Tag Archive | "Education"

Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rodstarz of Rebel Diaz stands on the roof of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

Rodrigo, aka Rodstarz and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, members of the South Bronx hip-hop group Rebel Diaz, inherited a family history of struggle and survival. As children, they moved frequently because their parents, Chilean political refugees, never gave up hope of one day returning to Chile. “Half the time we didn’t even unpack,” said Rodstarz. “We were children growing up in exile.” But now, the Venegas brothers have found a home in the Bronx.

Their parents were supporters of Salvador Allende’s socialist government.  They became political prisoners when Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup on Sept. 11, 1973. After three years of torture in a Chilean prison, they were able to escape to England, where Rodstarz was born in 1979.

The Venegas family spent their first five years of exile in Chertsey, a small town in Surrey. Rodstarz has very little memory of that time. “We don’t think Chertsey really exists,” joked G1, who was born five years later in Chicago, the family’s next stop in exile. “Most British people have never even heard of it.”

Rodstarz, the older brother and unofficial spokesperson of the duo, has braids down to his waist and a welcoming presence. He gives hugs out like handshakes, likes expensive sneakers (despite their capitalist underpinnings) and wears a t-shirt that says “No Human Being is Illegal.”

G1, the younger, quieter brother, wears sunglasses inside the studio and has his hair up in a Samurai-style ponytail. “Only because it’s hot,” he said. G1 lays the beats and produces the music while Rodstarz grabs the audience with his stage presence and trenchant vocals.

Their parents had a love for revolutionary Chilean folk music from artists such as Violetta Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, and Victor Jarra, whose hands were broken by Pinochet’s military to stop him from playing “subversive” music. And though their parents don’t understand hip-hop, their music provided a tenet for Rebel Diaz’s own sound: it requires a social message.

“The drive we have is unstoppable,” Rodstarz said, “because we carry the weight of history on our shoulders.”

Their ability to build a movement in the streets started at an early age. A 12-year-old Rodstarz used graffiti, an urban artistic expression of rebellion, to bring his friends together. He would sneak out to do graffiti late at night in Chicago, dragging his sleepy seven-year-old brother with him. “One time we got caught when my mother found a pillow that was supposed to be me under the covers,” Rodstarz remembered. “But she wasn’t mad because when she was younger she also ran out of the house to do political graffiti promoting her socialist ideals.”

Rodstarz and G1 have always had a love for hip-hop. At the age of 10, Rodstarz became a B-boy, or a break-dancer. “Every single day after school in Chicago I was break dancing on the roofs or in the parking lot,” he said, “My friends and I would set up some cardboard and be out there for hours.“ Eventually that passion for hip-hop would lead to Rebel Diaz.

Rebel Diaz, the hip-hop group, was born in Hunts Point after G1 moved to New York City to study music engineering at New York University.  Rodstarz came a few years later to record music with his brother who got free studio time through the university. Hunts Point had affordable rent, so that’s where Rodstarz stayed. “I was blessed to end up on the best block in New York City,” he said. Hunts Point became home.

Invited by a local community organization called Mothers on the Move, Rebel Diaz played their first show at an immigrants rights march in Manhattan in April 2006.  Rebel Diaz spoke directly to the community with lyrics like these:

“This music is resistance it’s the voice of the poor,

I’m on the side of the workers, the teachers and lunch ladies,

On the streets with brown mammies raisin’ our brown babies,

I’m with youth organizers cleanin’ up the Bronx River.”

And from the start, they were a success, with several other New York City organizations asking them to perform for their events and music festivals.

Within the first year they were hosted by international organizations allowing them to eventually tour in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Guatemala, and Chile. These tours solidified their appeal and allowed them to hook up with other Chilean political refugees doing similar work. The music was a vehicle to deliver their message but they also dreamed of a space for others in their community to be able to learn and create.

They created the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (RDAC-BX) in November 2008 with money from the North Star Fund and a Union Square award. RDAC-BX is a hip-hop community center where young people can drop in to get political education and learn practical skills. They can create their own music with software like Pro Tools and attend workshops on topics such as the history of hip-hop and social movements.

G1 of Rebel Diaz (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

Their collective space is housed in an abandoned warehouse near Hunts Point on a back street by the Bruckner Expressway. “It was once a candy factory,” said G1. “It stood empty for many years before we got a tip from a friend that we could rent it at a reasonable price.”

The front door is an extension of a skillfully graffitied wall. It leads into a spacious room with a red brick floor, comfortable couches, a stage, recording studio and roof access. Local music artists live in the apartment upstairs.

