The mission of Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice (YMPJ) is to rebuild the neighborhoods of Bronx River and Soundview/Bruckner Boulevard in the South Bronx by preparing community members to become prophetic voices for peace and justice. We accomplish this through political education, spiritual formation, youth development, and community development and organizing. YMPJ’s mission includes providing assistance to low-income immigrant communities in need of legal and social services to assist them with obtaining citizenship and becoming self-sufficient members of the Bronx community, in addition to organizing the community to act in ways that benefit their interests. YMPJ currently offers direct services to our community for individuals and families seeking entitlement benefits and/or immigration-related services. We also offer programming and run campaigns that tie into all aspects of our mission and goals.
Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) was established by Bronx native Alexie Torres-Fleming. Raised in the Bronx River Public Housing Projects, she witnessed firsthand the social injustice of municipal disinvestment and planned shrinkage in the seventies. She started her community work in the early 90s by organizing prayer marches in front of local drug houses. Drug dealers retaliated by breaking into the church, vandalizing the interior, and starting fires. A follow-up rally mobilized 1,200 people, earning national press attention and successfully rehabilitating the drug dens. Realizing the power of community organization, Torres-Fleming founded YMPJ in 1994.
For two decades YMPJ has focused on environmental stewardship. Historically, the primary focus of its environmental campaigns was the Bronx River. In the early 2000s YMPJ volunteers worked to educate the local community about the river’s terrible conditions by paddling the river, and eventually coordinated with NYC Department of Sanitation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others (Army Corp, DEC, DEP), to extract thousands of discarded tires and more than 40 submerged cars.
YMPJ volunteers then set their sights on reclaiming Concrete Plant Park, seven acres of public waterfront made inaccessible by a century of irresponsible industry and blight. In consultation with YMPJ, the reclaimed park opened in 2009, and in 2010 it received a National Park Service design award.
In 2014, in response to local demand communicated during YMPJ’s community meetings, YMPJ launched its innovative Soundview Marketplace campaign. This project aims to transform the underside of the Bruckner Expressway into a vibrant community hub while simultaneously addressing the longstanding community need for food access, economic development, and intergenerational programming. This 22,500 ft2 space is one of only three connections between Soundview and surrounding communities, but has been historically underutilized. As YMPJ’s Soundview Marketplace, this public space will be active year-round, anchoring the aforementioned Foodway efforts to positively influence public health through food and cultural programming. The space will feature a greenmarket run by local youth and other vendors, and incubator space for food manufacturing, facilitating employment and job training opportunities. Once completed, the Soundview Marketplace will serve as a gateway to Bronx River Foodway programming, and an amenity for Soundview residents and the 200,000 drivers who use the Expressway every day.
In 2016, YMPJ volunteers started constructing Swale, a “food forest” project in Concrete Plant Park. Local YMPJ youth organizers set up recycled rainwater systems and solar power systems, and built a chicken coop and greenhouse. They planted dozens of species using creatively repurposed materials, then brought thousands of local residents to taste and learn about useful plants. In 2017, YMPJ leveraged its success in building, staffing, and programming Swale to partner with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to launch the Bronx River Foodway at Concrete Plant Park, thus officiating NYC’s first public food forest. The Swale concept of permaculture and sustainability, coupled with YMPJ’s approach of partnering with local providers to program and activate the space, has successfully brought together the complementary areas of food, culture, art and public health in a reclaimed public space that was once dilapidated and toxic land for many years.
One of YMPJ’s recent successes includes the Sherican Expressway campaign. YMPJ’s community organizing and campaigning work was instrumental in influencing NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo to allocate $1.8 billion to the reconstruction of the Sheridan Expressway. This will reduce the amount of truck traffic and allow the community to access crosswalks which will directly connect them to a waterfront park.
MPJ Executive Director, David Shuffler Jr., is a first-generation immigrant, lifelong Soundview resident, and YMPJ alumnus. Since accepting the position eight years ago, he has worked to strengthen the programs and services in accordance with YMPJ’s original mission, but has also made strong inroads in economic community development and immigrant organizing by investing significant time and energy into building relationships with systems partners, business stakeholders, banks, and foundations. David’s leadership has been motivated by a desire to bring environmental justice, education reform, immigration services and organizing, entitlement benefit services and organizing, and economic development to the community. David went through YMPJ’s leadership development as a teenager and credits the skills and training he received for kickstarting his career in non-profit management, and continues to this day to draw upon the insights of his education from YMPJ.
Working alongside David in positions of leadership are Dariella Rodriguez, Community Organizing Director and Outreach, Henry Lajara, Director of Community Justice, and Norma Ayala, Senior Case Manager. Our leadership team is comprised entirely of Bronx residents who have lived and worked in the community for a long time. Community members are not only a part of our core leadership team, but also employed and paid to work on local issues, particularly as organizers in our Community Organizing and Leadership Academy (COLA) program, which trains, develops, and employs leaders in our community. Historically, the power of community organizing has enabled YMPJ’s victories.
Theory of Change: Strategy for Transformation
Transforming People YMPJ values and prioritizes youth and adult community leadership in the process of community revitalization. This requires that the basic needs of community residents be met in an atmosphere of dignity that supports their struggle for self-reliance. The following programs support this goal:
- Arts for Activism engages young people in dance, music, muraling, film, poetry and other art activities that focus specifically on the ways in which the arts may be a medium for both personal and social transformation.
- Education for Liberation serves as a source of both academic support and political education. Young people have access to tutoring, homework assistance, and test prep in SAT’s and GED. They also have access to our college and reading library as well as support in developing their educational goals. Our political education uses Frierian methodology. Youth and adult residents are also exposed to books, films, and guest speakers who encourage them to engage in the work of social change.
- Wellness encourages a holistic approach to health by exposing youth and adult residents to methods of healing that address their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Alternative forms of healing such as reiki, acupuncture, polarity therapy, meditation and yoga are explored in consultation with health practitioners. Young people also meet in gender specific groups to discuss issues of sexual health, mental health and nutrition and practice healthy living through sports and fitness activities.
- Community Justice Programs offer direct support to youth members, their families and the broader community in immigration, health care access, housing, gaining access to public benefits programs and workforce development.
Transforming Systems YMPJ understands that systemic change is central to building healthy and sustainable communities. As such, YMPJ offers community residents the tools for transformation available through Community Organizing. Over the years, youth residents have led campaigns for environmental justice, police reform, tenant rights, and youth employment. In the near future, this work will expand to include organizing for education and immigration reform and also training a cadre of adults and faith leaders, to partner with youth in this work.
Transforming Infrastructure YMPJ’s Community Development and Planning (CDAP) office implements community revitalization and rebuilding initiatives particularly along our Bronx River waterfront. They ensure local community voice and leadership in the planning process and are exploring strategies to prevent local resident displacement through the preservation and development of affordable housing. They are leading the process of building YMPJs permanent facilities and working with youth to green the community, create open space and redevelop brownfields.
Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) has as its goal the leadership development and formation of young people for a life of peace and justice. We have found that the key to a successful youth development program is to be able to engage youth and inspire them to leadership through civic participation, while remaining attentive to their multiple developmental needs. Our goal for youth leadership is that it be geared towards civic engagement.