Andrea Colon spent her Halloweens making the journey to the far side of Rockaway Peninsula, an 11-mile length of land jutting out of Queens, New York. She knew that the west side of the peninsula was where the rich families lived. And their wealth meant a bigger, better haul of treats than the one she would’ve earned had she stayed put on the east side.
But when she entered high school, she realized the holiday wasn’t just a night of costume and treats: It was a reflection of the myriad of disparities that divided the lives of the 127,000 residents of Rockaway Peninsula.
The houses along the west side tend to belong to wealthy, white families. Residents on the east side are typically minorities and lower-income residents. People who live on the west side have private beaches, yacht clubs and the Rockaway Farmers Market. The east side is regarded as a food desert lacking in options for affordable, fresh and healthy food — perhaps one of the key reasons why its residents face high rates of obesity and diabetes. Whereas wealthy commuters on the west side are better positioned — financially and geographically — to get to work, commuters on the east side are more likely to rely on public transportation, where the dearth of options means they must face commutes averaging 53 minutes in each direction a day, the longest commutes of any New York City residents.
The more Colon learned about the chasm of inequality in her own backyard, the more the high school student realized she had to do something. So in 2016, during her junior year, she joined the Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF).
RYTF is a “for youth, by youth” group of 60 young people organizing at the grassroots level to equalize outcomes across race and class lines within its community.
“It’s about coming together as young people and trying to get access to spaces where these things are talked about,” Colon, now 18 and lead organizer for the group, told NationSwell. “The youth voice is just not very present.”
When RYTF was founded in 2011, it initially focused on neighborhood beautification projects and community improvements. Then, in the year following the organization’s founding, Hurricane Sandy hit.
“I think that’s when it all came full circle, and we all just started having more of a social justice lens in thinking about issues that impact our community,” Colon said.
The devastating superstorm left parts of Rockaway without electricity or access to medical attention for weeks and subway service was suspended for seven months. Local grocery stores were destroyed. Colon said families turned to bodegas for food, and despite their best efforts, those corner stores weren’t able to reliably provide fresh produce to customers.
So in 2013, the youth group rallied for access to a vacant, half-acre lot on Beach 54th Street and transformed it into something thriving: the largest youth-run urban farm in New York City for the past six years, bringing the possibility of fresh produce — and therefore healthy food — to a community where such offerings were a rarity.
But RYTF grows more than good greens. Its organizers pride themselves on helping young people grow into the kind of leaders who actually better their communities.
In 2013, the group became a nonprofit and grew to expand its focus into four core areas: food justice, educational equity, criminal justice reform and civic engagement. Those core areas extended out into hosting campaigns around voter registration, lobbying for restorative justice practices in schools and organizing Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the city.
Among its accomplishments was the successful campaign to extend the Q52 bus line 18 blocks east. This gave over 10,000 more residents access to the route, and therefore, access to jobs, schools and resources.
View this post on Instagram
We are hosting a Garden Member Interest Meeting on May 13th for anyone who is interested in having a dedicated growing space in our urban farm! Our youth have been hard at work to prepare the land for this upcoming season and we look forward to sharing the space with our community, so stop by!
Young people across Rockaway can join the task force by going through a 12-week course on the history of organized movements and basics of movement building. Then they get to work: The members attend community council meetings, lead rallies and organize protests.
Colon said other communities can and should create similar groups so young people’s voices can be heard.
“All these issues impact young people,” Colon said. “This is the world that we’re going to be living in for quite a while, so our voices should be validated and we should be given a seat at the table.”
RYTF was founded by the simple model of finding a problem, rallying people together and creating change. Its website provides an in-depth look at how the group approaches issues and theory of change. It’s a model that communities across the nation can adapt to their own unique neighborhoods. Colon’s advice is to get people together and act — or else.
“We’re going to be the ones either suffering from the consequences or reaping the benefits,” she warned.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Andrea Colon is 22 and joined the task for in 2015. She is 18 and joined in 2016. NationSwell apologizes for these errors.