Volunteer Ashley Ellick sits behind a t-shirt table as volunteer Celia Hoskins looks at the display in the lobby of the East Village Cinema. The women are volunteers at NYC Mental Health Film Festival. Photo By Keziah Tutu
Films that create awareness of mental illness were the focus of yesterday’s NYC Mental Health Film Festival at the East Village Cinema.
“My grandmother suffered from mental illness. I want to understand some of what she experienced,” said Eric Williams, a first-time attendee of the NYC Mental Health Film Festival. “By learning about what other people go through, we can then learn about what we need to do to help.”
This is the 13th year of the film festival sponsored by Community Access, a nonprofit organization that supports people living with mental illness. Eight different films were screened during the one day festival, ranging from short pieces to documentaries.
Films were chosen by a screening committee made up of Community Access employees and volunteers at a meeting held at the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation services, a nonprofit organization in Albany. Genres ranged from documentary, fiction, animated films and autobiographical stories.
“A lot of the time, mental health is associated with homelessness and substance abuse, but there are a lot of people in professional fields that too suffer from mental illness,” said Eugene Smith, 64, a veteran volunteer of the festival. “These films help bring that to the forefront so there is less stigma.”
Some of the film producers also experience mental health conditions, said Sandy Brower, a member of the screening committee.
“The personal stories told by producers, who have a personal connection to mental health, are the most impactful,” she said.
Films must meet certain guidelines to be screened at the festival. They can’t be too long or too expensive to screen. They can’t be too emotional or violent for an audience who may also be suffering from mental health issues.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness about 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 adults experience a mental illness that interferes with or limits major life activities.
“I was diagnosed with manic depression and psychotic episodes beginning at age 19, and I was in and out of institutions and on various meds,” said Steven Muff, who has volunteered at the film festival for 12 years. “I’m involved with this work because they keep the conversation going, not that anyone has any of the answers, but it’s important to discuss.”
Many volunteers at the festival have mental health issues, Muff said, adding that there is a stigma surrounding mental illness and it is important to educate different communities about what it is and what it can look like.
Celia Hoskins, volunteer who has bipolar disorder, shared her experience of watching one of last year’s films about a young black boy who was confronted by police while having a manic episode.
“It seems as if the moment someone mentions mental health and the authorities are involved the situation turns violent,” she said. “But this film showed how it can be handled gently.”
Ashley Ellick, 24, another first-time attendee and volunteer, came to learn how to build support systems for those affected by mental illness. This cause is especially important to her because her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia 10 years ago.
Growing up in an African-American household, mental illness was never spoken of until her brother’s diagnosis, she said. Now she wants to create awareness.
“Mental health is almost like a myth in the black community,” she said. You don’t talk about it, you pray it out.”
African-Americans and Hispanic Americans use mental health services at about half the rate of white Americans, and about one third the rate Asian Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“My advice to others is just be informed, be supportive and listen,” Ellick said.
Visitors at The Women’s Building Block Party yesterday wrote their visions for the new Women’s Building. Responses read, “Liberation!” “Justice!” and “Equality!” Photo by Claire Tighe
Formerly incarcerated women and their advocates filled a Chelsea street yesterday for the second annual Women’s Building Block Party.
The block party was on West 20th Street, in the shadow of Bayview Correctional Facility, a former women’s prison. In the afternoon sun, the faded brick walls of the prison cast shadows over the white vendor tents. For many attendees of the block party, Bayview symbolized sad memories of their sentences and the injustice they faced as women who were once incarcerated.
“At first it was eerie to see some place I lived and used to look out the window and wish I was home,” said Iris Bowen, 59, of Mt. Vernon, New York. She spent four years in Bayview. “I remember many times crying. It feels like you’re the walking dead. You are alive and living and seeing life happen and you’re not there. That’s what it felt like, looking at Chelsea Pier, people rollerskating and going for walks, the cars. I wished I was there with my family.”
Bayview, a medium security prison, was closed right before Superstorm Sandy struck the city in 2012. The 153 inmates were sent to other facilities.
But this block party focused on second chances, which the prison building will have.
There is a plan to transform Bayview into The Women’s Building, a global hub for organizations working to advance the rights of women and girls. It is expected to be completed by 2022.
“The Block Party is to let the neighborhood know what The Women’s Building is about,” Bowen said. “A lot of people don’t know that this was a prison, a place of injustice. And now it’s a place of justice. It’s important for people to know what it was and what it is turning into. The transformation will be phenomenal.”
On a nearby stage, formerly incarcerated women performed for a crowd of friends, family members, and random passersby exiting the Highline. Along the sidewalk, women and gender advocacy groups distributed literature about their work.
Johanna Flores, 37, of Corona, Queens, is an employment coordinator for Hour Children, a nonprofit organization serving incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. She was hired there after her release from Bayview 14 years ago.