The space was created because their parents passed the torch of struggle to their children and Rodstarz still feels the responsibility.  “My feeling is that if my father withstood three and a half years of physical torture for a cause,” he said, “the least I can do is make music and encourage others to make music that uplifts.”

Rap artist YC the Cynic of Hunts Point credits the brothers with giving his music more of a social message.  “I grew up with injustice, so I know it well,” he said. “But Rebel Diaz helped me find the words to describe it. Without them, my lyrics would sound more like what you hear on the radio.”

But Rodstarz immediately dismissed the idea that he is a mentor. “Mentorship doesn’t exist in our community,” he said. “A lot of those terms come from an idea of power. I’m 10 years older than YC but I learn from him too.”

Rodstarz distinguishes the collective from non-profits. “A lot of times in the non-profit world there ends up being a sort of messiah complex,” he said. “They want to empower inner city folks. But we don’t need anyone to empower us. We got power.”


Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Culture, FeaturedComments (0)

“The Poetry Man” filmmaker gives back


Lehman High School film teacher, James McSherry, reviews student's writing. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

James McSherry has an impressive resume.  The 49-year-old Ivy League graduate published an award winning autobiography, “A Clean Street is a Happy Street,” in 2004.  The Bronx high school teacher also won nine film awards, including one at the Manhattan Film Festival for his seminal work, “Poetry Man” in 2010.

The independent movie made on a shoestring budget was inspired by his childhood friend from Throgs Neck, who was arrested for a drug-related murder in the 1980s, while McSherry was at Columbia, studying for his masters degree in writing. It was at Columbia where McSherry was able to transform his cathartic hobby of  creative writing into a professional calling.

He realized that poetry, and later, film had saved him from the poverty, drugs and violence that engulfed him growing up.  So the Lehman High School graduate returned to his alma mater to teach kids like him.  For the past 20 years, McSherry has created an encouraging environment for students to express themselves, something he wished he had as a teenager.

“I think it helps to have similar experiences, live in the area where you teach, and be able to connect with kids,” said McSherry, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. His students affectionately gave him “the pound” as they entered class.  “You need empathy to be an artist and a teacher.”

In his fourth floor film and video classroom at Lehman High on East Tremont Avenue, McSherry sat one September morning with engaged teenagers as they edited videos.  In the back corner of the room, he set up a simple, makeshift film booth made out of black construction paper.

Twenty large screen Apple computers now line the perimeter of the room thanks to the hours he spent applying for grants.  Starting with virtually no resources three years ago when he was determined to launch the film class, McSherry fought hard for this equipment.  He paid for the class’s first camera out of his own pocket.

McSherry is convinced of the value of art and mastery of language in education.  “Art empowers on a completely different level,” he said in a serious tone.  Art gives his student a voice.  “McSherry’s class instills confidence in the kids,” said Karen Andronico, Lehman’s assistant principal of Media Arts and Communications.  “They spill their guts into the work.”

Andronico heads up one of the five Small Learning Communities that make up the total Lehman student body of over 3,500 ethnically diverse teenagers.  She said the socioeconomically disadvantaged students want to write about problems that affect their lives.

McSherry experienced many of the issues facing his students today. His alcoholic father was murdered when he was in the eighth grade, and his mother was left alone to raise McSherry and his four siblings.  The family received welfare and they struggled to get by with the help of food stamps.  His brother is a drug abuser and suffers from schizophrenia.   And as featured in “Poetry Man,” his childhood friend went to jail for murder.

“I know what students feel like because I know what they are going through,” McSherry said, adding that he can relate to issues of poverty, drugs, mental illness, single parent households, welfare. His connections with the kids are particularly important since Lehman’s graduation rate in 2010 was 51 percent, 12 percentage points worse than the citywide average.

He guided his tenth grade students to create public safety announcement videos about their own challenges such as birth control and relationships.  Last semester, his students’ Public Safety Announcement on teen dating violence won “Let Your Heart Rule,” a Verizon-sponsored, nationwide competition.  The students won iPads, $1,000 for their school, and an appearance on the Dr. Phil Show.

More importantly, the recognition validated their hard work.

Demi Middleton, one of McSherry’s eleventh grade Media and Television Film Production students, said she and her classmates were in disbelief when they won. “Mr. McSherry has shown his students that you can do whatever you want to do if you put your mind to it and concentrate,” said Middleton. “That’s what we did with Dr. Phil and it was a great feeling!”

