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7 Hudson Valley Activists Who Are Changing the Community for Good

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Camille Hyatt at her home in Ossining.

From racial equality and prisoner reform to agriculture and environmental conservation, when these seven Hudson Valley activists see a way to better their communities and their country, they take a stand.

By Mike Diago & Samantha Garbarini
Photography by Ken Gabrielsen

– Camille Hyatt –

Volunteer, Mothers Out Front

“I got involved with Mothers Out Front through my friend, Megan Dyer. Megan and I went to high school together in Cleveland, Ohio. She lived in Norway for a little bit, and she saw how deep into climate change processes are over there. Once you see what goes on, you’re like, Why can’t the U.S. take on climate change challenges as Europe does?

She formed Mothers Out Front [in Croton-on-Hudson]. I was laid off from my company [in June, and] I started sending letters to mayors and village representatives across Westchester with regards to gas planning. It’s really how to allocate funds for gas planning with ConEd and other utilities. Instead of putting it toward more fracking and more digging, let’s put it towards more solar panels. Let’s put the funds toward something that would be more environmentally sane.

I got involved with the school bus initiative over the summer, which is taking funds to convert school buses in Westchester (and all across New York) from diesel to electric. That will enable the villages to save so much money. Obviously, there’s a large cost at the outset, but thereafter it’s much cheaper to run an electric school bus.

When folks were initially discussing this, they were like, ‘No one has the funds for this. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Where are we going to get the money?’ But, if you explain it in a way that’s pennywise, and think about your children, your grandchildren, people start opening their ears. Right now, my son goes to hybrid school, but there are a lot of folks that are totally virtual. So, let’s maybe do this now when there are not so many busses on the road, and we can have a beta test. We just want them to listen and then take it to the powers that be.

I think in the age of getting a seat at the table, women’s voices need to be heard. Within the last several years, you’ve had so many movements that have been extremely impactful globally. Let’s utilize that and strike while it’s hot. I think that adding mothers to the movement definitely perks a lot of politicians ears up. Women have always had a stake in their children’s lives. As a mom, I think it’s very important that we also educate our children around the importance of climate change. I think we really have to get involved.”

For more information on Mothers Out Front, visit www.mothersoutfront.org.

Father Frank Alagna at his church in Kingston.

– Father Frank Alagna –

Co-President, Ulster Immigrant Defense Network
Priest, Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Church, Kingston

“At the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network we’re serving people who are living in fear. Things that we see happening in people’s lives tear at us. But there’s also good folks that are being helped by other good folks. That is the agony and the ecstasy that keeps us going.

Last year, one local asylum seeker came to us because his wife and daughter were in a detention facility in Alabama. We worked with appropriate agencies and secured their release. They arrived on Christmas Eve at Newark airport, and their reconnection was breathtaking.

But in another instance, I went to a deportation hearing of a gentleman who was stopped by a county sheriff and put in a detention facility in New Jersey. He wasn’t allowed to see his wife or his two children from the day they took him. They wouldn’t even allow the wife and children to see him before he was put on an airplane to Honduras. He had done nothing wrong except cross the border [years ago]. He’d been here 10 years and worked two jobs to support his family.

When law is used to violate humanity, then something’s wrong with the law. We have a broken immigration system that doesn’t give a path to citizenship to people who have been here.

Folks are facing the impact of climate change. There are gangs. Governmental structures are not stable or [are not] serving the people at the margins. Organizations like Ulster Immigrant Defense Network and others are trying to help.

We’re attending to about 250 asylum-seeking families in Ulster County.

We got involved in the Green Light campaign to enable undocumented people to have [driver’s] licenses. We made Kingston a sanctuary city so that ICE can’t deputize local police. We have a 24/7 helpline, staffed by bilingual volunteers who listen and attempt to get various needs met. We transport people back to the city for their ICE appointments. We work with other groups to make legal support available. We put money into rent and distributing food. We support the cost of Internet and provide tutoring for immigrant kids who need additional support as they adjust to mainstream school.

Basically, I just believe nobody leaves where they’re born, raised and connected, unless they’re desperate.”

For more information about the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network, visit  www.ulsterimmigrantdefensenetwork.org.

Rae Leiner in Poughkeepsie.

– Rae Leiner –

Co-Founder, Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center
Member, Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley 

“When I was 5 years old, the police came to my house in the middle of the night to take my brother away. He had jumped the turnstile on his way home. All my brother’s white friends did the same thing, but the cops didn’t show up to their houses. I became hypercritical at an early age of how racism was playing out in my life at school and in my community. [My activism] comes from profound love and heartbreak. It’s personal. The stuff that my brother went through is what my nephews go through and what I go through in terms of being racially profiled. Also, because I’m gender queer and people can’t peg me. What has sustained me has been the ability to fight and to change.

The focus right now is on supporting people in the movement. We’ve been raising our voices to repeal the Walking While Trans Law [Loitering For The Purpose of Prostitution Law]. It’s used to target trans folks, folks who are wearing provocative clothing, or who have cash on them. The profiling impacts us because, if [trans folks] are picked up, a felony goes on record and prevents you from receiving any kind of government subsidy. You can also experience job-based discrimination.

