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Tony Hillery

Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Tony Hillery, the founder and CEO of Harlem Grown, a spreading program that began with teaching children in Harlem about gardening and nutrition and now reaches out to discovery of books, health and “food justice” around urban agriculture. 

The work with young people and health fit well in this continuing series of profiles by Community Works/New Heritage Theatre Group to highlight local people seeking to help Harlem heal from disproportionate effects of the pandemic and turmoil from social justice. In Harlem, he said covid’s effect in closing schools meant thousands of kids going without meals, prompting Harlem Grown to work with local restaurants to produce meals it could help distribute, and followed up with a teaching van in school playgrounds when re-openings were just starting. 

Eleven years ago, Hillery, then the owner of a limousine business in Riverside, began volunteering at a public elementary school in Harlem. Seeing a vacant lot across from the street, he decided he wanted to involve young children in growing food – though it was a way to intervene in changing lives, he said. The program has grown to 13 sites transforming vacant lots into soil-based farms, hydroponic greenhouses, and school gardens. Other activities include mentoring programs, a summer camp, nutrition and cooking workshops and a training program for parents.

For Hillery himself “it has become a calling to provide consistent safe spaces for kids.”

There is a website at, a Harlem Grown picture book, and a string of partnerships with local schools. At Halloween, Harlem Grown drew more than 1400 children.

Harlem Grown sees itself a group inspires elementary-school students to lead healthy lives based on directed learning about urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition using garden and food activities. Of the original 19 kids, all are in four-year college programs now and doing well, Hillery shared. The thinking: Healthy habits start young. “Food justice” is more than providing and distributing food, and includes efforts to influence healthy lives, Along the way, the group has successfully transformed 10 abandoned lots into soil-based farms, hydroponic greenhouses, and school gardens. “Healthy food is a right,” he said. “We should demand healthy food,” and decries the prevalence of fast-food outlets rather than fresh food markets in the neighborhoods.

Harlem Grown has started launching free libraries on its farms with books for children aged 5-14relevant children’s books for ages 5-14, many donated by Penguin Random House. Students are invited to read books on the farms, take a book home and keep it. “Our mission is about so much more than food,” said Hillery. “I’m thrilled we made these libraries happen. As I say, ‘we don’t just grow food, we grow people.’”


“We don’t just grow food, we grow people.”




 "Digital is an absolute human right now . . . Digital is Everything"

Harlem is Healing celebrates Clayton Banks, co-founder and CEO of Silicon Harlem. Over 20 years, Banks has been a pioneer in the cable and communications industries, developing applications for network cloud, gaming consoles, social media, augmented reality, interactive TV, tablets, mobile apps and 400 interactive properties, including MTV, ESPN, Essence Music Festival, Urban Latino, Prudential, New York Institute of Technology, United Technologies, National Urban League, TV networks, and worked with former President Bill Clinton to publish an interactive college guide series  targeting historically black colleges and universities.


Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, Banks built his business and community focus around recognition that 40 percent of Harlem households lack internet access. When the disease kicked off stay-at-home orders, “It was clear immediately that digital was the path to everything – health, education, social services, benefits,” and so he set out to provide hundreds of laptops, connectivity hotspots and digital literacy to those needing service.


“It’s a three-legged stool among equipment, internet access and digital literacy,” and people need all of them,” he said. Through sponsors, including financial backers, universities and citizens, he found ways to get computers into the hands of students who suddenly found themselves trying to learn on-line, to jobless families, to those needing to use Zoom and other online meeting places. It is his mission to transform Harlem into an innovation and technology hub.  


The pandemic renewed his sense that the nation is too comfortable with disparities, whether racial or economic. It has motivated him to organize youth groups to learn principles of entrepreneurism and teamwork as well as computer code, and to bring connectivity into public housing common rooms. He has equipped families, students and teachers, and taught them to be comfortable with various uses for the computer. “Digital is an absolute human right now,” he argued. “It is no longer a luxury, it is a utility” that during the shutdown of the pandemic has meant life or death to many, 

Asked why he does it, he said that by giving a laptop to an A student who is living in a public housing apartment with three generations, he feels he may have been able to reach someone “who may prove to be the one to cure cancer.”




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“You see tons of body bags and tons of people and they’re labeled COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19. It’s like a horror show.”

— Nicole Warring, Funeral Director

Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates the four women undertakers at International Funeral & Cremation Services in Harlem, for whom coronavirus has created an overwhelming need to care for the dead as well as for the families left behind. The front lines of the fight have extended beyond hospitals and emergency workers, at times even forcing funeral homes to turn families away.


“We’re being told that we’re heroes for being on the front lines of this, but I feel like I’m failing families every day,” Lily Sage Weinrieb, one of the four morticians, told a Reuters reporter. The desire to customize funerals and care for families has had to give way to simpler ceremonies just by volume. These women have tried to find ways for families to say goodbye, sometimes continuing to text with families after funerals.


