Saturday, June 1, 2013

How Parents from Different Backgrounds United to Save Brooklyn's Largest Youth Sports Program

When when Liz and I moved into Park Slope in 1976, the house we bought- for very little- was across the street from St Saviour's High School and parish church on 6th Street, a block from Prospect Park. I was a sports fanatic who began training my daughter Sara to throw hit and catch from the time she was two, so as soon as she reached the age of five, I took her across the Street and enrolled in the baseball league sponsored by St. Saviour's Youth Council. The gym that day was filled with three hundred families, about two thirds long time Irish and Italian residents of Park Slope, many of whom were parish members and about a third who looked like ex hippies, who represented the new wave of migrants into the neighborhood. 

Thus began an amazing 15 years of my life coaching, and eventually, helping run an amazing youth sports organization.. My daughter Sara became a star of boys baseball,  then boys basketball, playing on travelling teams as well as in the neighborhood league and my son Eric, four years younger, but equally talented, followed suit. Within two years of my daughter's enrollment, I was invited to join the Board of the St. Saviour's Youth Council, where I joined a dedicated group of individuals most of whom were long time neighborhood residents in running a program that was rapidly getting a reputation as the best youth sports organization in Brooklyn and attracting parents from Bed Stuy, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Prospect Heights as well as Park Slope.

 When I was invited to join the Board, nobody knew my background as an ex-Columbia activist who had been arrested several times,  or had read anything I had written. They only knew me as a big, loud, athletic guy who loved coaching and had a daughter who could compete with the best of the boys. And I knew nothing about the political perspective of other board members, who included cops, firemen, small business people.secretaries, along with a few lawyers and teachers.  We looked different and clearly had different histories, but when it came to providing young people with the best possible opportunities to play baseball and basketball, we all were equally passionate an equally dedicated. We spent hours and hours meeting together, supervising teams and leagues together, and occasionally drinking together--celebrating our accomplishments with a great awards banquet and an annual "Fifties Dance" featuring doo wop groups like Vito and the Elegants.

  Then, after I had been involved in the program for about seven or eight years. we faced a crisis. The parish priest Monsignor James ..........., became increasingly enraged that the majority of young people playing ball and congregating in his parish gyms were not parish members, and worse yet, as he made clear in  some very blunt remarks, contained large numbers of Jews and Blacks.  He decided  to evict the program from the parish, not only taking away precious space, but removing Catholic Youth Organization sponsorship.

 The Board and parents were all in shock. The program had now grown to over 900 youngsters and was a true cross section of Brooklyn's varied ethnic groups.  Most people, especially those who were parish members, were skeptical that we could resist the Monsignor's eviction order, so I decided to "come out of the closet" as a ex student revolutionary. I told the Board that I had been part of the movement which prevented Columbia University from building a gymnasium on a public park,  which everyone had regarded as a "fait accompli" when it was proposed, and I was confident we could get the Brooklyh Diocese to overturn the Monsignor's actions.  The Board was so enraged by what was happening that they decided to join me in challenging the eviction order, and so began a movement that involved hundreds, if not thousands of families that included petition drives, rallies, letter writing campaigns, and well placed newspaper articles. We formed a negotiating team to deal with the Diocese, which included me and a famous lawyer, Ed McDonald, and began a very difficult set of meetings. At first, the Diocese insisted that the Monsignor "owned" the parish and that his word had the power of law. But when they saw how many people were coming to the demonstrations we organized and read the racist quotes from the Monsignor that had been strategically placed in newspaper articles by sympathetic reporters, they changed their position.  They said we could continue to use the parish facilities if we paid rent and found another sponsor

   When we brought the news to the Board and parents, they were overjoyed We got to local police precinct to allow us to operate under their name and 501 c 3, which continuing to play CYO ball as St. Saviour's.  The program not only survived, it expanded, and has thrived to this day.

   There is a lesson here,I think for parent organizers trying to to organize families to resist out of control testing and the Common Core.  When people of different backgrounds and political perspectives get together in defense of their children well being, not even the post powerful institutions can stop them.   We accomplished  the "impossible" then, and we can do it now!

No comments: