“They Never Wanted to Listen to Us”

One Woman’s Fight Against Racism and for Safer Streets

Note from the Editor
In March, a longtime member of Queens Community Board 4 named Ann Pfoser Darby stated in a public meeting that 111th Street, a dangerous road adjacent to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, would not need the safety improvements proposed by the Department of Transportation because, “once Trump removes all the illegals from Corona, there won’t be anybody to ride bike lanes.” TransAlt’s Queens Organizer Juan Restrepo was in the room that day, and broadcast what he heard on Twitter. Today, Ann Pfoser Darby is no longer a member of Community Board 4. This interview with one of the remarkable activists who fought to make 111th Street safe was originally published in Spanish in solidarity with the Spanish-speaking communities in Corona, and across New York City. Read the interview in Spanish.

Tell us about your organization.

Mujeres en Movimiento started from a desire to exercise. I invited some of the mothers I knew. The first couple of days, no one came. By the end of the first year, 15 would come to exercise every morning. Now, Mujeres en Movimiento is what I do in my free time. We started with dancing, because it is a good way to connect with our roots and what we left in our country. We have also found another way, by riding a bicycle. That’s how all of this began.

How did you start riding?

Because of our exercise classes, the Queens Museum told me about a bicycle project called We Bike NYC. The founder speaks Spanish and she supported us learning to ride. Three of our members didn’t know how to ride a bicycle, and now they do. At first I was afraid to ride here, because in my small hometown there are dirt roads and no cars. Here, where you have a lot of people walking and there are a lot of cars, it’s a different vibe. Little by little I started riding on the street. Now, when I do it, I don’t feel my heart racing. Every time I ride, I feel safer. Through cycling, we feel empowered, and the bicycle liberates me and the other women.

Mujeres en Movimiento led a three-year campaign for protected bike lanes and safe crosswalks on 111th Street in Corona, Queens. Recently, the mayor overrode the community board to push those safety improvements through. How does it feel to finally succeed?

When the Mayor approved the plan, I was so happy I wanted to shout. There is strength in unity, and without a doubt, I didn’t accomplish this by myself. This campaign was put together like a muscle, little by little, and it kept getting stronger. Some created signs. Some contributed in the morning, others in the afternoon, and others during the evening. There’s always been that unity, and now, above everything, we feel stronger. I’ve learned that the most important thing is resistance because if we had let our guard down for just a small moment, we would not have accomplished anything.

Community Board 4 actively resisted safety improvements to 111th Street, and at points in your campaign, some community board members were emphatically racist. How do you feel about your community board now?

What an embarrassment for the community board that Mayor de Blasio had to come in and say that the plan was going forward despite them, when they had the power to support us and take us into consideration. We have been ignored, intimidated, and reprimanded. We were called “illegals,” when we are really a community of Latinos and Latinas. I feel disappointed that the community board does not explore what the community needs. One goes to the community board, but does not have permission to talk, to express what you’ve seen, or what you’ve lived. They never wanted to listen to us. As mothers, we are the ones who have to walk, drop our kids at school, and pick them up. To see that construction on 111th Street has already begun means that no matter if we are “undocumented” or “illegals” or whatever they want to call us, we stay strong and united. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again, because we want improvements to our schools, our housing, and our parks. Hopefully the community board starts seeing the real need of the community that walks.

As an activist, what is the favorite tactic that you used during this campaign?

Without question, getting the kids involved was the best part, and integrating art. We would bring signs to the community board, so even when we were silenced, we had a voice. The kids learn to draw at their schools, and they helped us. In this space [Immigrant Movement International in Corona, which houses and supports Mujeres en Movimiento], our children are welcomed, which means the mothers can’t say that they can’t participate because of their children. On the contrary, you could see the mothers’ excitement in watching their children doing activism. When we will go to inaugurate 111th Street, they will see that we fought for something real, and that makes me very excited.

How will the protected bike lanes and safer crosswalks on 111th Street affect your life?

These changes are going to greatly benefit our mother earth and our pockets. For example, my husband always travels to work on his bicycle, no matter if it’s cold or hot. I’ll be able to travel safely and will feel more protected, and travel faster in the mornings. It’s also going to benefit the mothers who were afraid to walk with their strollers and their young children behind them on their bicycles. There will be parking spaces, more freedom to walk, ease of traveling, and above all else, an increased safety for us all.

What’s next for Mujeres en Movimiento?

Some of the mothers want more public spaces to have programs for their children. They want a public pool, a running track, and a cleaner park for our small children to play. Mujeres en Movimiento is being trained on how to form our own cooperative. We have a lot of dreams, but we need to take them step-by-step to not get distracted. It may look easy, but it’s not. You need time for meetings, to coordinate, and to share your workload so that it doesn’t feel as heavy. That’s how we were able to resist this. I don’t know what’s next but I know we will not stop.

Do you have any advice for other New Yorkers who are organizing to make their streets safe?

My advice would be to always remain united. Use art to accomplish your goals. Follow your goals and don’t let your guard down until you accomplish it. If we were able to accomplish our goal, you will, too. Also, if at any moment you need our support, we will be there to share our experience. I always keep that closed fist of battle in my heart. We don’t know what path our destiny will take, but we will keep fighting for safe spaces for the community and for our children. There’s no doubt that streets have to be safer for us and for the ones that are coming after.