Four ideas for changing things for the better in marginalized communities

Wednesday evening at The Spectrum there's a screening of The Throwaways, a documentary created by local activist Ira McKinley and local filmmaker Bhawin Suchak. The duo co-produced and co-directed the film, which is about how people in many inner city communities, especially African-American men, have become marginalized by race, the criminal justice system, and economics -- and the challenges and frustrations that result. As Suchak described it to us, the film is a "raw and real" look at the topic through the eyes of McKinley.

The film comes along when these issues are getting a lot of national attention because of what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri.

"I think we're at a really important moment in this country's history when it comes to relationships between folks from different races," Suchak told us this week. "I think it's important for white people to not be defensive and to listen, and also do their own work. For me, part of what that means is trying to connect and make the connections that people who are living this are making all the time because they have to because it's survival. So I hope, and I think we've seen in our screenings, that our film can be a way to begin conversation."

With those sorts of conversations in mind, we asked McKinley and Suchak for suggestions about how to change things for the better in marginalized communities in our area.

McKinley and Suchak were interviewed separately. We paired up their comments. They've been condensed.

Idea 1: Provide people an opportunity for meaningful input about investments in their neighborhoods

Suchak: "Cities have really started to divest in their urban communities because they don't see the folks who are living in these communities as people they want to invest resources in. In a place like Albany, you can think about the fact that we've lost places like the YMCA, we had a pool down here [in the South End], we had a lot of other community resources. And I think that what we've seen is that people are interested in building up resources in parts of the city, but not really investing in places like the South End, Arbor Hill, West Hill in a way that I think is really involving the community. Because I think there's a lot of potential for places like the Barn, and what the Albany Housing Authority is doing.

"I think there needs to be more input from people in the city. So I think, moving forward, we need to create ways so that people who live in those communities have an input on the decision making and what happens. ... One thing I'd like to see happen, because I'm an educator and work with young people [Suchak heads up the YouthFX program], is to see the city create a council of young people or a community liaison organization that is specifically tasked to go into the community, go door-to-door to create spaces for people to come to meetings and have conversations -- but not after the plans have been laid.

"This is the pattern I've seen here. I've been around Albany since 1996 and I've been involved with a lot of community organizing and working with local non-profits. I've seen that a plan is hatched and then all of a sudden it's very well formulated, and then it's like we're going to bring it to the community for their input. But you've already decided x, y, and z is going to happen. So basically they're looking for a rubber stamp. And if there's pushback, there's a lot of defensiveness. ... There's a huge lack of creativity when it comes to some of these issues. And I think if we really broaden the scope of who we invite into these conversations -- and give real power to those people -- you might see things changing."

If you want to make changes, you've got to have them come sit down at the table with you when you make these decisions. You've gotta have people in that community, because they know more about what's going on than you.

McKinley: "We do need a larger voice. Like what you see with what's happening in Ferguson, there are people in the community -- especially young people -- who need their voice heard. And they don't want to hear the same rhetoric from the same people that we've always heard it from and things haven't gotten better for people in that community, who are looking for jobs and things of that nature. ...

"If you want to make changes, you've got to have them come sit down at the table with you when you make these decisions. You've gotta have people in that community, because they know more about what's going on than you."

Idea 2: A stronger, independent civilian police review board

Suchak: "What happens right now is that people don't even go to the police with complaints because they've already decided that nothing's going to happen. ... So if you have a civilian review board that's stronger, that's completely independent, and has subpoena power, that actually has the power to do something, not just make a recommendation, that's when I think people will start feeling like, OK, there is a way that we can get a little bit of justice served in cases when we feel something has been done wrong. Or even just to have the opportunity to have that. ...

"Ultimately what it is is that you have is a lot of mistrust. And that mistrust breeds an inherent level of separation and antagonism between the police and the community. And we have to break that down. And I think that [Albany police chief] Steven Krokoff is trying. And actually they're having a meeting [Wednesday] night, ironically at the same time the film is showing, there's a community meeting about the relationship with black males and the police department."

the throwaways ira mckinley
Ira McKinley in The Throwaways

McKinley: "There's no faith in these leaders. Like what happened with Nah-Cream Moore, I mean Nah-Cream Moore was Mike Brown here in Albany. That situation [the community response], we filmed it. And it was an explosive situation. The leaders chose, to me, instead of them acting on that in a positive manner, it was done so that [community] voices die out."

Idea 3: Demilitarize the police

McKinley: "You see how [police] handle these poor communities. They come out there with all that gear they get from the military. We see it in Ferguson. I've seen it happen many times. We've filmed police interactions many times, and I've seen it. That just escalates, especially if the community is already upset.

"Remember when the [Albany police] were training over in [Arbor Hill], where there were kids. To me, that's not sensitive to kids and the people who live in that community. You're doing your training there and you're throwing fake blood and all this other stuff. You know how that must have affected those kids, just to see that? You're not going into a rich community and doing that."

We don't need high-powered rifles and tanks and we don't need to divert funding into acquiring those things for our police departments.

Suchak: "We don't need high-powered rifles and tanks and we don't need to divert funding into acquiring those things for our police departments. I don't know what Albany police, my knowledge is that they don't have a lot of that stuff, but I know that the county does. So for me, there are resources that are being allocated in certain ways, and I don't see them allocated into the community."

Idea 4: Focus on sustainability and the green economy as a potential source of jobs

Suchak: "You look at Albany, we have over 500 vacant buildings in this city. We could one of two things, we could reinvest and rebuild those buildings or we could tear them down. ... I think there needs to be some investment in developing more of these vacant buildings into sustainable projects that provide housing -- but also provide jobs. At the core of all these issues is the lack of economic survival. If people can't survive, they're going to turn to the underground economy. ... When you're pushed up against the wall you're going to do what you gotta do to survive. And a lot of times that involves things that a lot of people are choosing willingly to do."

McKinley: "We've got to have more healthy choices for our communities, and [growing food] is a skill, it's a job skill. You learn how to do that, then you can sell it to restaurants and at farmers markets. That's a way to create jobs. And you're also doing healthy eating. ...

"We have it with the Radix Center, who are right there in the South End, who are showing you how to be sustainable. So, that's our goal to tell people that, let's save the planet by growing things and beautifying our community. It doesn't have to be a waste."

The screening of The Throwaways at The Spectrum is December 3 at 7 pm. Following the film, there will be a Q&A with McKinley and Suchak.

Suchak says they're planning another local screening in the future, and they're hoping to have distribution for the doc lined up by early 2015.

+ Here's an interview with McKinley and Suchak on Democracy Now! from September.
+ And here's a Paul Grondahl profile of McKinley from last year.

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