We get phone calls around this time of the year from trans folks who are looking for housing. But we don’t have housing, so they end up going into the shelter system. They are being brutalized or experience negative treatment. We are looking for a space that will allow us to host programs, give people housing, and create sanctuary space for trans folks. 

The legislative route is long. We are working on defunding the police, the Breathe Act in Newburgh, and fighting prison expansion in Dutchess County, but we’re also building up our community so when things fall apart, we got us. We’re asking how we can work with local farms? How are we redistributing information and resources? We’re doing a street medic training soon. In October, we did a day of healing where we offered massage, tai chi, reiki, and embodiment yoga to people in the community.

Black trans lives still matter, and we are still under attack. So get involved. Organize wealth, donate, get involved in intersectionality, and start to examine where resistance, racism, and inequity is living in you.”

For more information about the Newburgh LBGTQ+ Center, visit www.newburgh-center.org.

George Jackman at the site of his dam removal project in Crugers.

– George Jackman, PhD –

Senior Habitat Restoration Manager, Riverkeeper

“I’ve been a sportsman all my life. I was a fisherman and a hunter. When I was a kid, I was just was enthralled by the environment. I was always exploring and needed to know more. I had a wayward high school experience, and then I joined the [New York] Police Department. From there, I started going to school at night to really find my passion, which was biology and ecology. I guess it’s a natural progression in a lot of ways. Being a police officer, you defend people. Working for Riverkeeper, we are the voice for the voiceless.

Aquatic organisms are the most imperiled group of organisms on the planet right now. Their rate of extinction is about 900 times the background rate of extinction. The Hudson River flows because of the sum total of all its tributaries. There are, in the lower Hudson, about 70 tributaries, and there’s more in the upper Hudson. Most of those tributaries have dams on them. Those that don’t have dams, have artificial barriers. In the Hudson Valley alone there are approximately 1,600 dams, and there could be a lot more that we’re unaware of.

Every one of those dams acts like a blood clot on a circulatory system. It alters the flow of rivers and streams. If we want to help improve the environment, we have to start removing these obsolete dams. There was a time when dams were necessary, when there was no ConEd, when we needed gristmills, and we needed to grind corn and cut wood. That’s a bygone era.

Dams fragment entire ecosystems. Fragmented habitats are less resilient, less stable, and the biotic communities that live in those areas suffer from reduced genetic variation. So, the most positive outcome of a dam removal is the reconnection of the river so it can operate as an integrated system.

When we removed a dam this past fall, I saw two white suckers swim past me. That was the first time they probably swam upstream in a hundred years. That is exciting. All the migratory fish in the Hudson River are in decline. Some are down 95 or 99 percent from pristine levels. They’re threatened with extinction. If we do not do something, these fish could be gone. Remove a dam, and they come back. They were given an evolutionary fiat to spawn in those rivers and we’ve taken it away. It is our obligation to return it.”

For more information on Riverkeeper, visit www.riverkeeper.org.

Vanessa Green at Nyack Memorial Park during a protest. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Green

– Vanessa Green –

Executive Director, Call BlackLine
Member, Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley

“My life work has been activism. I’ve always had this sense of something doesn’t sit right, something’s going on. When I did rape crisis, the fact that we didn’t have an office in Newburgh was upsetting to me. The fact that we didn’t serve a lot of folks in Port Jervis. I always try to think about people who are the most marginalized. When I did foster care for 11 years, those courts were filled with Black and Latinx folks. Something’s not right.

When I started working for VCS [in New City], the boss I worked for, Phyllis B. Frank, was like, ‘I want you to do racial justice along with the domestic violence program.’ Mike Brown got shot, and I just felt like I needed to be in Ferguson. I took the bus trip with activists from New York and New Jersey. That was an experience I’ll never forget. We were there to support the community.

While we were doing stuff with BLM, three black people had been shot in a short time frame. We were like, ‘What if Black people need a hotline? If they had a hotline, what would the hotline look like?’ Call BlackLine was born out of [that] conversation.

As it started getting bigger, we were getting calls from people all over the country and Canada. We collect negative vigilante, police, and consumer contact. We added consumer about a year ago because people were calling about being asked to leave stores. I have been asked to leave; it’s humiliating. You don’t know what to do with it.

Since the pandemic started, our calls have 100 percent increased. I talk to moms who are home with their kids, to people who can’t go out because of COVID. People need somebody to talk to. We don’t say, ‘We don’t have money. We can’t help you.’ Where else are people going to call? It’s been very rewarding to witness people’s pain.

A lot of people who call say, ‘I was talking to my counselor for three years about stuff I experienced as a Black person, and she denied it.’ We’ve been reaching out to therapists and saying, ‘Can we do a training on Blackness? Can you take undoing racism?’ Therapists are well intentioned, but if they don’t have a lens into [racism], they will hurt people.

