Remarks by Harry DeRienzo
I want to thank CASA and all its leaders for this distinguished honor. I am proud of what CASA has done for our Bronx neighborhoods and for the city as a whole. I am gratified to be a small part of that success.
Paolo Friere once said that trust in people is an indispensable precondition of revolutionary change. No group that I know honors this principle of trusting people more than CASA. Go to any event, and the resident leaders, those directly impacted by whatever issue CASA is addressing, are always in the lead.
Now, I know that some people will hear the word revolution, cover their ears and look to run for the nearest exit. But think for a moment how revolutionary it would be to live in a society that was not racist, not misogynist, not xenophobic, not elitist, not homophobic: a society devoid of hierarchical oppression, where the concept of “other” was outside of our vernacular; a society where white supremacy was a historical artifact, along with its perverse cousins – white sensitivity and white vulnerability – those feelings of privilege that have led in our city to a 70% increase in 311 nuisance complaints in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Antonio Gramsci, a neo-Marxist who died a terrible death in prison for his beliefs, spoke of cultural hegemony as also being a precondition of revolutionary change. What did he mean by that? He meant a shared consciousness of what becomes generally accepted as common sense. And what should make common – that shared by us all – sense? For example, if a person works full time isn’t it common sense that such a person should be able to afford rent and care for his or her family? One would have to believe that such a society respects all people and allows all people the means by which to live with security, health, dignity and pride, regardless of ethnic background, the amount or degree of melanin produced by our genes, or any other attribute that contributes to our rich and deep-seated diversity as a people – as one people. But where does this start? How do we develop this shared consciousness leading to this kind of change?
It starts with the kind of work that CASA and other such groups do day in and day out. It starts with the difficult and time-consuming work of organizing, of providing space for people to share their common concerns as well as their aspirations. It starts with people being provided with the necessary space to interact and come up with collective approaches to address these common concerns. And finally it leads to actions meant to challenge and disrupt existing power-sharing arrangements that favor some people while oppressing others.
And yes, to be successful also requires reaching across current ethnic and ideological divides in an attempt to help my/our white brothers and sisters who are also oppressed to see that the foot that is pressing against their backs with ever-increasing intensity and keeping them down – that this foot belongs to the same persons who with the other foot are daily kicking our people in the ass – criminalizing poverty, criminalizing idle youth, criminalizing homelessness, criminalizing immigration, criminalizing inadequate education, criminalizing addiction, and criminalizing, often without any degree of due process, simply being a person of color. Working together we can make these changes. But it starts with dedication and with having faith and trust in people.
In closing, I want again to thank CASA for this honor and urge all of you and others who could not make it here tonight to continue to support their important work.