Today marks the retirement of Alice Tapia, a long-time community activist from Red Hook, Brooklyn. Every healthy, functioning neighborhood needs Alice Tapias -- people who are willing to stand up and raise their hand when problems emerge and volunteers are needed.
I first met Alice in the mid 1990s, when I was tasked with putting together an AmeriCorps program in Red Hook. With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that I was in way over my head. I had to hold together a complicated multi-agency partnership, hire staff, find office and training space (for free), develop ties to the community so that we could organize service projects, and recruit 50 full-time participants -- all under intense time pressure given the necessities of federal funding. I can't even begin to catalogue all of the mistakes that I made. Somehow, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps managed not just to get off the ground but to survive and to help plant seeds that would later flower into the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
Any honest assessment of how this happened has to begin with an admission that it was largely due to dumb luck. We caught a lot of good breaks along the way. Perhaps the most important was that Alice agreed to be part of the initial class of Corps members. Alice was a crucial piece in the puzzle because she was already a leader in the community, well known for her work on community gardens. She gave our nascent program an immediate dose of credibility, signaling to everyone who knew her and looked up to her that they too should give us a chance. In doing so, Alice was taking a risk, casting her lot with an untested group of staffers, all of whom were younger than her, and an as-yet unproven idea -- that a community justice program could help improve public safety and bolster local confidence in justice.
Over the years, Alice has played a number of different roles in Red Hook, becoming a staffer at the Justice Center, creating Women in Touch, serving on the tenant association, and showing up for countless community organizing efforts. She also made a small cameo in Good Courts, the book that I co-wrote with John Feinblatt. Below is an excerpt that describes a housing court case handled by Alex Calabrese, the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center:
This anecdote is typical Alice -- she does the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes good outcomes possible. Over the years, she has positively touched the lives of hundreds of people, using her patience, good humor, and good sense to help friends and strangers alike. I am lucky to have had a chance to work alongside her.