Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRossa tackles societal inequity through legislative reform; fifth-generation Hudson Valley farmer Cheryl Rogowski connects her community with the land and with each other; 90-year-old pioneer feminist Reszin Adams looks back at a legacy of activism; and 18-year-old environmentist Iris Fen Gillingham takes up the torch to protect the Catskills’ air, water and soil. These four New York neighbors are taking the world into their hands.
Iris Fen Gillingham, Enviromentalist
When Iris Fen Gillingham arrived at college at 16 years old, it was the first time she had a flush toilet. “I grew up off of the electric grid on a farm in the Catskills. I remember my brother asking why we couldn’t have snacks in the cabinet and my mom answering, “Well, we have a whole garden outside. Go and pick something.” I got to learn what it means to live consciously with the land and I am so grateful for the perspective I have on the basic skills it takes to live,” she says. “It is something that I think a lot of young people are disconnected from.” Up until Gillingham was six, her family ran an organic vegetable farm in Jeffersonville, but within ten years, the area was hit by three historical floods that ultimately decimated their farm. “It completely changed the course of my family’s life,” remembers Gillingham. Soon afterwards, her father started taking her to town meetings over another pressing, local issue: fracking. “I’d be in the room with all of these leaders who were talking about why they were fighting fracking — for their kids and their grandkids — but I would look around and I would be the only kid there. I wanted to see their kids and grandkids there too because this is our future and these discussions are going to impact all of our lives. It prompted me to start speaking out,” she says.
Fast forward to this past December and the now 18 year-old, full-fledged environmental activist helped to deliver over 100,000 signatures to New York state in an effort to ban fracking (as well as waste water and water withdrawals used for fracking) in the Delaware River basin. Gillingham has found her fellow youth activists, too. A member of Zero Hour, a youth-led climate organization that facilitated a march on Washington last year, she joined her peers in meeting with over 40 senators in an effort to get them to sign a “no fossil fuels money” pledge, which declared they would stop accepting campaign money from fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, and their front groups. “For me, I’m not intimidated because I feel very supported by the group of young people that I’m surrounded by. As teenagers, we don’t have a decision-making body in the rooms where the decisions are happening so it’s vitally important for us to use our voices,” Gillingham says. “The elected officials might not have all listened to us that day, but we are continuing to fight and we will continue to call for change.” This year, Zero Hour is introducing Getting to the Roots of Climate Change, a new program which will appoint youth ambassadors who will speak to climate change from an educative perspective, teaching their peers about contributing factors that extend far beyond inclement weather. “Where I come from inspires me,” adds Gillingham. “I want to bring knowledge back that can help my community here to flourish and to survive what is going to be a very turbulent next decade.” — Alexandra Haechler
Cheryl Rogowski, Farmer
Meet Pine Island farmer Cheryl Rogowski. Her career in agriculture has deep roots. On her mother’s side, farmers go back five generations. Her grandmother drove tractor trailers and picked the rotten onions from the belts. Her mother taught her how to drive a tractor and pull a harvester, back when New York’s Black Dirt region was the onion harvest capital of the world. Today, Rogowski is still carrying on the family tradition. But things are different now. As the weather patterns change, the growing season lengthens and local farmers cultivate a greater array of crops that they can harvest throughout the warmer months. No longer just onions but cabbage, lettuce, corn, beets, broccoli, chili peppers, sweet peppers, and radishes grow locally, making the farmland of the Hudson Valley a changing quilt.
In 2004, when Rogowski became the first-ever farmer to receive a prestigious “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, she was spearheading the operation of a 150-acre farm with dozens of employees, growing hundreds of varietals, and managing a restaurant right in the middle of it all. “You could pick your herbs straight from the flower garden,” she says, “and we’d incorporate that into your food. People could see the tractors pulling in with the harvest. The farmers came and had breakfast at the restaurant, along with all the other guests.”