The phones in the funeral parlor have been ringing constantly. Suppliers say they are running out of caskets and urns. Jenny Adames, who lost two relatives to the disease, said she no longer hands families the casket catalog; she just asks what color.


Disease is never far away. To keep her daughters safe, Alisha Narvaez showers at the funeral home after embalmings and before going home, then changes clothes in a hallway and showers again when she gets home. Jenny Adames sent her daughter to live with her mother. Nicole Warring’s boyfriend caught the virus and recovered. “No mortuary school can prepare you for what we’re seeing now,” Warring said.





 “We want to keep people employed as well as help health workers. It is an urgent need.”

—Dr. Mujib Mannan, Malcolm Shabazz Center

Harlem is . . .  HEALING is celebrating 100 Tailors of Harlem, a group organized by the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market in Central Harlem to use skills to make needed masks and gowns for the medical and emergency community during the coronavirus pandemic.


At the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market in Central Harlem, the spread of coronavirus presented two simultaneous  problems – helping to provide masks, gowns and other protective equipment and keeping people employed in the neighborhood. Stepping up was a group called The 100 Tailors of Harlem, largely made up of West African immigrants, who showed creativity and selflessness.


The 100 Tailors of Harlem works as an extension of the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market small business incubator initiative, reported the Amsterdam News. “Many of our vendors are tailors and seamstresses,” said Dr. Mujib Mannan, executive director of the Shabazz Center. The 100 Tailors of Harlem, which began with 12 tailors at the Shabazz Harlem Market on 116th Street , has been using communal sewing skills to produce masks and gowns for use at Harlem Hospital and funeral homes.


“We want to keep the health care workers safe. Masks for funeral workers and hospitals are top priority,” said Mannan. “Right now, masks are free. It is a two-way street, we want to keep people employed as well as help health workers. It is an urgent need.”


Melba Wilson


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 “We’re honored to support the community by helping to get delicious hot meals safely to our neighbors sheltered in place."

Harlem is . . .  HEALING is celebrating chef JJ Johnson of FieldTrip, a Harlem restaurant that faced closing because of the coronavirus lockdown. Chef JJ started producing meals for hospital and emergency workers, re-hired staff and has helped to heal the community.

J.J. Johnson, the chef at FieldTrip in Harlem, just decided he -- and food -- could help those at Harlem Hospital who were suddenly flooded with coronavirus patients. Johnson packed and sent 40 rice bowls, his restaurant’s specialty, and followed up the next day by sending food to Mount Sinai, and is keeping at it. He let people know on Twitter, and those actions, in turn, generated new orders that allowed him to bring in two furloughed employees. 


Food, it turns out, is one of those things that can help heal in a crisis. And, by being a good neighbor, Johnson has reminded us that our heroes can be right next door – or at a restaurant in Harlem that helps nurses and medical staffers at Harlem hospital. “This has been one of the hardest movements of my life. When I say movement, as in FieldTrip is a true community restaurant,” said Johnson in a note to customers. “We've been able to support the Harlem Community, Children in Need, Laid-Off Hospitality Workers and First Responders. We've received charitable contributions from many and support from a myriad of organizations, philanthropists and individuals looking to contribute to the cause which IS Harlem. This has kept our spirits high.”


Johnson is a partner in Help Our Neighborhood Restaurants, a group that seeks to encourage local takeout and delivery during this crisis by following "rigorous sanitation protocols" in a time of disease. “We’re honored to join this group in supporting the community by helping to get delicious hot meals safely to our neighbors sheltered in place," Johnson explained. 


Owner of Melba's Restaurant
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“As my grandmother said, ‘This too will pass.’ "

Harlem is . . .  HEALING is celebrating Melba Wilson, owner of Melba’s Restaurant and head of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. A Harlem native, Wilson worked for her aunt Sylvia Woods at Sylvia's as well as at Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World before opening her own eponymous restaurant . She has worked hard to to keep restaurants alive through programs to serve take-out meals – particularly to local hospitals and emergency workers.


Melba Wilson’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is an extension of a lifetime committed to promoting Harlem and New York’s rich food culture, and in working to keep restaurants alive through programs to serve take-out meals – particularly to local hospitals. Her work reflects those using creativity and spirit to heal, a prime mission of this campaign. As we have seen with our own eyes, this disease has put extraordinary pressure on restaurants to survive, and programs to feed those pressed into working on the medical frontlines helps to keep restaurants alive.  Wilson told an anonymous caller to her restaurant, who ordered 100 meals for delivery to Mount Sinai hospital in East Harlem, that she was “uplifted by the fact that you are doing this (for others) – and helping my employees by doing this.”


