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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Highbridge's Heros

Chauncy Young seems almost physically unable to say the word "I" when talking about the work he's done as a community organizer for the Highbridge section of the Bronx. Colleagues and the residents whose lives he's touched however, consider him a one-man force of nature.

"I'm not very focused on taking credit," the 32-year-old says, taking a rare pause from his seemingly perpetual motion -- on his day off he is re-tiling his kitchen -- to make the point. Wiping cement from his trademark wire-rimmed Gandhi-style glasses, he continues: "It's more important as what we as a community are able to do."

"We" is Young's preferred pronoun; our common struggles the trope that runs through his entire life. He's spent it organizing community action, from student protests to union strikes. Young's been Highbridge's education organizer for five years, living there for three. He's fought for diverse issues: against razing parks, for new schools and expanding school holidays to reflect Muslim observances to name a very few.

"Wear sneakers with Chauncy," his co-workers at the Highbridge Community Life Center warn, a reference to the organizer's relentless energy for his causes.

Young isn't the "we" of the community he serves. He's white; Highbridge is black and Hispanic. Though he learned Spanish when at the University of Massachusetts and from his Puerto Rican wife Annalisa whom he met in college, he's from Rochester, NY.

"You'd think that he would stand out visually," says his coworker Dora Morillo, "But once he commits to something, people look past the outer exterior. Because he's true to what he says."

Despite differences, Young finds himself at home. Bounded by wide thoroughfares, he says, Highbridge's remoteness keeps the neighborhood tightly knit -- much like his childhood small town.

But the distinction is clear: At the first of the four shootings the Young's daughter, Isobel, 6, has witnessed, she asked, "Where's Superman?" With one of the nation's highest crime rates, Highbridge is no small town idyll.

Young's sister Melissa committed suicide at age 29 in 2001, just before Isobel's birth. He'd been Melissa's rock in hard times before, but fatherhood took his focus. He still struggles with guilt.

Unable to change the past, he rights present wrongs. Helping African immigrant Bandiougou Magassa, a 22-year veteran custodian of NYC schools who was fired though he worked while receiving chemotherapy, was a highpoint.

More than the fact that Young helped raise $26,000 when Magassa's extended family perished in a 2007 fire, Magassa was moved that Young attended mosque mourning services. Magassa approached him with his story, which Young took to the Department of Education and the governor. Magassa was reinstated.

"A white man like him, when you see him around us, you don’t think he is a white man," says Magassa, who calls Young a "hero". "There is not color difference, you don’t recognize it."

Young acknowledges victories like Magassa's are few and far between in his line of work. "You always loose," he says, tamping down a final tile on his kitchen wall. "But it's the struggle; you make small victories out of it."

1) Chauncy Young, courtesy The Highbridge Community Life Center
2) Funeral services for the victims of the March 7th fire, courtesy The New York Sun