Maria Lizardo has lived and worked in Washington Heights for over 40 years, so she knows a thing or two about building a strong community. As Executive Director of the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, Maria supports local families to not just help them survive, but thrive.
You were born here in Washington Heights?
I was! My parents came here in 1965 from the Dominican Republic. They were both undocumented. My mom was illiterate—she had only completed the third grade—but my dad was a high-school graduate.
Why did they leave the Dominican Republic?
Extreme poverty, plus the economic and political uncertainty after having a dictator in power. My mom is the youngest of 16, so she left school when she was eight years old to start working in order to support herself and her siblings.
I was born here in 1967. When I was four years old, my mom sent me and my younger sister to the Dominican Republic to start school. My parents intended to move to the US to save money for a few years, and go back to the DR to buy a home. That didn’t materialize because my dad was a gambler, and my mom didn’t realize he was gambling away all their savings. Once we realized, she brought my sister and me back to be with her in the US. I was eight when I came back here, and I didn’t speak any English.
Do you remember moving back to the US?
I remember it being totally different from the Dominican Republic—it was a huge culture shock. We were living on 153rd Street, and the local public school was a few blocks away. When my mom and I walked into the school to enroll, it was so chaotic that she walked me right back out. She was like, "If I have to continue working a million hours at the factory, that's what I will do." So she enrolled me into a small, private Catholic school in the neighborhood. I went into third grade and my first year was very tough. Nobody spoke Spanish, and I was expected to speak and learn in English straight away. I was often hit with a ruler as a result.
That must have been so stressful for you.
Oh, yes. I was only eight years old and it was so hard to fit in. I was fortunate, though, because directly across the hall from us lived a Cuban family that took me under their wing. One of the daughters, Tamara, would sit with me after school to teach me English and help me with my homework.
When I finished eighth grade, I went to Cardinal Spellman Catholic high school in the Bronx. I worked really, really hard to do well in school. Once I learned English, I was a straight-A student. One of the things that my mom drilled into us was that education is everything. She would always say, "I'm not going to leave you any riches, but I'm going to work to leave you education, and that will open up opportunities for you."
I also give a lot of credit to a local nonprofit that really helped my family. It was called Project Basement. It was down the block from where we lived, and they helped us with food and afterschool programs because we were very poor. My dad worked at a restaurant and my mom worked in factories. All their money went towards rent and our schooling. Project Basement also helped me fill out my first summer youth employment job application. I worked at a day camp in Harlem as a counselor when I was 14, and then when I was 15 they hired me to help at their afterschool program. They were an incredible resource to our family. They eventually also hired my mom as a cleaning woman, so she didn’t have to work in the factories anymore. Because of that job, she was able to get her GED and come back to work as a tenant organizer. And working there after school made me realize that I wanted to study social work.
How amazing! Is Project Basement still around?
Unfortunately they closed. But it allowed me to see the value of what a nonprofit could do.
When I graduated from high school, I went to Hunter College and got a bachelor’s degree in sociology. It took me five years because I was working full time, as well. I’ve been working since I was 15—working part time throughout high school allowed me to go to college. During college, I was working at Project Basement as a case manager. They hired me when I turned 18 because I had already been with them for so long.
When I graduated, I worked at a few places in different sectors: with homeless youth, then with substance abusers, and then in community development. Then, a new community-development unit started in the neighborhood and I was hired to be part of it. While I was working there, I was doing tenant organizing and working with the Youth Council. There was a lot of poverty and crime in this area back then. I decided I wanted to further my education so I could provide more help. When I was 25, I went back to Hunter College to get my master’s degree in social work. A couple years after graduating, I came to work at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation. I’ve been here ever since!
You’ve worked here a long time!
It wasn't supposed to be that long! [Laughs] I initially came onboard as Director of Social Services, when there was only a staff of three. Obviously we’ve grown a lot since then, and I’ve worked my way up and have been the Executive Director for three years now.
How would you explain what the NMIC does?
Well, I would say that we provide holistic services to families in the neighborhood. Our goal is to work with the entire family to stabilize them in all aspects. Keeping them housed, and making sure that they have the education and economic means to support themselves.
