Hey, it’s Kierra Sims, Development Manager at NEC, I’m honored to be writing about my colleague, nati, Communications Manager, as part of NEC’s #MakingWaves staff series. Support the people who make our work possible by making a gift today!
Nati is a creator for creators from Staten Island, New York City, who is now based in Western Massachusetts. One of my first memories of her was at CommonBound 2018 in St. Louis. She hopped out the car after a 10 hour road trip from Detroit full of energy to organize, hang posters, and fight capitalism. I remember thinking, “Wow, what a free spirit. I need to get to know this girl more, ASAP!” Below is a reflection from our conversation - we spoke about Staten Island, the importance of arts & culture, people-centered narratives in the new economy, and why NEC is needed in this moment:
Growing up in Staten Island
Growing up, Nati lived across the street from the world’s largest garbage dump, the Fresh Kills Landfill, which was opened in 1948 and shut down in 2001. Todt Hill - one of the wealthiest parts of the island which she passed each day to get to high school - sat atop the highest peaks, far from the stench, overlooking middle class neighborhoods on the South Shore where many of the city’s cops and firefighters resided. In her own words: “Staten Island is a very segregated place, it’s Trump country while also being the only borough in NYC to be getting browner and blacker,” and added, “it’s a place of extremes; there’s obscene wealth and ignorance brushed up alongside neglect and poverty which are on cruel display.”
When Eric Garner - a member of her local community who she happened to say hello to that fateful morning in July 2014 - was killed by the police, Nati remembers feeling a severe sense of powerlessness while the video of the events went viral: “Where’s our [Staten Island] response?”
What ensued during the peak of the #BlackLivesMatter moment pushed Staten Island’s identity from bad to worse. It became clear that the people of Staten Island needed to reclaim their story - as a place of promise with a vibrant history and future of black, immigrant and indigenous resistance, culture and power - which has been invisibilized by stereotypes portrayed in mass media. Using art, storytelling and community festivals as an organizing strategy, Nati worked to create spaces for her community to deepen relationships which could build power and change the dominant narrative to one centered on a culture of solidarity.
#MakingWaves in her community
After the death of Eric Garner, Nati organized an art show #CanLoveGoViral in 2016, as a fundraiser for Ramsey Orta, the young man who bravely shot the Garner video on his phone (and is now in prison). Soon after, Nati co-created and now helps manage La Isla Bonita Festival - a community arts and music festival which has been going on for 4 years on Staten Island. It started very grassroots; first as house parties, then local club nights, to park jams, an Instagram account and is now a summer festival with SummerStage, NYC’s iconic festival series which travels to all 5 boroughs. Their crew identified a need for Staten Islanders, especially Black and Brown folks, to be together – to love on one another and cultivate genuine relationships. They witnessed people going beyond their insular circles to seeing each other more as beautiful and capable. Though there’s so much work to do, she believes that these relationships are the key.
La Isla Bonita Festival was inspired and financially seeded by Sol Collective (who are now NEC members) in Sacramento, CA - where Nati became a collective member during her time living in California, learning from legacies of cultural and community organizing there. A center for arts, culture and activism, Sol’s core guiding principle is that the “local is global.” Drawing on the work and spirit of the Zapatista movement in Mexico, Nati told me that, “what I learned from my mentor, Estella Sanchez, is that we need to do the work of building new institutions. We have to be the example we want to see.”
This year at the festival, NEC members Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC tabled and shared resources on the cooperative movement growing in the city; other organizers from The Working World, Fearless Cities, May Day Space and New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives also came out to show their solidarity. Prefiguring these spaces and ways to be with one another is where she believes we can begin: tearing down redlined neighborhoods and food deserts, eliminating the dumps and reclaiming humanity so that cops never have the license to kill.
Why New Economy Coalition? Why now?
When asked this question, Nati replied, “Why did I grow up across the street from a landfill that you could see from outer space? Why is the cop who killed Eric Garner, on video, making over $110,000K a year while Erica Garner, Eric’s daughter who was thrown into activism, is dead at 27? What are the systems that result in that sort of death cycle? That’s why NEC. Because we need to fight for our lives.”
Nati further explained that NEC is connecting folks dealing with similar, if not the same, issues - cultivating self-determination, self-confidence and hope through building economic democracy. NEC connects the local to the global - the people and the systems we live under to something much more life-affirming than garbage, violence and self-hatred. Nati points out with enthusiasm that it’s no a coincidence that “places like Staten Island have the potential to be sites of great innovation and experimentation.” NEC has a role to play in networking and making sure communities are not only learning from one another, but building with one another, beautifully.
We got this y’all! If you think this world needs visionary solutions now more than ever, please give what you can and help spread the word. NEC is calling on each of you to support our network and members by helping us raise $100K by the end of the year!