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6 Activists & Advocates Working to Spark Change in Westchester

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By Rachael Gorrie

Taking on entrenched resistance, discrimination, and apathy can be a struggle, but these local activists and advocates aim to create lasting change.

By Joe Cesarano, Marisa Iallonardo, and Michelle Gillan Larkin

Racial Equity

Maria Smith Dautruche

Director, Westchester Center for Racial Equity White Plains; ywcawpcw.org

For Maria Smith Dautruche, the roots of what she does today as the director of the Westchester Center for Racial Equity began with the social justice work she was introduced to as a kid in Mount Vernon.

“I grew up at Grace Baptist Church, and as a child I was exposed to ‘people power,’ and I’ve believed in it ever since,” she says. “We also had a responsive reading during the services there, and I remember repeating ‘I am somebody’ so many Sundays in my youth. I believed it. So, when I encounter racism and racial inequity — basically attempts to rob me of my humanity and my human rights, my somebodyness, so to speak — I have an inoculation against the trap of feeling despair and defective. No one should feel subhuman because they are discriminated against.”

By Rachael Gorrie

Armed with a master’s degree in arts and cultural management from Pratt Institute, Smith Dautruche has worked in various places, including as a vice president at the National Urban League, where she says she was exposed to not only the impacts of racial inequalities on a national level but also the solutions, such as racial healing, offered through their network. “That solidified for me that I will do this work until I work myself out of a job — until a vision of racial equity is achieved and sustained,” she says.

Smith Dautruche has always had a desire to work locally. “I’m really proud of being from Mount Vernon,” she says. “I’m in a love affair with my hometown.” In 2021, she became director of the newly established Center for Racial Equity at the YWCA in nearby White Plains, which both builds on work the Y has been doing and introduces new initiatives. Those programs include workshops, trainings, and events, such as the Diversity Week Virtual Speaker Series, set for early October, and projects like the Racial Equity Scorecard, which looks at the county’s pandemic response through a racial-equity lens.

“We really won’t solve racism with capitalism in my opinion. I think a lot of folks would rather take that approach, especially in Westchester, where there is greater widespread comfort talking about the racial wealth gap, for instance, than there is a commitment to naming and eradicating racism as a root cause for that and so many disparities,” she says. “I want my home county to be a leader on racial equity because we can be. And why shouldn’t Westchester County be the national leader and a model for racial equity? There’s a lot of work to be done here, and I am encouraged here in Westchester to know I am not doing it alone.” —MI

In 2021, Neighbors Link clients, volunteers, donors, allies, and staff members rallied in Washington, DC, to call for a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are already living in the United States and contributing to their communities and the economy. Courtesy of Carola Ottero Bracco.

Immigrant Advocacy

Carola Otero Bracco

Executive Director, Neighbors Link Mount Kisco; neighborslink.org

Carola Otero Bracco recalls how her childhood home was filled with Latino food, culture, and talk, which often turned to the politics of Bolivia, where her family lived before immigrating to the U.S. a few months before she was born.

Fast-forward a few years — to a career in corporate finance for companies like General Electric and Ford Motor Company, plus an MBA from Duke University — and Otero Bracco, who grew up speaking both English and Spanish, found that when she first walked through the doors at the Neighbors Link center in Mount Kisco as a volunteer, “it felt like home.”

“I believe that all individuals have the right to live with dignity and respect, and we all deserve the opportunity to improve our lives.”

She has now been executive director of the immigrant-focused organization for nearly two decades and in that time has seen it grow from just three employees to more than 50 today, with a large volunteer presence. Neighbors Link currently has three centers: Mount Kisco, Ossining, and, through a partnership with Westhab, Dayspring Community Center in Yonkers, all within walking distance of the communities they serve.

“I believe that all individuals have the right to live with dignity and respect, and we all deserve the opportunity to improve our lives,” says Otero Bracco, who moved to Westchester in 1997. “Neighbors Link works with families that from one generation to the next are pulling themselves out of poverty and creating opportunities for their children that their parents did not have.”

By Bibiana Huang Matheis.

The organization offers everything from ESL classes, workforce development, events for families and kids, a Parent Education training program, and the Neighbors Link Community Law Practice, which includes immigration legal services as well as cultural-awareness training for the wider community. Neighbor Link’s advocacy work, often done in coalition with other organizations, is also a strong component and includes initiatives such as the passage of the Immigrant Protection Act in Westchester, census participation, and COVID vaccine access.