Melba Wilson is not only a cooking legend but also a noted community hero known for greeting her guests with hugs as well as soul food, which she calls “the foundation of American comfort food.” She has joined with other local chefs to create communal food festivals to celebrate Harlem’s bakeries, museums, music sites and churches. She consistently presses to keep restaurant and business dollars in local neighborhoods, a key issue as restaurants face enormous problems by the lockdown resulting from the virus. “I’m leaning on my faith and spirit, but somehow, this too will pass.”




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“Distributing food is about giving hope.”

—James Gonzalez, co-owner, La Fonda Boricua

Harlem is. . . Healing salutes La Fonda Boricua, the well-known East Harlem restaurant, for its efforts to team up with World Central Kitchen and other restaurants in the area every week to distribute cooked meals and free, fresh produce to East Harlem’s neediest, surely an effort to try to heal Harlem during coronavirus, the mission of this campaign.


“Right from the beginning, when you could hear sirens every 10 minutes, you knew there would be people in trouble, and that seniors, in particular, might be forgotten,” said James Gonzalez, co-owner of La Fonda Boricua with founder Jorge Ayala. Gonzalez linked with efforts by Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen and helped organize a number of participating restaurants. “We decided to give out food.” The first 250 meals from a nearby kitchen were gone in two hours, and the need quickly grew, requiring the addition of other restaurants.


A volunteer distribution network, including off-duty police officers, delivered 2,500 meals, then 5,000 and finally a peak of 33,000 meals a week to seniors, the needy and nearby hospital staff. The program has now distributed well over 500,000 meals to seniors and needy. Even with budget limits and an ever-moving pandemic, the restaurant is providing meals to 400 a day three times a week.


In addition, every Thursday, the restaurant hands out produce to the community through an East 106th Street farmers’ market. La Fonda chefs have been offering recipes using the distributed ingredients and inviting neighbors to offer theirs. Gonzalez said the effort helped return workers to his restaurant and others. But mostly, Gonzalez said, it has been a program “aimed at recognizing the humanity of the moment.”




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 “It’s a perfect time to learn new skills, be of help,

and not focus on the virus.”

—Brenda Polanco, SoHarlem Collective

Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating the SoHarlem Collective run by Janet Rodriguez, It is a group of designers of color who share their fashion-making skills with apprentice; it also creates micro-businesses and provides mentoring, training and educational programs. It now focuses on protective clothing for local hospital workers.


After closing as a result of the coronavirus, the SoHarlem Collective re-opened solely to make hospital protective gear. Brenda Polanco, a Creative Entrepreneur for SoHarlem, heads the project. She ordered thousands of yards of medical-grade material at her own expense. The initial production was 300 gowns and 2,000 masks. Then Harlem Haberdashery ordered gowns for Harlem Hospital, and a bank ordered more for Mount Sinai and St. Barnabas hospitals, and Polanco reached out to SoHarlem’s apprentice recruits.


Now seven seamstresses who had been idled are back at work, sewing from home. “For me, it was a good thing to do, but also an escape from the stress of what is around us,” said Polanco. Janet Rodriquez, founder and CEO of SoHarlem Collective, said that while what they have produced is “a drop in the bucket for what our city needs, we will continue to do our part.” She has been involved in policy and grant-making positions in public, private and corporate roles for more than 20 years, particularly in pressing for the role that arts play.



“It’s not just ‘us against them.’ Community-building is the only way forward.”

Akemi Kochiyama,

writer, activist, co-director of the Yuri Kochiyama Archive Project


Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Akemi Kochiyama, writer, scholar and activist fighting against rising violence aimed at minorities and for solidarity between the Black and Asian American communities. In particular, she has promoted the legacy starting with civil rights work of her grandmother, Yuri Kochiyama, to encourage “telling the history that we don’t teach“  towards better cross-cultural understanding. 


Daughter of a mixed Japanese-heritage and Black marriage, Akemi lived the stories that she has spent years harvesting from her grandmother’s struggle through internment of Japanese-Americans to become a close friend and supporter of Malcolm X, “transforming her from a liberal civil rights activist to a revolutionary anti-imperialist.”


Currently, Akemi is the Director of Advancement at Manhattan Country School, a fund-raising position in a noted progressive school that set out decades ago to preserve an unusually economically diverse enrollment that pay sliding scale tuitions. It is a “factory for progressive causes.” She also co-directs the Yuri Kochiyama Archives Project. She is co-editor of Passing It On: A Memoir by Yuri Kochiyama, a graduate of Spelman College and a doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


“I have learned that as a Black Nikkei, I am not as much an anomaly as I once thought.” Through her own work as a fund-raiser among philanthropists for progressive causes and her scholarly pursuits as a cultural anthropologist, she has built relationships, helped produce films and messages to educate and bring people of different backgrounds together towards a more common understanding.