“It’s very important to continue supporting this population,” she said. “We have so many talents. There are so many leaders here that are formally incarcerated. We deserve a chance.”
Formerly incarcerated women, many of whom served sentences at Bayview and were involved with The Women’s Building process, took center stage at the block party. They gave live performances, staffed the booths, and ran the catering. For many, it was critical to draw attention to the experiences that women, specifically women of color, face with mass incarceration.
Shirelle Howard, 54, of the East Village, was incarcerated for 25 years. She felt many of the women she met were wrongly incarcerated, and that the right resources and education could have prevented them for entering the system.
“Most programs for incarcerated people are geared toward men,” Howard said. “This is for women who never had someone say, ‘Hey, come on over here. We’ve got something for you. When you get out of jail, you can still move forward.’”
Many of the Women’s Building Block Party vendors offered education and advocacy to keep women and girls out of jail.
Keila Pulinario, 43, of Long Island City, Queens, was incarcerated for two years at Bayview. During her sentence, she worked as a chef. Since her release, she started a catering company, Chi-Chi’s Kitchen, one of two food vendors at the block party. She spoke positively about the transformation of The Women’s Building.
“That’s a building that once held us in bondage,” she said. “The building itself has such significant sadness and bad memories. Now you’re looking at it in a positive aspect: geared toward helping women as opposed to oppressing us. I’m excited about that.”
Community Access tenants pose for a photo during their bike ride on Governors Island. Photo by Lauren Garry
The first day of fall in New York City was today and it was marked by quintessential autumnal weather. The sun was in the sky, accompanied by low humidity and a crisp breeze. It was the perfect day for Community Access, a mental health and supportive housing nonprofit, to host a tenant bike ride on Governors Island.
“I haven’t been on a bike in over 30 years,” said Antoinette Whiting, 51, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I spent a lot of my youth doing things that weren’t too good, so I’ve never been here. I didn’t even know (Governors Island) existed, and it’s just really awesome.”
Whiting is one of the thousands of people Community Access has served in New York City. The nonprofit’s mission is to expand opportunities for people living with mental health concerns to recover from trauma and discrimination.
“I was in the shelter and I was going through a pretty dark area in my life,” said Timothy Davis, 28, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “Community Access definitely helped me. They helped my self-esteem, they helped me job wise and most of all they got me a place I could call home.”
Through the Housing as Healthcare model, health and wellness activities were integrated into Community Access tenants’ everyday lives. The bike rides began two years ago.
Community Access’ partnership with Citi Bike helped to make this bike-share event possible. Through the partnership, Community Access received 30 Citi Bike keys to use wherever bikes are available for staff members to lead group rides.
“This is not something that our tenants may have gotten to do otherwise,” said Rica Bryan, 31, Community Access’ Health and Wellness Coordinator. “People can choose to use the Citi Bikes, or explore the island on foot.”
While this was the first year of the partnership between Community Access and Citi Bike, today’s event was not the first tenant bike ride they’ve hosted on Governors Island.
“The first time I was overcome with enjoyment,” said Davis. “I’m super stoked. This is a great day to be out here. It’s beautiful. “
Davis’ excitement was palpable. He smiled, skipped and ran around with enthusiasm, and even tried some tricks on his Citi Bike.
“This is special because there’s a whole lot of negative things going on right now and for us to come together as different people from Community Access, to come together and share this excellent experience is totally awesome,” said Davis.
Bryan described the part of the day she most looked forward to as “sharing in the joy of being together, being in a really beautiful place, and gathering our Community Access community.”
Eugene Smith, 61, of Morris Heights in the Bronx was happy to be out in the fresh air and having stability in his life.
“I’ve been with Community Access now for nine years, and until now, I’ve never lived in a place for nine years in my entire life consistently,” he said
Tenants and employees worked like a family. They helped each other put on helmets, adjust bike seats, and even to balance on the bikes.
“We’re all in this together, to figure out how to support each other,” said Bryan. “I’m getting connected to some really wonderful people who haven’t always had opportunities to thrive or live to their full potential, so I feel great to be with them today.”
Participants of the Abortion Access Hackathon, a three day, woman-dominated event hosted at Buzzfeed office in Gramercy Park. Photo by Claire Tighe
In the waning light of yesterday evening, 100 hundred participants of the Abortion Access Hackathon typed away on their laptops at Buzzfeed’s office in Gramercy Park. But this was not your typical fast-paced coding event competition, inspired by the tech bro culture of Silicon Valley.
Instead, the Abortion Access Hackathon facilitated collaboration between two groups who rarely ever meet: abortion advocates and technology experts. Together, teams did not compete for the best idea, but collaborated to build projects — like basic websites and databases — that would increase access to abortion.
