BRONX — Bronx councilmembers have given a $20,000 boost to a nonprofit group dedicated to strengthening the city's Garifuna community.
Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson has allocated $10,000 in discretionary funds for fiscal year 2015 to the Garifuna Coalition, while Councilmen Ritchie Torres and Fernando Cabrera have allocated $5,000 each.
The Coalition aims to serve as a resource, forum, advocate and voice for New York City's Garifuna community, which consists of African and indigenous South American descendants living in Central American countries such as Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua.
"Seeing a surge of constituents with Garifuna roots, we felt that it was important to support this group," Cabrera said.
Discretionary funding from Cabrera will go toward the group's youth leadership program, while the money from Torres will focus on programming that supports cultural awareness, organizers said.
Garifuna Coalition Chair José Ávila summed up the main goals of the group as empowering the Garifuna community culturally, politically, socially and economically. He emphasized trying to take care of the community's future as well.
"Everything that we have done so far, and all those goals and objectives that we set for the organization, would not be sustainable unless we started training the next generation of leaders," he said.
The ethnic group has a presence in places like Houston and Los Angeles, but New York City is home to the largest population of Garifuna outside of Central America, with about 200,000 living in the South Bronx, Harlem and East Brooklyn, according to the Coalition.
"The center of activity was always here," said Ávila, adding that the large population has been helpful for the group's efforts at organizing.
The Coalition was founded in 1998 and stemmed from a desire to continue the momentum from a 1997 event celebrating the bicentennial of the Garifuna arriving in Central America.
“We came to the conclusion that the way to keep it going, keep the momentum going, was to organize an organization of organizations,” said Ávila, “and we decided to create the Garifuna Coalition.”
The Coalition aimed to unite New York’s different Garifuna groups and focus more on the issues faced by the community in the city as opposed to in their home countries, which is where many other groups had targeted their attention.
“We decided that, you know what? We live in New York City,” he said. “We’ve been here for a long time, but we have never dealt with the issues that our community faces right here, whether it’s housing, whether it’s crime, you name it.”
The group said its focus includes challenges including youth violence, discrimination and high student dropout rates.
Garifuna music plays a large role in the Coalition's activities and has become one of the main methods of preserving the Garifuna language, according to Ávila.
Elena Martinez, co-artistic director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center, said the two groups have worked together for about a year and a half putting on events such as concerts. She praised the energy that the Coalition puts into promoting and investing in these festivities.
“Music is, I think for a lot of different cultures, a doorway, because even if you don’t understand the culture, you can dance or like the music,” Martinez said.
The Coalition also has an advocacy center at 391 East 149th St. where it provides services such as translation and networking opportunities, officials said.
It has also created a leadership program for Garifuna youth to help teach 15 to 24-year-olds skills like financial literacy and community organizing, as well as inform them about their history and about who they are as a people.
However, Ávila does not intend to keep Garifuna youths confined within the Garifuna community.
"Ultimately, our goal is that they will become not just Garifuna leaders but leaders," he said.