Riding the River for Peace and Justice

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By Alice Kenny

bxrivercanoeIt’ a sunny day in the South Bronx and David Shuffler climbs into a canoe. Hemmed in by four major highways – the Bruckner, the Cross Bronx, the Bronx River and the Sheridan expressways—his Bronx River neighborhood’s one-square mile houses the nations’ highest respiratory-illness rate, places one out of every two youth below the poverty line and is infamous as the spot where police shot dead unarmed Amadou Diallo.

But it also has a rare treasure that, until recently, was mostly abused; the Bronx River.

Mr. Shuffler, today the executive director of Catholic Charities affiliate Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ), was once one of the kids coming up on the streets here.  YMPJ started when drug dealers owned the neighborhood, burning down a church to retaliate for a prayer vigil held to close local crack dens’ doors.

Now, thanks in large part to YMPJ’s mobilization, residents are taking their neighborhood back. They got the Army Corps of Engineers to clean up three tons of debris–  including 15,000 tires, cars and filth –abandoned along the waterfront.  They took back a crumbling cement plant and converted into a public park. They replaced menacing streets with an arts and education outlets for teens.  And they are fighting back poverty by providing wrap-around support services for parents.

But nothing, Mr. Shuffler says, better symbolizes what YMPJ is accomplishing – or makes him feel better – than YPNJ’s canoe program.

As part of it, neighborhood teens are taught the camera’s intricacies of shutter speeds and angles. They learn how to monitor air and water quality.  And with their newfound expertise, teens that never before touched the river then tumble into YMPJ’s 10 canoes.  They snap photos and sample water purity as they paddle by the Botanical Gardens, the Bronx Zoo, all the way up to the splendor and stonework of the Kensico Dam.

“As you go up river it’s a crazy experience to see how access to the river changes,” Mr. Shuffler says.  “In Kensico people just walk up and touch the river.  Our teens say ‘why isn’t that the case in our community,” why is it lined with fences and gates and bobbing with plastic bags and pollution?

“Our creative arts-based curriculum opens young people’s eyes to the issues of environmental justice, police reform and opportunities they have to make a real difference,” he adds.

David gets this deep down. He was 13, going on 14, when his parents pushed him into becoming one of the then-new agency’s early participants.  Begun in St. Joan of Arc Church basement in 1994, YMPJ gave him a safe place to hang out while fostering his skills in soccer, journalism, arts and culture.  He worked his way up from participant to youth organizer.

Now, nearly 20 years later, he serves as its executive director.

“There’s an army of other soldiers coming up now,” he says as his paddle gently splashes the water, “children who will ideally move on into the banking world, political scene and nonprofits where they will share the principles and values they learned with us of community and peace and social justice.”

Learn more about Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice.

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