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Social Justice

On the Ground With the Young Activists Transforming Newburgh

A photo series showcasing justice activists in one of New York’s most interesting and historic cities.

James Turner of Hudson Valley Tenant Advocates, a Newburgh-based tenants’ rights organization.
All photos by Gilles Uzan
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The narrative about Newburgh has for years focused on the negative. The historic, culturally rich city on the Hudson River has primarily been described as blighted, abandoned, crime-riddled, and downtrodden. In the media, Newburgh is a place where “gangs and violence reign,” a “once-grand American city that had its heart torn out.”

Even optimistic stories about Newburgh tend to center its problems. Will its recent revitalization “get out of hand,” turning it into the next Hudson or Beacon? Or, as Newburgh forges ahead, can it “seek renewal without gentrification?”

To be sure, many of American society’s most unwelcome trends meet in Newburgh. It has been subject to both abandonment and speculative development; it’s the proposed site of a new power plant that would accelerate climate change; and it’s a place where nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty. The Census Bureau’s estimates of rental vacancy rates from 2013 to 2017 were 8.3 percent for the City of Newburgh, almost twice as high as Kingston.

But while Newburgh faces challenges on multiple fronts, from environmental justice to rapid gentrification, what is often lost in these narratives is the work being done on the ground by activists who are already bringing “their creativity and energy to transform the city they love,” as photographer Gilles Uzan, who shot this photo series, puts it.

With that in mind, here are a few portraits of those young minds, and how they imagine the future of Newburgh. — Phillip Pantuso

Angela Montiel, 20
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

“I spend a majority of my free time volunteering in the community. I mostly volunteer with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, an organization that fights for human rights, justice for all, and bringing people together in unity. Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has impacted Newburgh in various ways, myself included: the people of Newburgh can now get municipal IDs; they helped the Green Light Bill pass; and they stopped Central Hudson from increasing flat flees. Thanks to their work, a lot of people in the city of Newburgh have been able to get better jobs, save more money, lower their debt with Central Hudson, drive freely with less fear, live a more comfortable life, and much more.

“In the future, I hope to see the people of Newburgh more united, more educational programs for the children, and no racial injustice happening to us.”

Aura López Zárate, 23
Raíz of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York

“The Raíz program’s purpose is to engage the Latinx community in the fight for reproductive health, rights, and justice. Latinx access to reproductive health, rights, and justice is multilayered because issues like immigration directly affect it, so it is important to advocate and support all issues that directly affect the Latinx community. Raíz has created relationships and a sense of trust between the Latinx community members and the City of Newburgh through coalition work. Knowing that your community is behind you allows people to use their voice more confidently, whether it is to show up at city hall to demand change or to access reproductive healthcare services.

“My hope for Newburgh’s future is to continue getting better but without leaving behind the people who have resiliently lived and held Newburgh together for decades. The meaning of fixing a city can look very different for everyone based on our privileges. My hope is that changes for the better for the City of Newburgh also means better for people of color.”

James Turner, 25
Hudson Valley Tenant Advocates

“I currently work independently with several contemporary” organizations, and creatives in the greater City of Newburgh. Together we work toward owning, holding, and occupying space for working class, poor BIPOC; abolishing homelessness, gentrification, and neoliberal 501(c)s, and ‘affordable housing.’ We do so by facing colonialism, gentrification, white supremacy, the police state, the prison-industrial system, imperialism, capitalism, and corruption.

“It begins at changing the narrative, at a systemic—but more importantly, on an interpersonal and inter-sociocultural level—within our community. It can all be done. We use artistic mediums, campaigns, events, and demonstrations. And emphasizing, moral, ethical, and visual consistency, sustainability, accountability, and communication. Utilizing theories such as permaculture, decolonization, emergent strategy, and aesthetics, as means.

“Change is not easy, and neither are beasts to slay. Gentrification is the root of all evils in terms of tenants’ rights, homelessness, and more. It can be stopped, priorities can be changed. With only a brief history, it is not yet too late.

“In the future, Newburgh will more fully belong to its people. To those who can’t afford more $900 a month on rent, or to eat on Liberty Street, people who take public transportation, and learned English as a second language, if at all. Because that is who Newburgh is and always has been. Its magic is people, land, and beauty, not property development and chic, trendy food concept restaurants or boutiques.”

