OTP: The legislative session that just ended has been a very effective session with Sampson there and Paterson, with a lot of things done around issues in the African-American community. It seems like there was a hiatus between the 70’s and now. Why are things happening now that weren’t happening in the 90’s or 2000’s?Vann: Well, I think there can be different points of view, but at one point in Albany you had some very, very outstanding people. Arthur Eave, and a number of elected officials who were very strong and very knowledgeable and knew how to work that system without giving in to the system. And then we began to phase out, Arthur Eave left, I came to the city council for different reasons so you had one set of leadership that was very savvy and knowledgeable and seniors began to move out as others began to fill that void and it became a different philosophy in that day. So it seems to be a period when things are not as they have been. Again, let’s admit, those of us in my generation, we came in with a movement mentality. Understand that. Those younger people coming after that, they don’t have that same feel. Understandable to some extent. To them, it’s about making money and stuff like that. Not totally, and there’s nothing wrong with making money, trust me. But there is a very different philosophy of power and politics. I think there was more of being integrated into the leadership. And going along with the leadership. Getting some things done, perhaps not at the same level we were. I think that now as you’ve indicated, the group coming in, well number one for the first time blacks are in power in the Senate. First, we never had Democrats in power in the Senate. And now Democrats have power in the Senate, and their black. So for the first time they’re now in charge of directing those resources and policies. We never had that before, we never had an assembly with this influence on the Speaker because of our numbers in the Caucus, the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Your influence forces them to go one way or the other. We’ve never been in charge and this is magnificent to have that kind of power.
OTP: It’s the difference between influence and power.Vann: Exactly. In one, you influence the decision, and in the other, make it.
OTP: So now when folks look at the Times, I’m looking at this printout today about the national stats: African-Americans being at the lowest point of the education spectrum, here and across the country. What can we do to change that? Everyone says that we want to better education, well since you been in office, and yet it hasn’t gotten better. What has to be different?Vann: I’ve never changed my position on that and again I started out my career teaching in education and community control was our cry. We believe that we need community control. So much so, based on Ocean Hill-Brownsville and what happened in IS 201, the state legislature provided for decentralization of schools, not community control. We wanted community control, which means that the decision-making is made local. The budget decision, policy decisions, hiring decisions. They didn’t go that far but they made, they begin to make some give-ups, we had some decision-making. We can pick our superintendent, we could recommend and access to some decision-making on the community level. I believe that if you don’t have very strong community control then you have others controlling your system, and others aren’t as concerned about us as we are about ourselves. And so this mayoral control is moving the decision-making and the resources away from the community. OTP: How do we get it back?Vann: Well, you have to want it back to get it back. There is a direct relationship to how communities function, to how our families are doing, how we are relating to each other as a community, all of which is beginning to improve in Bed-Stuy by the way, but to understand that there was a time when we had been wiped out by drugs, it almost seemed to eradicate a generation of folks. So we had a large number of our people who really weren’t family-oriented or raising their kids properly. Kids got out there and were raising themselves, they started having babies, so we had a whole bunch of young people that were educable but they weren’t really wanting to learn , not coming to school prepared to learn, causing difficulty, even for good teachers, because they had a lot of social problems, no doubt about it. We have got to deal with that reality so when you hear that we had moved from parents not wanting and knowing they can be in the school and so forth, we changed all that around, we had a lot of parents getting involved in the PTA and appointing superintendents and other responsibilities. But we lost that presence, we lost that sense of community, we lost the kind of training and direction that our parents gave us. When I was a kid, education was everything. Every black parent taught their children you have to go to school and you have to learn because that’s our way to freedom. We started losing some of that because of the drugs I believe, and so forth. So if you’re not demanding excellence, if you’re not holding people accountable, well then you get what you get. Both from a community point of view and from a political point of view. It’s so far from us now, but I believe, continue to believe, the demand you make locally is what’s important in relating to the Department of Education. Whatever the mechanism, however they organize, and they are reorganizing all the time. So you can’t really find the access points. Where you could once go to the superintendent and get an answer, now nobody knows where to go. However, we will never get the type of education that we deserve, the excellence we deserve, until the community demands it and hold their schools accountable. That’s what we can do at the community level. There’s a fight for resources that will go on, there’s a fight for policy that will go on, the fight to make sure that our kids are getting a good education is the community’s fight. They have to get up into the schools and demand that the teachers are dressing properly and that they are teaching their kids. You just can’t send your kids to school and think everything is going to be alright. When we taught everybody had a shirt and tie, we were clean. The women wore dresses and now look what it is. School is supposed to carry out what the community wants.
