The topic below was originally posted in my blog the Intrepid Liberal Journal.
In 1985, the US vs. Yonkers ruling challenged the institutionalized housing and educational discrimination of an entire city. It was the first time housing discrimination was linked to a segregated school system and this ruling codified a remedy for both.
The fallout from the litigation exposed the naked bigotry of Yonkers, New York as the white community resented any effort to expand access to better, more integrated housing for minorities. I attended Sarah Lawrence College located nearby in Bronxville from 1987-1991 and followed the racism with disgust. Sadly, the city of Yonkers found being in contempt of court preferable to addressing their legacy of racism.
On February 9th, at 9:00 PM, Brick By Brick: A Civil Rights Story, a one-hour documentary about Yonkers will air on New York’s local PBS station Channel 13. This important documentary was produced and directed by William Kavanagh. Kavanagh is a good friend who I came to know through regularly reading his blog. I’m hoping with the help of the progressive netroots, PBS will be persuaded to show his documentary to a national audience.
Kavanagh’s filmmaking career is dedicated to illustrating the human dimension of public policy issues. In 2001, Kavanagh was the field producer for Enemies of War, a PBS documentary on the civil war in El Salvador. Kavanagh went to El Salvador and interviewed rebel commanders, Jesuit priests, officials from the Salvadoran and US governments, human rights workers and ordinary Salvadoran citizens. He covered the first elections after the ceasefire and interviewed the late Congressman Joe Moakley and his aide, Jim McGovern, who broke the wall of silence around the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter by the Salvadoran military in 1989. Enemies of War was shown nationally on PBS.
With Brick By Brick, Kavanagh and his production team illustrate how a ghetto was created through public policies. It is the local people themselves from different backgrounds, who describe their experiences with housing and educational discrimination. This is contrasted with still other local people living across town who enjoyed superior opportunities and access to a better life.
Kavanagh’s film also informs viewers how local public school divisions emerged in a neighborhood overwhelmed with 7,000 units of public housing, “further entrenching the city’s color line.” The community reacted to these conditions in their children’s schools by fighting back and compelling Yonkers to change.
Essentially, Kavanagh’s documentary follows three families in Yonkers, New York as they navigate through the volatile maelstrom of racial politics and discrimination law in housing and schools that transforms their hometown. As Kavanagh put it to me,
“The fact that Yonkers (as well as other cities which were not held to account in court) essentially kept their foot-dragging and evasion going for so many years after going into contempt of the Federal courts in 1988 is symbolic of the turn that civil rights enforcement has taken since the end of the Carter Administration, when US vs. Yonkers was originally filed. The film title is a bit of tribute to the folks who pressed on, despite the odds, to fight for an equitable end to the situation there.”
This story merits maximum exposure and support by the progressive netroots. Yonkers is no different from many of our hometowns and neighborhoods. First and foremost the project needs money if it has any chance of ever being seen by a wider audience. I hope anyone reading this with the means will consider making a donation. The New York Foundation for the Arts (NFA) sponsors Brick by Brick and is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations can be made through the NFA by clicking here. When completing the online form please type “William Kavanagh” for artist’s name and “Brick By Brick: A Civil Rights Story” for project title.
As many reading this post are not New Yorkers and don’t have access to Local WNET 13, please click here for the contact information of Kavanagh Productions to request a press screener for bloggers. Upon viewing the film, if you approve of it, please contact WNET 13 praising it (click here for their contact information).
Our country is confronted with challenges ranging from war and peace to millions who don’t have health insurance. So many issues and causes competing for the attention of progressives. Civil rights are a core value that must never be allowed to slip through the cracks as we work to improve society and bring peace to the world. William Kavanagh reminds us with his documentary about the importance of standing up for justice in our own neighborhoods.