Women’s History Month: Honoring Wanda Salaman and Mothers on the Move
March 24, 2017
The South Bronx has a long history of women inspiring their communities to fight for change. Mothers on the Move (MOM) and their Executive Director Wanda Salaman—a longtime activist—have fought tirelessly for more than two decades to win many victories around housing, economic, education, and environmental issues that affect South Bronx residents.
MOM and Wanda emphasize working together with community members through education, research, meetings, actions and different strategies to win social justice victories, which resonates strongly with the work we do at The Laundromat Project. “With a lot of organizing, people think that people go in the streets and they start just protesting, but before you start with a protest, you do analysis, and you make sure this is a right move that you need to make, and you consult people from the community before you come up with those positions…Through our work with tenant organizing and education, we have gotten people to become more confident and take more charge in making stuff happen for the community.”
Field Day 2016 event with garifuna dances at MOM offices
The Laundromat Project has partnered with MOM, most recently last year for Field Day 2016 in Hunts Point/Longwood. We asked Wanda for her thoughts on how artists can work with community organizations: “Just like how we organizers are working with people and teaching them about why things are happening, having artists teach their peers is equally important. We shouldn’t sell out to this side or the other…. Learning about the people in the community and the organizations in the community is important.” Wanda has opened up MOM’s office in Hunts Point/Longwood for artists, such as a group of Garifuna dancers, and local entrepreneurs to meet in their space.
The Laundromat Project has been fortunate to be community partners with MOM as well as neighbors in Hunts Point/Longwood, and we wanted to highlight the amazing histories of community resiliency that Wanda shared with us recently:
Wanda, neighbors, and LP volunteers in front of MOM offices at Field Day 2016.
Bronx Activism in the 1970s
After moving from Puerto Rico with her family to the Bronx in 1975, Wanda and other youth from the neighborhood got involved with the Bronx Youth Community Organization to help their neighbors with widespread issues that many communities in the Bronx were facing in the 70s—a major one being owner neglect of buildings and tenants. Wanda recalls, “there were a lot of fires and buildings burning at the time and no sense of neighborhood.” The “Bronx was burning” because landlords would abandon buildings and burn them down to claim insurance money, from which they saw more profit than collecting rent from tenants.
“That was a time when I learned we have to love where we live… I got involved with volunteering, community gardens…St. Barnabas hospital, and different services,” Wanda shared as she reflected on the impact this work had on her early on. She also noted that others in the neighborhood started cleaning the lots and getting active in their communities. “They weren’t going to move upstate or to Co-op City, so there was a lot of civic participation on a lot of levels in the Bronx, and community organizations being formed to tackle issues.” Many of these groups were intergenerational, and Wanda would go on to work as an organizer with Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which she had connected with through her youth organizing.
Public Housing Victory with NYCHA
Wanda joined MOM as a co-director in 2002 and started organizing around public housing and NYCHA. That was more than a decade ago and the wait time to get repairs done was almost two years. “The only way they were going to get repairs done was if we organized the tenants and the residents took action… Up to 50 families would work together to make an action and housing petition to sue NYCHA for repairs.” MOM’s efforts in organizing and educating tenants around housing, along with the legal help of the Urban Justice Center, contributed to a vast reduction of the waiting time for repairs. Today the wait time is around three weeks instead of two years.
MOM celebrating a campaign VICTORY in 2010.
Green jobs and Environmental Justice
With the lead of NYCHA residents, MOM supported the development of white papers and proposals for the creation of employment that would benefit the environment while employing local residents, such as having NYCHA residents collect recyclables from different housing developments. From 2009-10, MOM organized with members of the community to shut down The NY Organic Fertilizer Company (NYOFCo), which had polluted the air in South Bronx for years while getting $20 million a year from New York City. Wanda recalls for many she knew that “in the summertime, it was frustrating because when [you] used to open the windows, especially if you lived in Hunts Point, this [would be] an asthma trigger.” MOM organized a committee of local residents to take on the giant company with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). They conducted research while strategizing through meetings and actions for over a year and were able to sue the city and company successfully and shut down the fertilizer plant.
MOM Press Conference on their campaign vistory against NYOFCo.
Mothers on the Move: Founded Around Collective Learning
Milli Bonilla and the other founders of Mothers on the Move—a group of women who went to a literacy school near Kelly St. in Hunts Point/Longwood— understood the importance of education and collective learning in fighting for change, and started the organization in order to push for improvements in the South Bronx school system that both they and their kids were a part of. Wanda shared that “organizing has inspired a lot of women to do more work in our communities to do things they thought they couldn’t do,” and she is inspired by the women she’s met through MOM such as Mili Bonilla, an early mentor to Wanda, and legally blind local resident Jessie McDonald, a former board president of MOM. “There’s nothing you couldn’t tell Ms. Jessie that she wouldn’t have done…. she was one of the first members of the organization in 1992… always willing to do work and facilitate a meeting, even though she wasn’t prepared to assist. But you just prep her for two minutes, and she would just run with the ball. She inspired and motivated other people to keep working.”
MOM and NYCHA residents meeting with Commissioner Margarita Lopez on NYCHA’s Green Agenda.
Wanda, who today is the Executive Director of MOM, and her team continue to champion community-led change in the Bronx communities and their success comes from their love and commitment to doing this work on a daily basis. Wanda reminded us that in doing this kind of work to further social justice and community building, “you must love what you do. And begin to love the place in which you are doing.”