are begging for something. So, we treat everyone with a smile, even when that can be challenging.”

Pastor Ronald John explained that they operate with a mindset of selflessness and service, using the phrase, “we come to serve, not to be served.”

The couple appreciated the honor of “Community Heroes,” but they are not focused on the recognition they get for their work. “If you’re doing it for recognition, then your whole purpose of doing it is wrong,” Pastor Ronald John said.

“Community Hero” Antoine Cassidy grew up in Bed-Stuy, and now gives back to the community that raised him through the No Gun Smoke School Tour Inc., a non-profit organization that helps community members counter gun violence through programming in schools and correction centers.

Cassidy’s journey towards a path of community engagement began when young, although he hit some bumps in the road. “I always wanted to work and do good things, but it took me a while to get on the right track,” Cassidy said.

Antoine Cassidy speaks from the heart in front of his banner. Photo: Ella Napack

Cassidy explained that in junior high school, he began to see many people he knew selling drugs and making money on the street. “I always wanted to hang out with the big boys, and once I started to get on the streets with my uncles and family, that is when the real big boy stuff started.”

Cassidy dropped out of school in 10th grade to sell drugs. “I was always portraying something my uncles taught me, they were my role models at the time.”

“I started to be able to buy my own drugs, and really make money,” Cassidy said. “That is when I started gathering the young boys in the neighborhood that looked up to me, and I started giving them drugs to sell.”

Cassidy’s business grew bigger and bigger, and eventually law enforcement caught up to him. Cassidy did time in Sing Sing and Ogdensburg correctional facilities, where his perspective shifted. “It took me far away from my family and from the crime I was doing,” Cassidy said.

“I came back, and I wanted to make real change,” he said. “I wanted to prevent gun violence in my community.”

Cassidy recognized the lack of resources available to stop gun violence, drug circulation and violence against women in Bed-Stuy, so he developed No Gun Smoke School Tour Inc.

Cassidy has worked with thousands of students and community members through the Department of Corrections at Rikers Island and many schools such as the Eagle Academy, Life Academy High School, P.S. 5 and P.S. 308. “I bring a lot of different resources to schools,” Cassidy explained. “We bring boxing, music development and studios, art therapy, fabric design and re-entry mentoring.”

“It is all about being proactive not reactive, to stop kids before they have started down the wrong path,” Cassidy explained.

The event ended on Wednesday as each “Community Hero” took home their large banner that had proudly lined St. Andrews Playground walls all year. Even without the banners, the Bed-Stuy community is aware and grateful of the work of their inspirational neighbors.

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