Meet a New Yorker For Parks: Nilka Martell, Loving the Bronx

April 10, 2017

Nilka Martell wants people to know that they have power to improve their neighborhoods and their city, and she’s using parks and open spaces to show them how.

“As an individual you have power,” Nilka says. “But so many people don’t realize that. They don’t even know that community boards exist, or they don’t realize what elected officials can do. There’s not a lot of education on the power of being an individual.”

Along with her community volunteer group, Loving the Bronx, Nilka is changing that.

“We empower people with information,” she explains. “We say to them, ‘If there’s something you want changed, here are the steps you can take.’ But we don’t expect them to just go along with what we do. We don’t spoon feed them. Even if they don’t keep working with us, they still have that experience and education, and they can accomplish great things elsewhere.”

It’s impossible to learn about everything Nilka does and not be impressed. Her work has been so impactful, NY4P is honoring her at the 2017 Daffodil Breakfast. She’s a Co-Chair of the Bronx Alliance for Parks and Green Spaces, in addition to leading Loving the Bronx. Nilka’s first group was G.I.V.E., Getting Involved, Virginia Avenue Efforts. But what started as a hyper-local effort to improve her street has turned into a borough-wide project.

One of the key drivers of Nilka’s success comes from her ability to see opportunities where others see roadblocks. In December of 2010 Nilka was laid off from her job. As she was going through the arduous process of looking for another job, Nilka decided that she wanted to learn more about the Bronx, where she had lived her entire life. When she found out that the borough is 25 percent parkland, she saw an opportunity to make a difference in her community.

She took her kids to volunteer stewardship events with NYC Parks, and they loved doing it. They reached out to the Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, the Bronx River Alliance, and other groups, looking for more ways to get involved. Before too long they started doing their own work in their own neighborhood.

“I knew nothing about the Parks Department. I knew nothing about community boards or funding opportunities,” Nilka recalls. “I was just a person who lived on a block that I wanted to improve.”

She’s found that one of the best ways to get something done is to just start doing it. “We didn’t wait for funding, or sponsorship, or anything. We just did it,” she says of her first days with G.I.V.E. “At first we just used the gloves we had laying around the house; another volunteer had some industrial trash bags; a neighbor had a few rakes; another gave us some Mexican sunflower seeds that she just happened to have. The first time we planted bulbs from the Daffodil Project we had no idea what we were doing. But in the spring we had beautiful flowers! It would all just come together like that.”

Once she saw how much of a positive impact she and the other volunteers could have beyond their street, she created Loving the Bronx so she could extend their work to push for healthy green spaces throughout the borough.

When asked why she chooses to focus so much of her time and energy on parks and green space, instead of the many other issues affecting the Bronx and the city, she points out that a healthy environment benefits everyone in the neighborhood.

“I thought about how diverse we are, and how 25 percent of the borough is open space. And regardless of who we are or where we’re from, we all breathe the same air. Who doesn’t want a nice park, or healthy trees, or wildlife? It’s something that we can all agree on.”

Nilka and the Loving the Bronx volunteers make a point of reaching out to and working with young people. They believe that if you get people involved when they’re young, that will create a connection that will last their whole life.

“These kids get hands-on lessons in how to organize and mobilize, which they don’t learn in school,” Nilka explains. “This is how movements are made.”

Their work is paying off. Involvement in successful local efforts encouraged people and gave them the confidence to take their work a step further. They now have folks involved in developing long-term care plans for local waterways, looking at how zoning affects their communities, and fighting for better air quality. They got people involved in the campaign to replace the Sheridan Expressway. They’re making tangible improvements.

“We use what’s going on right now to get people involved," Nilka says. "We ask them, If EPA funding is cut, what does that mean for our local waterways?

“If you educate folks and get them engaged, you’re empowering them. And then you can really start something.”