Imagine a faucet releasing babies into a river packed with crocodiles. It’s a strange and gruesome situation to picture. Unfortunately, someone had planted this image in my head a long time ago, and it never left. And, for some reason, my being at Cypress Hills Cemetery resurrected the image for me.
Yet, that is not the only impact the cemetery has had on me. Cypress Hills Cemetery also engendered my commitment to direct service—to activities like volunteering at a soup kitchen or launching a clothing drive. The cemetery is in east Brooklyn, but a good chunk of it spills into Queens. Hilly and green, it expands for 225 acres and provides a permanent home to over 400,000 people.
Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) is a local nonprofit whose headquarters is in a red-brick, two-story house that sits at the bottom of a hill within the cemetery. Public Allies placed me there six years ago. Unlike CHLDC, Public Allies is a national nonprofit that supports disadvantaged populations across the U.S. It is affiliated with AmeriCorps, and it seeks to “create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.” As a Public Ally, I aspired to weave an enduring thread into the fabric of Cypress Hills.
So, in fall of 2011, I arrive at Cypress Hills via the J train. Twenty-two and full of spirit, I exit the above-ground subway station and stroll past abandoned lots, bodegas, mom-and-pop shops, and Chinese take-out restaurants with thick glass divisions separating the cashier from customers. A few blocks in, I notice a Western Beef store, a YMCA, a park, kids shooting hoops, and gravestones. So many gravestones.
I lift the latch of a black, metal gate and enter the cemetery. I tread for ten meters and step into CHLDC. Immediately on my left, there is an elderly Russian man typing away in his own nook. He chortles upon learning that I have a Russian name even though I’m not Russian. To my right, there is a larger office room. Individuals of Dominican, Lebanese, Korean, and Irish descent bring the room to life. I walk in further and encounter a gentleman from Cape Verde dressed in a tweed blazer. I, then, climb a narrow stairwell to the second floor, where an African-American woman and a Jamaican woman greet me. One of them tells me to go to the basement to set up my computer. I do, and I discover that the IT person is from Ecuador. In the presence of this ethnic medley, I instantly feel more comfortable.
But as I settle at my new desk, my supervisor slams me with my initial set of tasks. “You’ll need to make a directory of all the affordable services in Cypress Hills, help residents organize block associations, and mobilize folks to repaint graffitied walls on Fulton Street.” The first two assignments sound exciting. A directory of services will be useful in the long run, and block associations will empower individuals to exercise greater ownership in shaping their surroundings. The third project, however, seems pointless.
Months pass. I can procrastinate for only so long on marshaling the people and resources to clean up the designated walls on Fulton Street. My supervisor and I rally about 20 locals, both adults and youth. We coat the walls with light blue paint. Some of us use rollers. Others wield brushes. As the bubbly doodles on the building’s exterior fade away, so do my misgivings about the project. Why? Because it dawns on me that by partaking in this collective enterprise, I open myself to experience the neighborhood and its residents from an entirely different angle. The kids and I, for example, talk about their favorites foods and shows and what they do with their families on the weekends. I insist that Hey Arnold is the best TV series of all time. They argue back. We connect. Soon, the conversation pivots. They share stories about needles they’ve seen on the streets, drug exchanges they’ve witnessed, and violence that has plagued their neighborhood.
The painting experience colors my worldview and infuses it with hues that were never there before. I realize that if I ever decide to address the origin of a social ill affecting Cypress Hills, I will now do so with a richer palette of perspectives that inform my approach.
On my last day as a Public Ally, I mount the hill that CHLDC hugged. Straw-colored grass, silver tombstones, vanilla row houses, and a reddish-brown subway line fill the expanse. A stream of gratitude for a year of community change and personal growth cascades from my chest to my toes. At that moment, I bury my skepticism towards direct service in Cypress Hills Cemetery, and I embrace the notion that such work is as important as endeavors aimed at tackling the underlying causes of issues. In fact, our engagement in direct service lets us humanize those we serve and understand their struggles more intimately. When coupled with critical reflection, it can imbue us with deeper insight and urgency regarding root-cause work.
In the end, we need both. We need those who rescue the “babies” flowing down the river towards the crocodiles as well as those who focus on closing the faucet that’s spewing out “newborns” in the first place. We need those who clip the twigs and chainsaw through the branches as well as those who grind the stump and dig out the roots. And, whether we clip or dig, hopefully, we will always be digging into ourselves. In the process, may we unearth new attitudes and let antiquated ones rest in peace.
Ivan Rahman is currently an MPA Candidate and a Gleitsman Leadership Fellow at Harvard University and an MBA Candidate at Stanford University. He holds a B.A. from New York University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from the Relay Graduate School of Education. In his free time, he enjoys listening to rap and Disney music, attempting to dance to bachata and reggae, and playing the guitar and djembe.