OTP: What about going forward, what do you see for the future of Bedford-Stuyvesant? We have growing Hasidic communities to the north and south, gentrification coming up the middle, there are foreclosures going on, you have high foreclosure rates, how do we stand as a community? How do we strengthen ourselves?Vann: Well, we also are seeing an increase of young black professionals who bought homes in Bed-Stuy, increasing the percentage of ownership which is very, very important. Unlike what happened in Harlem. And of course, we had a large percentage of homeownership, but some that we lost because of the problem with the economics and mortgages, and also because people are getting older and retiring. Some of them have sold out and moved away, but I believe that our survival will be ensured by maintaining a significant percentage of homeownership by African-Americans. More and more people are going into small businesses in our area, opening restaurants, boutiques, and we haven’t seen that in a long time. And they live in the community and run their businesses in the community. That’s how you begin to stabilize the community. It’s not all a bed of roses because all of the factors you mentioned are happening and if we’re not careful, we’re not strong, one day there will not be a Bed-Stuy that people will say is a black community. There is a risk but I believe that we will stabilize. Obviously, it is going to be more diverse than it ever was and I don’t think that can be reversed. We can accept that diverse community if it’s primarily black. But I think we all have to recognize that it’s not going to stay because we want it to stay. It’s going to stay because we realize it’s important to our people that it stays. Things like the Coalition for the Improvement of Bed-Stuy which we started. It’s a very important organization because it’s keeping all the developments corporations together in a way to get contracts to build or renovate in our community by these groups. There has to be consciousness about our ability to buy houses when they go up for sale. We can’t expect someone to sell it to us because we’re black. But if we can pay the same price others are paying that’s very important. So we have to have the economic institutions to make sure that we are protecting the culture, protecting the people because we are maintaining our presence in this community. It was a very conscious decision.
OTP: Speaking of the young professionals moving in, is there some type of requirement that when you get into one of these homes that Restoration puts up or Bridge Street Development puts up, that they have to involve themselves somehow in the community because it was only from that involvement that those houses came to be. How do you impart that to the professionals in the area?Vann: The key to most of our problems will be organization or lack thereof. The emphasis I’m placing over the next few years is strengthening our block associations, working to strengthen and inform our tenant associations. We have to go to the basic foundation now. We’ve done a lot with Restoration, we’ve done a lot with Bridge Street, NHS, Pratt, and it’s working and it’s good. But what I’m finding now is that blocks that are very well organized, crime is down. Drug dealers and unsavory types don’t like that kind of environment. If there are blocks with no organization, then that’s home.What we learned from that is that we have to make sure we are empowering our block associations. A lot of new people moving in. Older folks are losing their energy, so we have to make sure the new people understand how valuable their block association is and its importance to their quality of life. When I was a young person, all of the block associations had representation on the Precinct Council. They all had representation at community board meetings. We have to get back to an older model, maybe a new way of doing it. So the information gets out and they know how to function as a block association. We started some of this already, working with Bridge Street and the block associations. So it’s really getting back to the basics of strengthening our block and tenant associations, strengthening local businesses by buying from them. That is the key to our economic security, circulating our money in the community. All of that goes to strengthening the black community. Easier said than done, but you have to have a focus. What’s good about Bed-Stuy is that we are in motion. We’re not just sitting back hoping. There are organizations, are people who are doing things to make our dream come true. There is something about the history and legacy of Bed-Stuy, always been something special about the spirit of Bed-Stuy. Always able to deal with challenges, whether through Restoration, Sonny Carson, we’ve always had that kind of drive and resilience. And it’s still there. I’m very optimistic about Bed-Stuy remaining a vibrant community.OTP: We’ve heard people say things like, “There’s nobody doing anything. Nothing is happening.” For folks who want to find out what’s going on or volunteer or get involved in the community, is there a central number or point that they could go to? What should they be doing, who should they be contacting. Vann: That’s a good point, probably not. One of the things we discuss from time to time is that people say things are not happening in the community when they are happening right around the corner. We’ve been working with CIBS, for example, to make sure there is a better communication and outreach so folks will know if they go to Restoration, or Bridge Street Development or Black Vets and other places, they can be trained or counseled and directed to some kind of employment. GED or whatever their needs happen to be. There is not one number to be called. There is a gap between what we’re doing and what we can do for the people who need the service. Understand, we’re going into a tough period. The state, I don’t know when they’ll have money again. The city is facing a $3-4 billion shortfall, but even in tough periods we’ve got things going on.I’m very optimistic about Bedford-Stuyvesant. I think the combination of people coming in along with those who have remained will get together in time. Come together as a block and a family. We’re going to work on that to make sure it happens. I’m very encouraged by the business sector coming in. That’s very significant to the long-term survival of our community. I like a lot of the organizations we are working with Brenda Fryson and the YES (Youth Education and Safety) task force that I began, CIBS and other groups. They’ve laid their foundation and are doing things. We are having better communication between the community and cops. Even in these tough times we’re building the organizations and we’ll be in a better position when times get better, we’ll be in position and better organized. It’s about having a common understanding about what our roles are. We are in a good position to do that. We have good political power. A good sense of economics and our ability to deal with that. The primary economic force is the individual, people who are educated. There is no substitute for an educated people. There is no way we can avoid improving our public schools. We must do that. That’s our challenge. I know there is a controversy over charter schools versus traditional public schools, I’ve never been an advocate of charter schools, I chose not to be an opponent. But I realize that whether they are charter or public they must educate our children. The only question is how do we guarantee the kids are getting an excellent education. I want all of them to work. I give all of them computers and the technology they need, whether they are charter or non-charter. OTP: Sounds like a combination of Frederick Douglass’s “Organize, organize, organize,” and Booker T. Washington saying, “Cast your bucket down where you are.”Vann: I think you’re right. That’s what it’s going to take.