For a handful of weekends in the fall of 2020, the corner of Tompkins and Monroe in Bed Stuy came alive in a way it hadn’t since the start of the global pandemic. Vibrant block parties — masked up, as socially distant as possible — of the best kind, with food and goods on sale, took over the heart of Brooklyn, bringing together a community that had been deeply affected by COVID-19.
The events were hosted as part of Building Black Bed Stuy, an initiative created by Sincerely Tommy’s Kai Avent-deLeon, along with friends Nana Yaa Asare-Boadu and Rajni Jacques. The aim was, and still is, to bring Black-owned businesses into a space where they’re appreciated and supported. The Market Place weekend gatherings are a physical manifestation of Building Black Bed Stuy’s greater aim of self-sufficiency and liberation, through raising money for local organizations that are uplifting the community.
“Essentially, for us, Building Black Bed Stuy is a long-stay,” Jacques told Brownstoner. “Everything that we do is to serve the community — in whatever capacity we can. We’re three Black women who have full-time jobs, raising families, and so getting our hands in a lot of different things can be a lot but we love doing this because we’re doing it for our people.”
Founded in an attempt to curb the negative impacts of gentrification on the neighborhood, the initiative took on more resonance in the face of the pandemic. Businesses and organizations hardest hit by COVID-19 needed a lifeline. Building Black Bed Stuy provided it in the form of a GoFundMe, with the goal of raising $75,000. It’s far exceeded that, with more than $100,000 donations received and counting.
For the first round of support, Building Black Bed Stuy helped three beneficiaries — Black Power Blueprint, Life Wellness Center, and the Watoto Freeschool. Jegna Mama Umineefa, aka Mama Umi, who runs Watoto, an independent school for children of African descent that was shut down due to COVID-19, says she was struggling and wouldn’t have made it through without help. “I was able to reopen the school and move into a bigger location. We went from a 250-foot-square-foot location with no bathroom to a 750-square-foot space with two floors, a backyard and two bathrooms,” she told Brownstoner. “I am extremely grateful. I would not be here, able to help almost 18 families thrive in our community if it had not been for Building Black Bed Stuy.”
Their next round of donations will go to three other local organizations, nominated by the community itself — Little Sun People, Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center, and The Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps. “What’s been a surprise is how many outsiders, in the sense of allyship we’ve seen, from people not of color,” added Jacques. “We hope more people get on board because we need support to fund these businesses.” Building Black Bed Stuy is also applying for 501(c) status so that it can help boost education, health, and wellness in Bed Stuy on a larger scale. And those epic block parties are back again too.
[Photos by Cate Corcoran]
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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