“One thing about McSherry is that it’s all about the kids and making them feel successful and supported,” said Adronico.  “He’ll do anything for them.”

McSherry has even taken students on after school trips to the Tribeca Film Festival and coordinated internships at Bronx Net Television.  Andronico said she would not be surprised if he somehow manages to take them to France, where his film was screened in the Cannes Film Festival this past May.

McSherry is also an innovator.  Truth Booth is a project he thought up last winter.  Students are each given two minutes to privately respond on camera to his chosen word: father.

There were no other specific guidelines–just to speak the truth.

“McSherry is a very loving person, and students were able to open up to him because they trust him,” said Teresa Matthews, Lehman’s teacher of Global Voices in Film.  “He could very well be their father and he takes on that role sometimes.”

Just like McSherry’s popular classes, Truth Booth was an instant hit, so much so, that they spent the entire semester focusing on “father” rather than moving on to a different word.

And school counselors were even able to use the videos to help in therapy.  The down to earth teacher said the documentary paid immeasurable dividends–one student reconnected with his father after ten years and another student’s father apologized to him after watching the DVD.

Truth Booth will continue this academic year but the word prompt has yet to be decided.

“Success,” suggested Middleton.

“It makes you think about the future and where students see themselves going,” she added.  “I want to go to college and Mr. McSherry wants me to.  He came from the Bronx, and we come from the Bronx.  He says anyone can do it, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what school.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Culture, EducationComments (0)

Castle Hill Catholic Schools Get Computer-Only Math, Daily News

Two Catholic schools in Castle Hill have adopted a pilot program that teaches maths through a digital curriculum, New York Daily News reports.

Holy Family School and Archdiocese Of New York have adopted the programs, which include netbooks and interactive activities allowing each child to learn at their own pace while a teacher observes from a master computer.

The changes to the curriculum come a time of wider change for Catholic schools in the Bronx after six closed down in spring.

Posted in NewswireComments (0)

Audit Ranks Bronx School Worst For P.E., Daily News

A city audit ranked PS 163 in the Bronx worst for physical education facilities out of 31 school visited, reports the New York Daily News.

The school on Webster Avenue has no gym or P.E. teachers. Trailers accommodating overcrowded classrooms take up space in the playground that might otherwise be used for education facilities.

None of the 31 schools reviewed by the audit offered gym classes as regularly as they should under state regulations.

Posted in NewswireComments (0)

First New School In Hunts Point In 30 Years Officially Welcomes Students, NY1

A new charter school officially opened in Hunts Point yesterday, though it has been accepting students for a few weeks. NY1 has a special report.

The Hyde Leadership Charter School will eventually hold 300 9th through to 12th grade students.

It is the first educational facility to open in Hunts Point in 30 years.

Posted in NewswireComments (0)

5 schools in danger of closing, NY1 News

The Department of Education is considering closing 20 struggling schools across the city, including 5 Bronx Schools, reports NY1 News.

The schools in the Bronx include: P.S. 277, New Millennium Business Academy, M.S. 142, Aspire Preparatory Middle School, and J.H.S. 296.

The announcement comes days after releasing annual progress report cards on schools. Many of the schools on the list have abysmal test scores, according the report.



Posted in NewswireComments (0)

Two Bronx high schools make Top 100 ‘Best High Schools’ list, NY Daily News

Two Bronx high schools have made the cut for the annual U.S. News & World Report’ s Top 100 ‘Best High Schools’ list, reports the New York Daily News.

The High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx came in at #19 across the country.

The Bronx High School of Science came in at #58.

Statewide, 30 schools made the list, include a dozen across the city.

Posted in NewswireComments (0)

New York schools fall in progress reports, but one Bronx school surprises, NYTimes

New York’s elementary and middle schools received twice as many D’s and F’s this year from last year under the city’s grading system from the Department of Education, reports SchoolBook, a joint education journalism venture between the New York Times and WNYC radio.

Last year, the Department enacted a rule that schools couldn’t drop more than two letter grades in the School Progress Reports, but this year that safety net was removed and many schools fell further.

Altogether, 79 city schools received D’s and 32 were graded F. Last year, only around 60 school total had received D’s or F’s, reports SchoolBook.

A quarter of schools received A’s, 35 percent were given B’s and another 30 percent got C’s.

The South Bronx Classical Charter School, however, bucked the trend and received an A this year after getting a D last year.


Posted in NewswireComments (0)

Page 3 of 512345