“To migrate to a new country — to leave behind your family, your home, and all that defines you, to make a better life for your children — takes a tremendous amount of courage, resilience, strength, and sacrifice, and I am proud to work with immigrant families,” she says. —MI

Courtesy of Tibisay Guzman.

Ability Advocacy

Tibisay Guzmán

Executive Director & CEO, The Arc Westchester Hawthorne; arcwestchester.org

Born in Venezuela and raised in NYC, Tibisay Guzmán spent two decades in healthcare administration in Yonkers before taking an early retirement to focus on her then-adolescent son with autism. As she began moving in circles comprising individuals and families with similar challenges, it became her “personal goal” to ensure that people with developmental disabilities were integrated into the community.

“I have a vision where people with disabilities are a part of our society, with employment opportunities, community leadership positions, and the ability to be advocates for themselves and the issues that are important to them,” Guzmán says.

It didn’t take long for Guzmán’s advocacy for her son and others to be noticed by The Arc Westchester, a 73-year-old agency that provides programs, services, and support to children, teens, and adults with developmental disabilities, and their families. She was offered a job, a position on the board, and, four years ago, the lead role.

“As advocates, we teach the community about the untapped talents of people with developmental disabilities, and we show them how they can advance and support these individuals to be connected to their community.”

Through her shared efforts, The Arc is working with 150 Westchester businesses — from supermarkets to law firms — that employ people with disabilities and pay salaries above the standard sub-minimum wage. “These organizations feel it’s an important part of their commitment to equality, and I feel I contributed to that in my small way,” Guzmán says.

“We continually have to get our elected officials to recognize the issues facing people with developmental disabilities.”

In addition, at her urging, all of The Arc’s new adult residences will be smaller and therefore less institutional. They will have private rooms, which is “so important for quality of life,” she says.

Now that her son, who originally ignited her passion for activism, is an adult, Guzmán doesn’t take as much time as she’d like for skiing and golf, because, as she points out, advocacy never stops. “We continually have to get our elected officials to recognize the issues facing people with developmental disabilities.” And she loves nothing more than watching an Arc client stand before a lawmaker lobbying for change — whether it’s for disabled comrades or some other cause that’s near and dear, like the environment. —MGL

Courtesy of Rich Nightingale.

Affordable Housing

Rich Nightingale

President & CEO, Westhab Yonkers; westhab.org

Rich Nightingale has spent his entire career at Westhab. His first jobs within the organization — which focuses on creating affordable housing and offering service-based programs in Westchester and NYC — involved doing everything from working in homeless shelters to getting kids onto school buses. Over the years, he continued to learn and take on different roles, moving up through the ranks until being named president and CEO in 2014.

“There was never a choice for me,” says Nightingale, who has a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University. “I was never going to have a job that was anywhere except in a social justice, equity-focused organization.”

At Westhab, he is doing that work daily. One of the organization’s main initiatives is to construct and maintain income-restricted rental buildings, where residents meet specific income criteria, often with apartments reserved for those who were once homeless, as in the case of a 113-unit building that’s currently underway in Yonkers. To date, Westhab has helped more than 9,000 homeless people and families move into homes.

“We’re also leading community development activities and delivering services not just to our tenants but to the entire community,” says Nightingale of the 41-year-old institution. Westhab offers a variety of services, from job training and placement programs to after-school programs for kids and running homeless shelters.

Rich Nightingale

Courtesy of Rich Nightingale.

“We’re not trying to do things the way they were done 10 and 20 years ago,” says Nightingale. “We’re trying to create beautiful, green, sustainable housing. We’re trying to deliver services in new kinds of data-informed ways and ways that think about the people we serve as the center of the process.” He adds that while Westhab has grown, it has also evolved, by hiring smart, thoughtful people who have deepened the nonprofit’s impact on the places they serve.

As Nightingale puts it, affordable housing isn’t a niche special interest but an absolute necessity. “Our community only works, and our economy only works, when there’s housing for every member of the community,” he says. —MI

Advocates in Westchester

Photo by Rachael Gorrie.

