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Michael Cesarczyk NW Members Tillie Tarantino and Marie Leanza Michael Cesarczyk

Real Girl Power: Honoring the Women Leaders of North Brooklyn

“I didn’t know you could see your own plaque with your eyes open!” said Marie Leanza.

The five foot tall, white-haired matron stood in front of the building on Debevoise Street, recently renamed in her honor and that of fellow community organizer Tillie Tarantino. It was one of several stops on last Friday’s Neighborhood Women Leadership Walking Tour, celebrating three decades of community activism by women in Williamsburg-Greenpoint.

Many of those honored at the sites upon which their legacies were formed were members of the Neighborhood Women of Williamsburg-Greenpoint (NW). NW came into being in 1989 when the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) decentralized its offices. NW subsequently became an independent non-profit affiliate of NCNW, creating institutions like the Swinging 60s Center, as well as programs like the NW College Program and New York’s first battered women’s shelter.

It also groomed generations of leaders like Leanza. The daughter of Alfonso, an ironworker who owned a business on Skillman Avenue, and Flores, a shop steward, Leanza first became involved in NW through its College Program.

“‘Mom said, “You can’t go anywhere if you don’t have that sheepskin,”’ recalled Leanza.

After receiving a liberal arts degree through the NW College Program, Leanza helped organize the Williamsburg-Greenpoint Committee Against Redlining in the late 70s. In 1978, she co-founded and served as the first president of the Building Survival Fund, a coalition of North Brooklyn community organizations. In the midst of widespread building abandonment, the Fund raised money from several banks, which it then loaned to tenant associations without interest. The Fund continues today, while Leanza works as a senior housing manager for St. Nick’s Alliance. Her son, Thomas, built the Caroline Pezzullo Kitchen at the NW Living and Learning Center on 249 Manhattan Avenue.

At the Center, Jan Peterson, the founder and director of NCNW, introduced tour attendees to the rich history of her organization by showcasing the Sandy Schilen Public Living Room, the Caroline Pezzullo Kitchen and the Geraldine Miller Conversation Corner. All rooms are named after NW’s earliest pioneers.

Residents later visited several sites, as part of NW’s Legacy Walk, with plaques relating the stories of North Brooklyn’s women leaders. In some cases, the visitors were lucky enough to meet the living legends: Tillie Tarantino, a co-founder of the Conselyea Street Block Association, which went on to establish the Small World Day Care and Swinging Sixties Community Center in 1969 (she became the Executive Director of the Swinging Sixties six years later); Juanita Orengo-Rodriguez, who, after a riot and stabbing inside the former Eastern District High School, organized a boycott at the school in 1992. Three days later, the principal met with Orengo-Rodriguez and the PTA to improve conditions. She has also served as the Principal and Executive Director of the You Can Community School for 10 years; Tish and Guido Ciancotta, the couple who formed the Concerned Citizens of Withers Street and Area Block Association. In 1983, after 140 nights of picketing, the Ciancottas helped secure the release of the vacant Greenpoint Hospital from the grips of City Hall (which had been using its main building as an overcrowded homeless shelter) and back to the neighborhood. Today, the St. Nicks Alliance uses the Greenpoint Renaissance Building (2 Kingsland Avenue) for homecare, office space and the Arts at Renaissance program.

And finally there was Mildred Tudy-Johnston, a fellow firebrand who had helped form the Cooper Park Houses Tenant Association and served as its president for many years. In 1974, she was key in forming the Crispus Attucks Community Council of Williamsburg, where she served as executive director until retiring in 1994. That Friday afternoon, at the end of the tour, the 91-year-old Tudy-Johnston was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, comrade-in-arms and well-wishers. All remembered a lifetime spent fighting for racial equality, improved services at Cooper Park and holding public officials accountable.

Some public officials, in fact, were on hand to pay tribute to the citizens that have inspired them. At the Living and Learning Center, Councilmember Diana Reyna, the first woman to represent the 34th District, thanked the women she “[has] stood on,” helping her learn that community “isn’t just about the individual, it’s about the family [and] the neighborhood.”

Assemblyman Joe Lentol stood with all those mentioned above, on 29-39 Debevoise Street, in front of the buildings that bore their names. “I probably would have lost my second or third election if it hadn’t been for their support,” Lentol admitted, adding, “these women are my sisters, and I love them dearly.”

Others commemorated during the tour included Margaret Carnegie, the poetry enthusiast who brought Grandparents Day to New York and worked tirelessly for the elderly; Mildred Johnson, a former president of Cooper Park Tenants Association and familiar figure with her hat and bullhorn, forever urging residents to vote; Elizabeth “Betty” Marrero, always accompanied by her faithful dog, Rocky; and Mary Alice Richardson, founder of the first women’s political party, the Williamsburg-Greenpoint Action Alliance Political Club.

For more information about NW and its leaders, visit neighborhoodwomen.org.

For more photos of the tour, click here.

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