Over and over, she said, she hears stories of people who feel isolated and angry. “People who feel ignored find that they can learn from history that they were not the only ones, and that there are other groups who feel the same. That can lead to positive change,” she explained. Over 20 years, Akemi has found herself returning to the activism of her grandmother, who is honored in an outdoor wall mural at Old Broadway and 125th Street in West Harlem, to mine points of commonality from, a full gamut of social justice causes. 


As a child in Harlem, she was introduced early and often to protest and marking for social justice. “I don’t remember a time in which I wasn’t part of – or being carried – in a march,” she said.  Akemi was introduced to Japanese traditions and to the culture of Sugar Hill before attending Spelman College, a historically Black college. She is drawn to fighting the myths of group identify and the rising numbers of hate crimes. Incidents “made me think about how all of this strengthens and empowers white supremacy and how a longer historical perspective (that predates Korean grocery store conflicts and the “Asian Flu”) might be useful for understanding all of this,” she wrote. 

“I really feel that if people had more context, education, and understanding of where Black and Asian histories overlap, intersect, and where we have common oppression, we can truly be in solidarity,” she said.

Currently, Akemi is the Director of Advancement at Manhattan Country School, a fund-raising position in a noted progressive school that set out decades ago to preserve an unusually economically diverse enrollment that pay sliding scale tuitions. It is a “factory for progressive causes.” She also co-directs the Yuri Kochiyama Archives Project. She is co-editor of Passing It On: A Memoir by Yuri Kochiyama, a graduate of Spelman College and a doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

A link to the mini doc that Akemi participated in about her grandmother’s relationship with Malcolm X, part of 14 solidarity videos called the May 19th Project in honor of the birthday shared by Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X:

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“We are a Keep It Moving group. We can cry, we can laugh, but we have to keep it moving forward.”

Jackie Rowe-Adams, co-founder Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E.


Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Jackie Rowe-Adams for her continuing work to reduce gun violence in Harlem and beyond, as a year of pandemic and social justice turmoil has been resulting in increased reports of gun violence and hate crimes. 

Jackie, now 73, the mother of two sons were killed separately in gunfire, co-founded Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E. in 2006 with former state Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright to work with community youth and police to stem availability of guns and to promote ways to reduce gun violence. Simply put, she feels it is too easy to get guns, and too quick for people to use them. She has sponsored bereavement groups, marches and rallies and youth programs towards keeping Harlem healthy, reflecting the focus of this continuing Harlem is . . . Healing campaign by Community Works/New Heritage Theatre Group. 

“We just had another shooting yesterday. There are shootings every day, and we have to do something about it,” she explains. “We have too much gun violence, and we need to work with the police to stop it. Guns are coming into this community by the truckload, by the carload, every day.”

A lifelong Harlem resident, Jackie has worked as a music specialist with the city Parks and Recreation Department since 1986 as well as a DC37 official, and started nonprofits including Talented Seniors and Youth on the Move to provide performance opportunities and college scholarships. She has been Recreation Center manager at Morningside Park, run the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center, has coordinated senior center activities, and has worked in a variety of church, union and community groups. She is an active singer at church and community events and privately, has appeared in the off-Broadway musical, “Mamma I Want to Sing,” and at sports openings. 

Her community work started early in her life, as a youth counselor in her church’s summer day camp, where she used her music training to start organizing young people. Over time, she has been a member of community boards, civic groups and the Mid-Manhattan NAACP. As a result, she has won a variety of awards, including from the FBI and local police, the New York Division of the Citizens’ Academy, the Charles H. Moore Jr. service award and St. Luke’s Hospital. 

  As she has told it, she was numbed by her own sons’ needless deaths, and angered to see others. When three murders broke out one night, she and five other mothers went to Wright to demand action. It resulted in creation of Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E, which runs year-round programs for young people, with more than 50 parents actively working on legislation and enforcement programs. 

The group also marches and lobbies for what it sees as sensible gun controls and too often has served as advocates for families in need after gun violence has happened. Current projects including lobbying for passage of the so-called Gun Kingpin legislation in Albany for greater punishments for those convicted of trafficking more than 20 guns at a time, gun buy-back programs, and for changes in bail laws to give judges more discretion to keep those facing gun violence charges in jail, as well as planning a summer youth program and running a weekly food program at their 128th Street quarters. 

The pandemic worsened the situation, she said.  Lockdowns at home increased domestic violence, loss of jobs and rise of hate have sparked new outbreaks of violence, she said, adding that we are seeing a lot of mental illness play out on the streets. Availability of guns worsened the dangers. “None of that gives people a right to shoot other people,” she said. “We need to work with police, who are under a lot of pressure and not always perfect, but we need them. People talk about the police killing people. We are killing ourselves. We need the police.”

For Jackie, healing is a community effort. “We all need to heal together and seek peace together, and support our young people.”

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