Isaiah Valentine, 26
Political coordinator, NU-V.O.T.E.R.S. MOVEMENT

“Guided by social and racial justice, NU-V.O.T.E.R.S. MOVEMENT strives to educate the community on the importance of voter registration and suppression. We additionally focus on building up a community through workshops and trainings that will ultimately lead to a community of strength and resilience. Our impact has been signing up more than 3,000 city residents to vote, calling residents to fill out the 2020 Census, and handing out important information about our community.

“My hope for the future of Newburgh is to restore the Black and brown community who have been displaced by urban renewal and impacted by drugs.”

Mark Sanchez-Potter, 24 
Environmental activist, Food & Water Action

“Food & Water Action is a grassroots organization that seeks to stop the expansion of all fossil fuel infrastructure and begin a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy. In coalition with other community groups, we are working to stop the expansion of the Danskammer Fracked Gas Power Plant. If built, the emissions Danskammer would produce include benzene, methane, and organic particulates. These substances are known carcinogens and would increase the rate of asthma in surrounding areas. Newburgh being predominantly Black and brown, this project is a clear example of environmental racism. The connections between Wall Street, Danskammer, and the Trump administration can’t be overstated; the reason this plant is being considered is solely for financial gain. New York State does not need Danskammer for its energy needs—it would only serve to accelerate the climate crisis.

“It is my hope to see Newburgh become the example of a sustainable, green city that prioritizes housing, health care, and jobs for everyone. It is past time we invest in river communities like Newburgh, and stop the greed of the fossil fuel industry, which seeks profits at the expense of our health.”

Rooty Ruido, 26
Core organizer, Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center

“The Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center is an organization made of queer/trans folks of color, for queer/trans folks of color. We advocate, provide resources, educate, and organize for our community, and seek to center the leadership of people directly affected by systemic oppression. Through our programming, the Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center provides community through our online (and in non-pandemic times, in person) events like Trans Tumbler, an event for trans, nonbinary, and/or gender non-conforming people to meet and hang out with people who share similar experiences. We also started a Queer Relief Fund to provide mini-grants for people whose income was affected by the ongoing pandemic. This is just a sampling of our programming, which expands and changes to meet the needs of the LGBTQ community in Newburgh and the larger Hudson Valley area.

“My hopes for Newburgh are to see this city be able to escape the abuse it has received from corrupt city officials, law enforcement, and landlords throughout the years. I want to see a true revitalization without people being priced out of their homes by shady real estate agents who advertise the ‘grittiness’ of Newburgh, but call the cops on anyone deemed undesirable. My hope is to see neighborhoods come together to figure out how to handle problems without the police, that often don’t have a connection to the people they’re tasked with policing. Ultimately, I want to live in a city where the people have the resources and agency to bring into fruition what they need and want—not the gentrifying elite.”

Rene Mejia Jr., 27
Community organizer, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

“Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson is a local grassroots nonprofit organization based in the Hudson Valley. We work on empowering the most impacted in the community. This means our base looks different depending on the issue we are tackling. An organization that first started working around evictions has now grown to work around immigrant rights, housing justice, and access to health care for all. With the majority of Newburgh’s community being people of color (80 percent), it is clear that this city’s population are some of the most marginalized. Their needs go unheard, and oftentimes they need assistance organizing around local and state issues.”

Wade Tillman, 22
Newburgh Food Not Bombs

“Food Not Bombs is building and creating food sovereignty, new systems of sustenance, resources, and distribution. Food created and secured by the people, for the people. No more mass grocery. We live in a food apartheid—the reason people go hungry is not because of lack. Tons of food that could feed thousands goes to waste everyday.  Food and many other resources are hoarded, then wasted instead of shared, and those who are the most vulnerable—folx who’re fighting for their lives everyday to overcome systemic injustices—are forced to compensate. There’s a reason fresh fruit and produce aren’t found on every corner. These are human-created systems of oppression. It’s easier to get liquor than it is to get a meal. You don’t steal when you have enough resources to eat and take care of yourself and loved ones.

“This is a war on our bodies. Nutritional goods are priced above working class, Indigenous, city-living means. Abolish grocery stores, nationalize Walmart, and invest in autonomous networks of food cultivation and sharing within a community. Bring it back to the mom-and-pops, and empower local farmers. Teachers too, and families! Through growing our own food and building new systems of resource and skill sharing, we disrupt the violent middleman that is the corporate food regime.

“This is what’s required of us for our survival. Our dream is that we know where our food comes from, and our relationship with that source brings joy, sustainability, and ever-expanding interconnectedness to our lives. And as we plant within and heal the ecosystems in our communities, we also heal our relations to each other and build power against systems of harm that want us divided.”

Gilles Uzan is an editorial photographer based in Newburgh.