I met Johanna Gregory last Spring 2016 at a Citizens Committee of NYC workshop in Manhattan. Johanna approached me after I spoke about Queenscapes in one of the workshops many amazing community group building activities. Johanna wanted to know how we could bring a photography program to the Hammel Houses in Far Rockaway, where she was the President of the Tenant Association. She liked the idea of introducing a visual program that would help boost the morale of her community and promote a positive perspective to a mostly disregarded section of Far Rockaway. Johanna mentioned that most of the kids in Far Rockaway are either pre-occupied in buying the latest Air Jordan's or caught up in gang violence. I will never forget how genuine her concern was to me, how much she cared about her neighborhood, and that she genuinely felt I could make a difference.
After a couple of phone conversations, and a visit to the Hammel Houses, I came up with a proposal titled, "Hope of the Hammel Houses." This program focused on involving the youth of the Hammel Houses to take and gather photos of their neighborhood for a community exhibit that would debut in Far Rockaway. Johanna loved the proposal, but we never got far with trying to get funding through NYCHA.
In January 2017, I submitted the Hammel Houses proposal to the Citizens Committee for their annual Neighborhood Grant series. Last week, I was overjoyed to learn that our proposal was accepted and I would be getting funding to work at the Hammel Houses.
Excited, I immediately reached out to Johanna. After a couple days of her not returning my phone call, texts or social media messages, I went on line and learned that she unexpectedly passed away this past February.
I learned of her passing from a blog written by Milan Taylor, the Founder of the Rockaway Youth Task Force. Writes Taylor, "Ms. Gregory had an ear to the ground and could support her community in ways that others could not. Ms. Gregory was a fixture in our organization and was present at everything from garden dinners to organization meetings. She even reached out to the East Rockaway Growing Coalition to help support Hammel residents in improving their own community garden. She believed in the power of community organizing and food justice...."
So with a heavy heart, we will carry on and do the work Johanna and I envisioned in her hometown, a place she really cared about and fought for. Johanna, thank you for trusting that we would represent your neighborhood the right way, and thank you as well for being one of our earliest and truest supporters.
- words and photo by Adolfo Steve Vazquez