The idea for the Abortion Access Hackathon originally came from Shireen Whitaker, 33, one of the event organizers from Sacramento, California. While working at an abortion provider, Whitaker’s team had decades of experience in the field but little knowledge about how technology could advance their work. She and another organizer of the hackathon, Emily Loen, 36, of Northern California, started to look for tech experts who would donate their expertise to the organization.
“Pretty much all of the people who worked (at the provider) had worked there since the ’70s when it started,” she said. We were the only ones who knew how to do anything digital or tech-related. We needed tech intervention from experts but didn’t have the resources to pay for it.”
Whitaker’s experience is a common one. Underfunded and understaffed, many abortion clinics and advocacy organizations do not have enough money or paid staff to engage software designers or engineers, whose expertise is often costly.
Dan Staples, 32, an engineer from Baltimore, Maryland, who works at National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), said the hackathon helped many groups for which basic technology, like a working website or database, is usually inaccessible.
“NNAF works with 70 local and regional abortions funds, many of whom do not have any paid staff and all have very limited budgets. Hiring tech consultants, web designers, and app developers is out of reach for them,” he said.
But the introduction of basic technology, such as a working website or searchable database, can make a crucial difference in the work of abortion providers, advocates and clients.
At this weekend’s hackathon, one of the teams improved the visuals on a website called ExposeFakeClinics.com. The website, which includes a short form that visitors can fill out detailing their experiences with crisis pregnancy clinics, was fairly basic. But it could save advocates hours of precious time in finding a provider when working with a patient for whom every minute counts. For a small nonprofit or provider’s office to code such a website without the expertise of an engineer would have been arduous and time intensive, if not nearly impossible.
“People who work in abortion care are very busy and their focus is client care,” said Wendy Robinson, 73, a board member at Abortion Conversation Projects from Western Massachusetts. “They don’t have hours to be Google searching. The small things make a big difference.”
The New York City Abortion Access Hackathon was preceded by two eponymous events earlier this year in California. For the organizers, engaging the unique creative and technology in New York City was tantamount.
“After our event in March, people kept saying, ‘When are you coming to my town?’ New York City is unique in that everyone in the abortion world (here) talks to each other, Loen said. “But I don’t know if they were talking to tech. We are here to modernize abortion access. Bringing people with an incredible amount of knowledge on the subject matter along with tech folks is the easiest way to make that happen.”
Actor and writer Chazz Palminteri was the Grand Marshal of the 91st Annual Feast of San Gennaro in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Photo By Lauren Garry
Among the sea of people and through billowing clouds of smoke from hot griddles, a familiar face smiled and waved to passersby. Tony Danza, actor and co-owner of Alleva Dairy, served Italian specialties to customers in front of his store on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets, one of the many restaurants that participated in the 91st Annual Feast of San Gennaro in Manhattan’s Little Italy.
“No one understands the amount of effort that goes into putting on the festival,” said Danza, clad in an Alleva t-shirt and disposable vinyl gloves. “Everyone puts in so much time and so much effort for the 11 days, and four days of setup before, so 15 days!”
Alleva Cheese had no need to shout to gain people’s attention, as visitors flocked to the street stand to get a glimpse of Danza, 66, at work. The “Who’s the Boss?” and “Taxi” star said he was going to work the stand each day during the festival. Danza can often be found working the cash register at the little cheese shop which calls itself “the oldest cheese shop in the nation.”
Meanwhile a photo with Danza was a bigger draw than the cheese. Danza, a native New Yorker, paused to take photos with fans in between serving pasta, meat and cheese.
Days before the Feast, Danza posted a photo to Instagram of himself serving sausage and peppers at the Alleva Cheese stand in 2016. He became a co-owner of the cheese shop four years ago.
Danza wasn’t the only celebrity sighting at the Feast. Chazz Palminteri, writer and Academy Award-nominated actor, was this year’s Grand Marshal.
“Now yous can’t leave!” Many spectators shouted at Palminteri who rode on the Figli Di San Gennaro, Inc. float, which led the parade yesterday. The line was uttered by, Sonny, a character made famous in the film he wrote and starred in, “A Bronx Tale.”
Palminteri laughed and waved back as the float carried him down Mulberry Street.
After the parade, Palminteri took a photo with NYPD officers that he tweeted to his 55.9 thousand followers, captioned, “With NYPD at the Saint Genaro feast on Mulberry Street – may God Bless them.”
Smells of Italian cuisine permeated the area as visitors enjoyed the copious amounts of food and browsed stands full of gold jewelry, clothing and collectibles. The 11-day feast hosted hundred of vendors and honored the patron saint of Naples.
“For some, they make a whole year’s salary during the Feast,” said Rob Cervoni, 29, from Roslyn, Long Island. This was the first year the New Yorker parked his 16 Handles mobile trailer in the row of vendors at the festival. “This is one of the greatest feasts in the world, and one of the biggest,” he said pouring frozen lemonade for a customer through the trailer’s serving window.