I’ve had people call my personal number and tell me, ‘I’m out back of your house,’ saying, ‘We’re going to slit your throat.’ That’s what happens when you do this work. Sometimes I’m just tired, and I can’t go another day. Then, I think about all the people — Black, white, Indigenous, Latinx folks — who have invested in this. That’s what makes it rewarding, that I’m not doing it by myself.”

For more information on Call BlackLine, visit www.callblackline.com.

Jalal Sabur at The Watershed Center in Millerton.

– Jalal Sabur –

Director, Freedom Food Alliance

“I grew up in Westchester and my family had a big lot in the backyard, where we grew food. I was always connected to it, but I didn’t really care about it until I became really into environmental justice work and was farming at [Purchase College]. Then, I met my dad for the first time. My dad is a farmer and an herbalist. He was growing food to heal people, but he was also doing a youth program in Pennsylvania, where they would go into elderly folks’ homes and give out food. 

While I was doing environmental justice work, I saw how the environment for Black folks was different than the environment for White folks. There was sickness that was happening. People will eat whatever is available, whatever’s cheap. There’s some people that don’t eat; there’s kids that go hungry. I think [healthy] food is sometimes put to the background because there’s so many other issues.

I started using food as an entry point to talk about justice. Using community garden spaces to talk about how we feed ourselves, but also about community safety. What are our rights when we’re encountering the police?

I was working with different organizations, and I worked with one that did a lot of prisoner support work. One was a former Black Panther, Herman Bell, who was in prison for over 40 years. I would visit and bring him food. He’s from Mississippi, [and] grew up on a farm. While he was in prison, he was connecting with farmers in Maine, making sure that the food they were growing would get down to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. He was that connection between farmers and the folks that needed fresh food.

We’d talk about what we could do that was similar. That’s when we started talking about transportation to prisons. We started the [Freedom Food Alliance Victory Bus Project], where we would bring families up to see their relatives, and also give them CSA shares from the farm.

When I moved Upstate, I was able to start Sweet Freedom Farm. It’s growing food for people in prison and talking about the connection between food and prison. I realized that all these prisons are on farmland. How do we use our farm to address Black people’s relationship to land, and shift the use of land from being used to imprison Black and brown folks to being used to grow food and promote farming?

[I helped] to start the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust with Soul Fire Farm. I think reparations are a real thing we can push for. There’s a lot of land available, but how do you get that land and how do you have the resources to maintain it? Young people don’t see it as a viable avenue. What are alternatives to prison? I’m trying to make farming a valid alternative.”

For more information on the Freedom Food Alliance, visit freedomfoodalliance.wordpress.com.

Sophie Ackoff at Solid Ground Farm in Hurley. Photo by Tom Daly Photography

– Sophie Ackoff –

Co-Executive Director, National Young Farmers Coalition

“We have a crisis where farmers over 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by more than six to one. Our land is transitioning also. As older farmers are aging out and retiring, they’re selling their land. So much of their equity is stored in the land. They’re selling to the highest bidder, and young farmers just can’t compete. Young people are doing the most innovative agriculture, but the challenges they face are just overwhelming. And, of course, the racial inequities are real. Our nation’s agriculture system is built on stolen land from Native Americans, stolen labor from African slaves, and that’s not just ancient history. The policies that dictate our agriculture system continue to prevent young farmers of color from having opportunities.

[The National Young Farmers Coalition is] based in the Hudson Valley, but we have 47 chapters in 28 states. We work on state and national policy. We really believe that we need policy solutions. Land access is the number one challenge for young farmers, and we’re seeing it in the Hudson Valley more than ever with the pandemic. Folks are leaving New York City and buying farms with no interest in farming them. So, we’re calling for a national land initiative to help transition land to the next generation, and, in particular, to BIPOC farmers. We need a huge increase in federal funding so the government can pay farmers for their land and then offer that land to young and BIPOC farmers at agriculture value.

I started farming in college. After college, I moved to the Hudson Valley for my first apprenticeship at Glynwood [Center for Regional Food and Farming] in Cold Spring [and] because I’d heard about the National Young Farmers Coalition. It was a really interesting time because it was before the Farm Bill passed in 2014. I met the co-founder, Lindsay Lusher Shute, and said ‘I’m really interested in the Farm Bill and making sure that young farmers get to have a say in what’s included.’ I’ve been on staff for eight years now and have had an amazing opportunity to grow the coalition, to meet with farmers all across the country.

As we’ve grown, the racial equity work has become more important. We’re so lucky in New York to have so many organizations that are committed to supporting Black farmers. We have Soul Fire Farm and the Black Farmers Fund. We have Karen Washington, who is a champion. There’s a new policy platform coalition of Black farmers, Black Farmers United NYS.

What young farmers are offering is a community model of agriculture, where people can have secure access to their food. There’s been such an amazing resurgence of people wanting to buy CSAs, shopping at farm stands, and going to farmers’ markets. We really believe that is the future of agriculture, this relationship between consumers and farmers who are embedded in their communities.”

For more information on the National Young Farmers Coalition, visit www.youngfarmers.org.