As a native Brooklynite living in Brooklyn, preservationist and activist, Zulmilena Then works in various capacities to preserve her home community. She believes historic preservation can be a social justice tool to address issues impacting vulnerable communities stemming from structural racism. In 2015, this inspired her to form Preserving East New York (PENY), an organization focused on celebrating and elevating the voices of the predominantly Black and Brown East New York (ENY) community to make a real social and political change to protect it through historic preservation. Through PENY’s community-powered work, the ENY community celebrated the designation of its 4th landmarked building in 2017, the Empire State Dairy Co. Buildings at 2840 Atlantic Avenue, after the last designation occurred 36 years prior.
She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Pratt Institute. She was previously the Preservation Manager at Weeksville Heritage Center, ensuring the integrity and long-term preservation of the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses, the only remaining domestic structures of the 19th-century Weeksville neighborhood (present-day Crown Heights), one of the largest free African American communities in the United States. Before her role at WHC, she worked as a Junior Architect at Michael Ivanhoe McCaw Architect, P.C. in Brooklyn, NY. With the office in one of Bed-Stuy’s historic districts, she developed a particular interest and specialty in managing historic preservation projects. While working with local property owners to renovate while preserving their brownstone homes, she learned the importance and impact of having a sense of place in communities of color. It instilled her ideas and philosophy about what preservation can do in other communities and led her to the foundation of PENY.