There, Rogowski says, people witnessed firsthand the way their meals made it from field to plate, which tapped into a great — and growing — sense of curiosity we have about where our food comes from. As she introduced her neighbors to her world of agriculture, she also elevated the people already in it: She brought English tutors on site and became certified to teach ESL herself, in order to set up a classroom and pay her workers to take English lessons during their workdays. And when three of the four supermarkets near her farm in the Warwick area shut down in a single year, she rallied volunteers from her CSA to help ensure fresh produce was delivered to people in their homes. No matter how strong a community she built, she says, the work was still hard. In 2011, Rogowski lost 80 acres of produce to the floodwaters of Hurricane Irene. “The roads were shut down. You couldn’t even get to my farm for days,” she recalls. The water had come within 100 feet of her greenhouses, but they remained untouched. Now, Rogowski has downsized to a ten-acre farm. She still grows hundreds of varietals, involves multiple communities in her CSA efforts, and makes crops spring from the black dirt that none of her peers had thought possible. — Alexandra Marvar
Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to NY State Governor
Years ago, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, a young Melissa DeRosa would invariably answer, “secretary to the New York state governor.” Today, the Rochester native is just that. The youngest person and the first female to occupy the position, DeRosa is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s right hand, a role which has her spearheading the state’s criminal justice reform, sexual harassment legislation and women’s rights, among others. “In college, I interned for Hillary Clinton’s political action committee and it made me motivated to get to a place where I could make the major policy and political decisions. Her committee was run entirely by high-paced, clearly intelligent and ambitious women and I would sit there thinking, “I want to be like them,”” she recalls. Not that DeRosa wants to be treated differently because of her gender.
“As women, we should be challenged and held accountable to the exact same standard as men because if were not, you see reverse sexism. If you want a seat at the table, you’re at the table, but then you have to answer the same questions to the same extent as men.” That being said, DeRosa acknowledges she brings a new perspective to the formerly male position. “I will say that if there wasn’t a 36 year old woman sitting in my chair, I’m not sure that IVF is something that would be prioritized in the governor’s office in the way that it is this year.” As Chairwoman of NYS Council on Women & Girls, DeRosa is presently working on legislation to ensure that New York women with fertility issues can obtain mandated coverage of IVF (in vitro fertilization) via their insurance companies. She is also rolling out a pilot program at community colleges across New York state that will provide daycare for enrolled single parents, and fighting to change the legal standard definition of, “equal pay for equal work” to “equal pay for substantially similar work” as a means to abolish the gender pay gap. “As New Yorkers, we lead the nation on the gender pay gap. It’s 89 cents on the dollar, women versus men, but 11 cents is still too large,” she says. — Alexandra Haechler
Reszin Adams, Activist
A friend of mine likes to post images on Instagram tagged “you young ’uns could learn a thing or two.” That sentiment could be applied to the woman described as “Albany’s alpha activist” and a “feminist before there were feminists,” Rezsin Adams. Adams arrived in the state capital in 1958 and at 90 years of age is still speaking truth to power. Her political engagement and resistance began when she was a child. She was arrested at 12 for collecting money for an organization that raised funds for anti-Franco fighters in the Spanish Civil War, the left’s cause-celebre of the 1930s. She has subsequently been arrested while taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, to advocating for legal abortion, to promoting ecological causes and upholding tenants’ rights. Her purview, clearly, is broad.
A native New Yorker with the accent to prove it, she recalls visitors to her parents’ home in the 1930s, seeking out her mother’s services as a translator. “I became aware of things that were happening at that point,” she says. “My parents were not radicals but they were involved in various issues that were current.” In that sense she imbibed activism at the kitchen table, from political and social to ecological. At a time when mink coats and sable stoles were objects of desire, “my mother and aunts wouldn’t wear fur,” she says, adding that they thought them “too bourgeois” and an unacceptable flaunting of wealth when so many were poor. At university in Rochester she recalls “a newspaper that didn’t really cover what was going on [politically].” So, she says, she “wrote a column, and word came from the [board] that the university would cease to support the school” if Adams’ views continued to be propagated in this way. Less fiery in those days (she was 17) she chose not to harm the school and stopped writing.
In 1958 she came to Albany a self-avowed activist, printing fliers on a mimeograph machine and passing them out. She organized protests around various causes, and gave anti-war figurehead Jane Fonda a tour of the state capital during the Vietnam conflict. Over subsequent decades she continued to lobby and organize around various social justice and anti-iniquity causes. She worked to establish Albany’s Social Justice Center in 1981, which assists progressive groups to this day, including Black Lives Matter and Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration.
This is an empowering time for women, with the strength coming out of the Me Too movement and the rise in prominence of women in politics, but Adams has been at this for a very long time. She’s a precursor to the current resurgence of feminism and female activism, and at the age of 90 the fire in Adams’ belly still burns. Last year she attended the Albany Women’s March, a matriarch and symbol of resistance to thousands of women she has inspired in her decades long fight for resistance and social justice in New York state and beyond. — Eddie Brannan