Christopher Currence: Helping Hands

Helping Hands is a short film by artist Christopher Currence that reflects on the practice of communal care and accountability to one’s neighbors. The work features women residents of Lower East Side public housing developments who have contributed to transformative change in their neighborhood through direct action and advocacy.

Presented in partnership with Abrons Arts Center’s Photoville 2021 Exhibition My Projects Runway: Community Matriarchs of NYCHA, the film features these leaders at local sites that bear personal significance and incorporates excerpts from their oral history interviews, which were conducted by My Projects Runway with support from the National Public Housing Museum. Helping Hands is an intimate portrait of how life in public housing shapes the Matriarchs’ unwavering commitment to their community.

Video will be on view at Abrons Arts Center’s windows from September 18 through December 1, 2021, and you can also view it online.


ABOUT

Christopher Currence is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and photographer. Born in Macon, Georgia and raised in St. Thomas USVI, he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.

The National Public Housing Museum is the only cultural institution devoted to telling the story of public housing in the United States. Its mission is to preserve, promote, and propel the right of all people to a place where they can live and prosper — a place to call home. nphm.org 

Founded by Jayah Arnett in 2020, My Projects Runway is a storytelling platform that seeks to challenge stereotypes of New York City public housing residents by celebrating their distinct goals, dreams, and accomplishments. The platform highlights the people, culture, trends and deep history that originates from NYCHA by inviting residents to share photos, videos and personal archives that offer more expansive representations of life in public housing. Follow My Projects Runway on Instagram @my.projectsrunway.

Debbie Cox is a Lower East Side native and is lovingly known as the “Mayor of the LES.” She resided in LaGuardia Houses until 1992 and now lives only a few blocks away. Her connection to LaGuardia Houses remains strong, as her mother still resides in the very apartment she grew up in. Cox is the Director of Integration and Community Engagement at Henry Street Settlement and also sits on the organization’s Community Advisory Board. She volunteers for political activists intent on improving the quality of life of all New Yorkers. Cox is also a member of the 7th Precinct’s Community Council, the Commanding Officer Advisory Council, and is a Community Partner for the 7th Precinct.

Lilah Mejia was born and raised in the Lower East Side and has dedicated her life to advocacy. Her work is grounded in the desire to empower her peers locally and abroad. After Superstorm Sandy, Lilah helped to secure $350 million for East River waterfront resiliency through her work with LES READY. She also established a disaster recovery network in the Lower East Side that was instrumental in the relief and recovery post Superstorm Sandy and the 2015 Second Avenue Explosion. As the Manager of Evacuee Services for New York Disaster Interfaith Services, Lilah supported displaced evacuees from Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria. She is also a volunteer with WhyNotCare, an organization that provides relief aid in the Lower East Side and Puerto Rico. As Vice President of the Community Education Council, Lilah is committed to education equity and the desegregation of New York City public schools.

Camille Napoleon was born and raised on the Lower East Side and is a lifelong resident of Baruch Houses. Napoleon has been involved in community organizing and advocacy for NYCHA residents for over 30 years. At just 18, she joined the Baruch Houses Tenants Association and became Vice President of the Association at 20. Currently, Napoleon serves on Community Board 3, the Lower East Side Residents Committee, the Community Advisory Group for the Easter River Project, the Neighborhood Advisory Board, and is a member of the County Committee and the CODA Democratic Club.

Daisy Paez is widely known for her dedication to the Lower East Side, where she grew up and has resided for more than 60 years. For decades, Ms. Paez served at the Educational Alliance in many roles. She worked with older adults to promote wellness, enjoyment of the arts, community engagement, and better transportation services, as well as in youth development programs.  As President of the Grand Street Guild Residents Association from 2014 to 2017, Ms. Paez established a community center and successfully pushed Grand Street Guild’s management to reaffirm its commitment to long-term affordability. She was first elected in 2017 as the Democratic District Leader for Assembly District 65, Part B. She is also a member of the 7th Precinct Community Council, and a graduate of the NYPD’s Citizens Police Academy and the FBI Citizens Academy.

Jasmin Sanchez is a lifelong NYCHA resident, a product of the NYC public school system, housing organizer, youth advocate, and a results-driven community activist who is committed to representation of NYCHA residents at all levels of government. Jasmin has been a strong voice against the privatization of NYCHA. She was one of the NYCHA residents that was part of the team that wrote the Green New Deal for Public Housing and organized around halting the NYCHA’s “BluePrint for Change.” Jasmin and various NYCHA residents launched “LES Mutual Aid” a relief effort that served 3000 families in NYCHA from March 2020 to November 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Jacob Riis 5 was founded in the March of 2020 by Jacob Riis Houses residents Mary Cannon, Evelyn Concepcion, Diane Gomez, Vanessa Macedon, Jeaka Rios upon the announcement of New York City’s “stay at home” order due to COVID-19. The mission of the collective is to feed as many Lower East Side families as possible in this time of crisis. For over a year, they have been organizing weekly grocery give-aways in front of the Jacob Riis Houses on East 10th Street and Avenue D. Together, they love serving their community through Abundance Grace Ministry and LES Sports.


FUNDING

Helping Hands is commissioned by the Abrons Arts Center with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation.

Image: Still from Helping Hands by Christopher Currence