Women’s Rights

Colleen Brathwaite

Chair, Westchester Women’s Agenda Tarrytown; wwagenda.org

Colleen Brathwaite left her native Barbados to major in English at Brandeis University before embarking on a four-decade-long public relations career at some of America’s biggest corporations. All the while, “I had an interest in doing something to benefit mankind, something more meaningful,” she says.

Her first step in that direction was a shift to the nonprofit sector and a communications job at Westchester Jewish Community Services, where she attended an “Undoing Racism” workshop. “That was an eye-opener for me.”

Coincidentally, the Westchester Women’s Agenda (WWA), an organization that serves as advocates for local women, held their meetings in her offices. Although she didn’t initially see a role for herself in the organization she now chairs, she did suggest a census-data-driven study on the status of women in the county. “It showed major disparities in the way women lived,” she says. “Women with advanced degrees were no better off than less educated white men.”

And with that, she was in the trenches with the WWA. “The thing that drives me is I have a real revulsion to inequality, to unfairness,” she says. “Because America has a 400-year history of racism, racial equity is a vein that runs through everything we do.”

While, according to Brathwaite, serving God is the most important thing she does, her crowning achievements include her role in persuading county government to join the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), to address and eliminate racial disparities and ensure an equitable life for all residents; advocating state COVID-relief dollars for excluded workers; and securing increased county funding for nonprofit member organizations.

Brathwaite is currently “in the throes” of a second report on the status of women in Westchester, and although it won’t conclude until the end of the year, a few hot-button hints have been bubbling to the surface: “Hunger, homelessness, affordable housing, inequities in health and healthcare for people of color, and educational equity.”

Whatever else is revealed, Brathwaite will only grow stronger in her “deep need to get involved” and make a difference in her adopted homeland. “My real effort is to make life better for all people in Westchester.” —MGL

Westchester advocate Lori Ensinger

In 2017, Ensinger, then-County Executive Rob Astorino, and other officials announced funding that would preserve the 172-acre Stuart’s Fruit Farm in Granite Springs via the purchase of a conservation easement. Courtesy of Lori Ensinger.

Environmental Conservation

Lori Ensinger

President, Westchester Land Trust Bedford Hills; westchesterlandtrust.org

Throughout her life, Lori Ensinger has done more than merely be an advocate for and educate people about the effects of environmental degradation due to overdevelopment — she has witnessed it. Born and raised in Southern Westchester, the current Somers resident initially wanted to pursue a career in conservation biology. She chose a career in finance instead and has worked as an investment manager for 30 years yet never wavered in her commitment to and passion for the cause.

“During that entire time, I was engaged with various conservation organizations, including being a docent with the Wildlife Conservation Society, cofounder of the former Community Land Trust of New Castle, board member and board chair of Teatown Lake Reservation, and board member of Westchester Land Trust [WLT] for 10 years prior to taking on the role of president in 2013,” she says.

“Conservation isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity for the survival of all who inhabit our planet.”

WLT works with public and private partners to preserve land to protect and enhance natural resources in the region. The organization accepts donations of land and purchases parcels to create conservation easements on environmentally important areas. “Our work impacts the very core of the health, vibrancy, and livability of our communities,” says Ensinger. “The work we do protects our communities’ drinking-water supplies, air quality, local food supplies, biodiversity, passive recreation opportunities, and contributes to climate resiliency.”

Advocates in Westchester

Courtesy of Lori Ensinger.

Growing up in the county and witnessing the effects of crowding and overdevelopment has fueled her fire for conservation advocacy. “Being a lifelong resident of the county has instilled a passion for preserving what is left in one of the most densely populated areas of the state,” she says. Her biggest challenge has been educating others on the importance of her work. “Conservation isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity for the survival of all who inhabit our planet,” she says. “Private funding of land conservation is critical, yet environmental nonprofits receive less than two percent of all charitable donations, by far the smallest of the categories measured.”

Although Ensinger is transitioning out of her role as WLT president this month, she will continue with the organization as a senior advisor, working mostly on land acquisitions. But she urges residents concerned about their communities and the planet as a whole to join WLT’s efforts. “We cannot do the work we do without the support of the residents of the communities we are helping to preserve,” she says. —JC

Related: Local Arts Organizations Are Lifting All Westchester Voices

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