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The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters welcomed actor, Malik Yoba, to their school on March 28 to present his documentary film series, “The Real Estate Mix Tape Vol. 1,” which also features Majora Carter, real estate developer and founder of Hunts Point’s Boogie Down Grind Café. Though Yoba is not a former student of the school, we were informed, “he was born in the old Lincoln Hospital down the road.”
According to various sources, including IMDb, Yoba is an actor, filmmaker and writer, known for his starring role as NYPD Detective J. C. Williams on “New York Undercover,” and as Yul Brenner in “Cool Runnings.” He has also appeared as former FBI special agent, Bill Harken, on the SiFi drama series, “Alphas,” as Jim Hudson in “Revolution,” and as Vernon Turner in “Empire.” He has a younger brother, Abdur-Rahman Yoba, who is a literary manager, writer, actor, producer, former indie record label owner and hip-hop recording artist.
During the first episode of the documentary series, students and faculty watched Yoba share his journey about how he also got into real estate and founded his own company, Yoba Development LLC. He also talked to Bronxites about the changes they have seen in their communities over the decades.
The actor went on to talk about how the process of redevelopment was very long, but that the first step to getting the ball rolling was to gather ideas and thoughts from the community to share with the City and the Department of Education. “So, the first step is what we’re going to focus on today,” Yoba said. “The first step was to come together and look to have a conversation to share vision.”
Later, the students were invited to approach the microphone to discuss real estate development in The Bronx, in general, along with sharing ideas for the redevelopment of their school, based at 339 Morris Avenue in Mott Haven.
“This was just the first day to bring the community together to show you what we were up to, to share some of the ideas from students, from the faculty here, from the architects, and everyone else that could be involved with this project,” the actor said.
According to myschools.nyc, The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters was founded on the idea that students who can express themselves in writing can succeed in any path. Writing is seen as another way where student voices can be leveraged to strengthen social justice. In addition to the school’s inquiry-based college preparatory curriculum, students participate in regular field trips to arts institutions, overnight trips to universities, SAT prep, and other community-building activities.
Bronxlandia feating Malik Yoba & Screening “The Real Estate Mix Tape Vol. 1” and live music showcase. Video via YouTube
Some of the ideas from the students for proposed improvements to the school included bigger gyms, better temperature control throughout the building, swimming pools, more working elevators, a school garden, and bigger bathrooms.
One student suggested wider hallways, explaining that the existing hallways were too small and crowded and caused her to be late for her classes. One of the school counselors suggested adequate space for new classrooms, and professional offices because many of the staff members’ offices were in closets.
Yoba talked about how the process of redeveloping is very long, but that the first step to getting the ball rolling was to gather ideas and thoughts from the community to share with the City and the Department of Education. “So, the first step is what we’re going to focus on today,” Yoba said. “The first step was to come together and look to have a conversation to share vision.”
Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson had also stopped by for the screening to talk to the students and to hear their ideas. “It’s up to the architects, the designers, the developers, the borough presidents, your educators and all of us to come together and make sure that we put money where our commitment is,” she said.
Before the screening, a student named Constantine introduced himself and told the story of how he first met Yoba. He said he had been walking down the hallway during his lunch period one day and ran into the actor, along with the dean of The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, David Garcia Rosen.
Yoba invited Constantine to a meeting later that day about redeveloping the school. At that meeting, the student pulled out a book about real estate investment and connected with Yoba over their shared interest in the topic.
“He didn’t have to stop,” said Constantine of Yoba. “And he definitely didn’t have to invite me to the meeting, but he did because he wants to make a connection to the community, to make it better for everyone.” The student later presented Yoba with a sweatshirt with the words, “Constantine Development” printed on it.
The school redevelopment project stemmed from Garcia Rosen’s years-long effort to build athletic facilities for the sports teams at the school. Amy Schless, the school principal, credited Garcia Rosen for getting the ball rolling regarding the school’s redevelopment with the partnerships they formed with Yoba and a specific architectural firm.
“Thank you all for being here to share our excitement about what started as a dream of David Garcia Rosen to improve our athletic facilities,” Schless said. “Here, at Bronx Letters, this dream has now grown to building a new school, a new athletic center and housing. And so now, this potential project will now benefit not only our students and our student athletes, but all of the students at Bronx letters, all of our staff and the entire community.”
Garcia Rosen, who has been in education for 24 years as a teacher, an athletic director and coach, explained that his career started when the “Small Schools” movement started. The movement, a national initiative to reorganize schools into smaller autonomous schools, allows teachers to have smaller classes and get to know students better.
However, according to Garcia Rosen, it presented a challenge in that they were cramming classes into buildings that didn’t have sufficient space, and not every school had the resources and extracurriculars that some schools did, including sports.
“So as someone who was working in those schools, working on sports, and talking to students who were dropping out of school because they didn’t have baseball, they didn’t have soccer, it was the same kids that were dropping out [that] were the kids coming to my office,” said the school’s dean. He added, that they were saying to him, “I want to play soccer, I want to play baseball. Where’s the football team?” And I have no good answers for them because New York City just didn’t care,” said Garcia Rosen.
According to the dean, the Small Schools movement left 17,000 Black or Latino students in New York City schools with no high school sports at all, while White and Asian students had double the access to high school sports.
The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, which is made up of mostly Black and Latino students, only had two sports teams just five years ago. Garcia Rosen and the school community advocated for access to sports for the students, and the school now has 29 sports teams.
The PR representative for the school said The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters “is part of the Urban Assembly system,” described as a system that helps to improve public schools, and which currently partners with 22 other public schools to help Garcia Rosen and his students to advocate for sports by writing letters to those in power and offering support.
Even though they’ve added 27 sports teams to the school, The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters still doesn’t have the sports facilities needed for the students to actually play. The dean said three schools share a tiny gym, and they only have one small field. He said they don’t have proper fields, courts, or a swimming pool to accommodate the activities they offer.
Meanwhile, David Adams, CEO of The Urban Assembly Inc., said The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters had an opportunity to engage in a public private partnership with two development corporations who were looking to invest in the expansion of the school and/or the creation of a whole new school on behalf of the community.
“So we’re very excited about this because we know that The Urban Assembly’s public private partnerships has defined the way that we pursue improvement in public education, and this is an example of what that looks like,” said Adams.
Garcia Rosen said when the original idea came up to build an athletic center for the students, he got a call from an interested architect about it. However, they are now talking about redeveloping the school, as a whole.
“So, we’ve been working over the past five years with the community trying to come up with an idea from the grassroots, and we’ve been lucky enough over the past year, really, to get involved with Sherman P Architects, and Yoba Development just got on this project about a month and a half ago,” he said. Norwood News asked if Majora Carter Real Estate was also involved with the school redevelopment project and we were informed it was not.
We also asked if it had been confirmed by the City or the Department of Education that the school will definitely be redeveloped. A school representative replied, “No, we are currently working on a formal proposal.” Asked who would be paying for the redevelopment, the school representative said this was still to be determined.
Wrapping up, Garcia Rosen insisted that schools shouldn’t have to accept the norm of no sports, or lower quality facilities, or three schools housed in one building, and that they can work to create change within their community.
“There’s an opportunity here to do something revolutionary, something special for our students,” he said. “And I’m excited to be a part of it and I do really believe, even though I’m already talking about potential possibilities today a lot, I believe it’s going to happen!”
*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.