by LAUREN SCHUSTER, Asst. Editor
As a resident of the Bronx for nearly her entire life and a community organizer in the borough for most of her adult life, there are few people better than Margaret Groarke, P.h.D, to ask about what it means to truly be a part of the community in the Bronx. Groarke is involved with both the Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association (FIPNA) and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), in addition to being the coordinator of Community Based Learning and a professor in the government department at Manhattan College.
“The Bronx, I think, is a special place, I mean, […] it’s part of New York City, and at the same time, it gets treated as this very peripheral part of the city. The people of the Bronx are often forgotten and maligned, and so I think it’s a large part of the ‘stand up for the underdog’ personality that I have. You know, growing up in the Bronx I had a sense of what it was like to be left out and forgotten,” Groarke said.
After graduating from college, Groarke knew that she wanted to work as a community organizer. After much consideration, she realized that returning to the Northwest Bronx to work with the NWBCCC was the right decision for her.
“[The NWBCCC] was a powerful organization, and it was on my home turf. So, I worked there for four years, and when I quit that job to go to graduate school I stayed involved in the organization. […] So, I’ve stayed involved in the organization in a variety of ways ever since that, and it’s a big part of what I do and who I am,” Groarke said.
More recently, when Groarke purchased the home she currently resides in, not far from the Manhattan College campus, she learned that the woman who sold her the house was actually the president of a small neighborhood association known as FIPNA. Wanting to be an active resident of her new neighborhood, she decided to get involved.
“We’re a very informal organization, we’re very small, we have no staff, we have no budget, but we work on things together. [We work on] neighborhood beautification projects, holding local institutions accountable, intervening in local development projects that we don’t think are going in the right direction, [etc.]. So, you know, for a little group with no real resources, we get a decent amount done,” Groarke said.
The neighborhood that FIPNA represents is also represented in the larger NWBCCC, so whenever possible, Groarke tries to connect the two. Unlike FIPNA, the NWBCCC has a sizable budget and staff, which allows them to work on more large scale projects.
“[At the NWBCCC] we take on bigger issues like city policy. FIPNA doesn’t often try to change city policy, but the Northwest Bronx [Community and Clergy] Coalition is constantly trying to do really big things, and we’ve been successful many times in making really big things happen,” Groarke said, “I mean, just in the last year we were part of a victory of getting right to counsel for people in housing court in New York City, which is really important, and passing a certificate of no harassment law which will put greater penalties on landlords who harass their tenants. So, it’s interesting to be involved in those two kinds of local efforts.”
In addition to her extensive work with the surrounding community outside of Manhattan College, Groarke is also the coordinator of Community Based Learning on campus.
“Community Based Learning is, as part of a class, working on something that is mutually beneficial to the students and the community. Through providing some service to a community, students will also learn something about the material of the course,” Groarke said, “So, when I was recently teaching a class about U.S. political parties and elections, some of my students were volunteering with the Northwest Bronx [Community and Clergy] Coalition to get people out to vote in the election. So, one part of what we were learning for the class was how parties and campaigns mobilize people, so here we were trying to mobilize people, and then also reading about it in class.”
As the coordinator of Community Based Learning, Groarke helps other professors at the college figure out how and where to integrate community work into their courses.
“My job as the coordinator of Community Based Learning is to help faculty who want to use that as a learning process in their class. [I] help them think of ‘what’s the kind of project that would be a good learning experience for my students?’ and ‘who in the community could we work with?’ and ‘what does the community need from us?’ and ‘how can we make a match that’s going to be mutually beneficial?’” Groarke said.
Much of Groarke’s role as the coordinator of Community Based Learning relies on how familiar she is with the borough of the Bronx.
“It’s really fun, you know, aside from my connections with the coalition and FIPNA, I have a million Bronx connections, so it’s really fun to be able to use those connections to help faculty and students here find some partner in the community with which they can really build a good relationship and do some interesting stuff together,” Groarke said.