East New York, a residential neighborhood in the eastern section of Brooklyn, has battled poverty since the 1950s. In April 2018, I began documenting grassroots community action in response to the social problems associated with poverty — from street crime and drug addiction to gun violence. In this series, which is part of a long-term urban project I started in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 2012, I have been following the efforts of a local organization called ManUp Inc. Members use the Egyptian word “hotep,” which means “to be at peace,” to greet people in their community. This choice demonstrates ManUp’s powerful and focused aim, and my work represents aspects of the difficult challenge the group faces.
Efforts to change a troubled reality in the context of an impoverished community must be directed at different sources of concern simultaneously. Community action maximizes the strategy of empowerment through personal relations and shared goals. Cure Violence, a program based on the Chicago Ceasefire Initiative and used by ManUp, employs strategies indicated by the key word “cure” in its name. The program defines its challenge with concepts borrowed from the prevention of the spread of a contagious disease: detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating high-risk individuals and examining social norms. Using principles set down by Ceasefire — itself an initiative of the Chicago Project — outreach team workers for ManUp try to break the chain of street violence by acting as peer counselors to potential perpetrators and victims. A significant result of this proactive approach in East New York is that people are recognizing the potential of their participation in the process of transformation.
Text and photography by Amnon Gutman