Prescott College Affiliation : Alumni
Area of Study : Environmental Studies
Graduation Year : 1975
Lee's journey from Prescott College student to organizer of social change in the South Bronx began in environmental studies courses. It was here she developed a solid platform of advanced analytical and scientific work and had interactions with instructors like Bob Harrill, who, Stuart said, "showed me how a really good teacher supports the intellectual creativity and advancement of students."
She pursued the study of ecology and received her Ph.D. from San Diego State and UC Davis in 1984, but an overriding commitment to social justice resulted in quite a different career than the academic one she had envisioned. In 1983, while completing her doctoral dissertation, Stuart co-founded World SHARE (Self-Help and Resource Exchange), an international food assistance program. The SHARE concept is that by pooling their funds and labor, participating families can not only leverage their food dollar by a factor of three or four, but also strengthen their community through mutual self-help projects undertaken as part of the program.
Stuart was invited to the South Bronx in New York City to create the SHARE program in 1985. At the time the South Bronx was a national symbol of urban devastation. Although Stuart had grown up in Appalachian coal country and knew something of the forces that created rural poverty, the South Bronx was her first experience of the impact of those forces on an urban area. She was overwhelmed by these conditions until she met Reverend Robert Jeffers, the pastor of St. Augustine 's Catholic Church, who gave her a tremendous insight into the South Bronx .
"The Bronx is a place of beautiful people and terrible buildings," he told her. "If you are open to it, it can become your home, and if you are lucky you will see what a privilege it is to work here." Stuart had originally planned to take six months to start the SHARE program in the Bronx and then return to her academic life as an ecologist, but her ties to the people of the Bronx deepened and she stayed.
St. Augustine's was a member of South Bronx Churches, an interfaith organization established in the late 1980s to create a power base that would rebuild the Bronx and correct the injustice that had created the borough's devastation. By 1990 intensive organizing and political training by South Bronx Churches had created enough political force in the community to completely revamp the management of the local public hospital, to create community policing strategies, and to win the right to build "Nehemiah Homes" on about 20 acres of vacant city-owned land.
The project was named "Nehemiah" after the biblical leader who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile. In 1992, South Bronx Churches hired Stuart as their lead organizer. Her task was to work with the local leaders to build the talent and capacity within their organization to carry out their social agenda. In addition to the Nehemiah project, which encompassed the construction of 965 homes over a 10-year period, South Bronx Churches had other revitalization projects on its agenda. These included:
. The Beulah project, which restored more than 900 apartments for rental occupancy,
. The Public Life Institute (a 10-week training program for effective public action), and
. The creation of a new public high school with an academic and college preparatory focus, the Bronx Leadership Academy High School, which became a model for the small-school reform movement in New York City.
In retrospect, Stuart realizes that it was the people around her who inspired her and kept her compassion and vision alive throughout this project. James L. Drake, the National Director of Organizing for the United Farm Workers in the 1970s and first lead organizer of South Bronx Churches, was an essential mentor in her life. During the 16 years they worked together in the Bronx , Stuart said, Drake "helped me learn how to bring diverse people and groups together, to decide on an objective and develop a strategy. He taught me to be unafraid of confrontation, to be politically creative, and to maintain public relationships over long periods of time."
Stuart advises students to "Believe in the possibility of what others say is impossible. Get a mentor who believes in and practices the impossible more than you do. Develop an interior life that can withstand tremendous violence and chaos. The further you challenge society's norms the greater violence and chaos will come your way. Be ready. Be strong, and do not act alone. Be of good courage."
"Get a mentor who believes in - and practices - the impossible more than you do."
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