HARLEM — The doors swing open, and Iesha Sekou power-walks into the City College student center, cell phone to her ear, two young people in tow. She is uncharacteristically late, and has no time to apologize.
In five minutes, she is supposed to be on the air at Harlem Community Radio where, for an hour every Monday morning, she prods local kids to talk about the problems afflicting their neighborhood. Talk show host is one of many hats she wears as head of an anti-violence group with a limited budget and a heavy mission — to help transform one of the most chronically troubled parts of New York.
The group, Street Corner Resources, was born out of a concern over gun violence and gang activity, which led Sekou to focus on changing the lives of children and young adults. She takes them to rallies and protests, persuades them to stay in school, puts them in touch with potential employers. She arranges for them to participate in anti-bullying programs, anti-gang workshops and a “young men’s empowerment series.”
In short, she gives them a voice.
Wearing a tropical-colored headwrap and a silk blue blouse, Sekou bursts into the studio and begins flipping switches and turning dials. She sets a six-year-old boy named Jermaine at her side and coaches him on how to do a station ID. At 8:01 a.m., she turns on her microphone.
“Good morning, Harlem.” Her voice is husky, but cheerful. No hint of rush. “You’re listening to WHCR, 90.3 FM, and this is Street Corner Resources.”
Sekou is short and caramel-skinned, with freckles on her face and a tiny stud nose ring. She was born and raised in the Bronx, but moved to Harlem nearly 30 years ago. She is a regular presence, and one of the loudest voices, in Harlem’s burgeoning anti-violence movement.
She can be combative and tough, but she also has a mother’s touch — she has a 34-year-old daughter and two grandchildren. She ends many of her conversations with a hug. She is also a natural diplomat — she gets respect from street thugs and cops, parents and bureaucrats.
After giving on-air shout-outs to various block associations, community advocates and the nearby police precincts. Sekou, 54, gets to business.
“How do you feel about the school closings?” she says. “That’s what we’re doing here this morning.”
If there is any one issue closest to Sekou’s heart, it is the growing number of struggling Harlem public schools slated for closure by the state Department of Education. Her outrage at the proposed shuttering of Harlem Renaissance High School on East 128th Street kicked her activism to a new level, and led to a partnership with the school’s principal, Nadav Zeimer.
She's now an official vendor there, with her own office and a schedule of "life-improvement" workshops, and is helping Zeimer stave off closure. With Sekou helping to rally parents and students, attendance and performance at Harlem Renaissance have ticked upward. But, although the school remains open, it is still threatened with the hatchet.
A Harlem Renaissance senior, Syrnae McEachin, is in the WHCR studio and has joined Sekou’s conversation with a student who has called in to complain about the city strategy of shutting down the worst performing schools.
Syrnae and the other girl blame the system for the school’s failure, but Sekou prods them to consider the responsibility of themselves and others.
“We clearly know that it is parent involvement, teacher involvement and, of course, community involvement," Sekou said. "That’s how we did it at at Harlem Renaissance, and that’s how we continue to do it.”
Next, Sekou introduces Abayomi James, a 22-year-old poet and rapper who calls himself Flow. She reminds him to keep his rhymes clean and free of negative messages. He hesitates, but makes it through without an offensive word.
Then Sekou has Syrnae search the city website for jobs and training programs in Harlem, and announces them on the air. She reminds the adults in her audience to “put some time in with a young person.” She looks at a clock. The hour is up.
But her day has barely begun. She is off to Harlem Renassiance, where she watches over troubled students and gets them involved in activities, like music and video production, that not only gives them more voice but also builds job skills. Her school contracts and a grant from the city council total about $60,000 a year, so she relies on a small staff of volunteers.
Sekou's agreement with Harlem Renaissance doesn't require her to be there the entire school day, but she often remains until early evening because, she says, there’s always another child to motivate.
“Hat off,” she hollers after a boy shuffling to class late. “Pants up.”
“How’s the baby?” she asks a pregnant girl.
“When are you graduating?” she says to another.
One gives her a hug, and Sekou smiles. “They don’t let me go home.”
She likes it that way.