We do that by providing legal services like eviction prevention and immigration services. We help people become legal permanent residents and citizens.
We do that through our weatherization program that maintains the housing stock, because it's really important for your housing to be safe. We do energy-efficient treatments, and installation of heating and lighting systems.
We do it through our community organizing and housing development, where we work with tenants who want to focus on building-wide issues like a tenant strike. We also develop affordable housing. We've developed over 320 units in Washington Heights.
We also do that through our worker cooperatives. We have two of them now. One of them is EcoMundo, which is a green cleaning company; they are about six years old and they’ve brought in over 1.2 million dollars in revenue. We also just started our second one, NannyBee, which will provide nanny services during non-traditional hours. So if somebody works evenings or overnights, they can still get childcare.
We do this through our social-services department, where we have a domestic-violence program. We work with victims, and also do outreach and education in the community.
You guys do everything!
We try to. We want to be a safe haven for families. Initially, we started off as a legal-services agency that just focused on housing and tenant rights. But it became clear very quickly that in order for families to remain housed, you also have to deal with the other social issues.
Do you still live in the area?
Not anymore, but I grew up here. This is my ‘hood! [Laughs] When I first got married, I moved away with my husband, and when we got divorced it was suddenly much more expensive to live here so I couldn’t afford it. I live in Yonkers now, which is a little further away, but I really live my life in this neighborhood.
I imagine it can be hard to leave your work behind at the end of the day. How do you stay focused?
It can be hard, but I have a really great support system. What really keeps us going are our success stories, though; they remind me why I come to work everyday. An early victory was one of our first domestic-violence clients. She came to us when she had two very small children who were only eight months apart, because her partner had raped her right after she gave birth to her first child. He used to paint her windows black so she couldn’t see outside; she had no sense of time or space. After working with us, she now lives in DC and works as a police officer. Now she donates yearly. It’s so amazing to see that transformation.
Of course, there are rough days. Funding is always one of our biggest challenges, especially in this political climate. I think I’ve been to more rallies in the past year than ever before. It’s so important that we’re out there advocating for our communities.
Is domestic violence an issue close to your heart?
My undergraduate thesis was actually on Latinas and domestic violence, because I didn’t see a lot of work being done in that area. It’s personal for me because my dad was an abuser. He was verbally and emotionally abusive towards my mother, and it was only when she got the job at Project Basement, got some economic independence, did she have the power to tell him to leave.
I didn't realize how much I had carried that with me until I started to do this work. We started our domestic-violence program in 1998. There were a lot of violent crimes against women happening in this area at the time. The murder of Gladys Ricart was a real turning point for us, in terms of mobilizing in the community. Gladys was shot by her ex on her wedding day to her new fiance. She is the reason we started the Bride’s March, which we’ve been doing every year on September 26. It raises so much awareness because it’s a whole parade of people marching in wedding dresses.
I can imagine that’s such a powerful sight, and probably makes people ask a lot of questions!
I have been a part of the planning committee since the beginning. It’s so important because we still have so many victims who are afraid to leave. We have so many victims who think they are alone because that is what their abuser wants. I think part of the success of our domestic-violence program is that we work with women in all aspects, in all stages of abuse.
We work with women who are still with their batterer. The work with them is different, because it’s more geared towards, "How do we keep you safe? How do we prepare you for the day when you're ready to leave?" And then we work with women who have just left. At that stage it’s still so important to keep them safe, because that is actually when women are at the highest risk of being killed. We also work with women who have been out of the relationship for a while and need to create a new and stable environment for their families. And, of course, we work with women who have gone back to their abusers. On average it takes about seven times before a victim will leave for good.
It sounds like you love what you do.
Oh, I love what I do. I mean, I have my bad days, of course. But I love this community and the people we work with.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
My mom was the queen of advice, so I’ll repeat her advice about getting an education. That is so important! She also taught us to get involved, to find what we love and to figure out a way to contribute. We have a responsibility to leave this world a better place than when we came into it.
For me this all comes down to finding what you are good at. And if that helps make the world a better place, then you’re on the right track.
What does New York mean to you?
New York means everything to me. It is the place that gave my family opportunity. New York opened its doors to me and my family. It has given me everything.
Learn more about the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation.