WHAT’S ON A BAKERY FLOOR

I feel funny about the photo above. There’s Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfieldof Ben & Jerry’s, Joe Kenner, CEO of the Greyston Foundation with his family, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senate Majority Leader of New York State, and a few other guests whose names I don’t remember right now. We’re at a benefit for the Greyston Foundation, which runs the Greyston Bakery as well as other work training and job placement programs, and most important, spokesmen for Open Hiring, employing people regardless of whether they’ve been in prison or not. No need to even apply, just put your name on the list and, when there’s a job opening, you’re hired.

Bernie Glassman took his Zen students at the Zen Community of New York and moved them (at least, those ready to do this) to the southwest corner of Yonkers, just above the Bronx, where the Greyston Bakery created jobs for people in the neighborhood. After that, permanent housing was built for families that had been homeless (most of which were led by single mothers), along with a large childcare center, tenant programs and after-school programs, and that was followed by an AIDS care center with special housing for folks with HIV.

On Thursday night, the Foundation hosted a benefit that showed two gorgeous short documentaries about Greyston in a Bronxville, New York theater, followed by a panel, followed by ice cream ladled out by Ben and Jerry.

And what was I, wearing a crooked smile, doing there? The wife of the founder, as they often referred to me. The one who was part of those original crazy Zen practitioners who made their practice working at a bakery. With the exception of the first years when I solicited orders by phone, you could say I “wrote” my way through those Greyston years, filling in laborious government applications and asking foundations and individuals for money, but also organizing events, identifying potential supporters, and vision meetings with Bernie, management meetings with Bernie, planning meetings with Bernie, meetings galore—and I survived.

In his early years, Bernie was known for his fanatic meditation practice and egging people on to sit just as intensely. He took that same extreme passion into building Greyston, and few of us could match his relentless energy. Often, we’d be tired, overwhelmed, and somewhat bewildered: What has this got to do with Zen practice?

So, there I was, on a panel with Ben Cohen, along with Alison Bartlett and Michael Pirson, who made the wonderful short film Zen Brownie. When I spoke at the end, I said that Bernie had none of the dislike of corporations and for-profits that many liberals had, including some of his own students (a few of whom left). Everything has a function and purpose, and yes, for-profits have to make a profit. But they also provide jobs, medical insurance, and an economy to the local community.

Bernie knew that the whole world is on that bakery floor, I told them, just like the whole world is on the Vermont ice cream floor that makes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The question is: What kind of connection do you have with the people on the floor? Can you hear their troubles?

I told them that in the beginning, we actually had little children in the bakery, breaking every rule in the book. Why? Because mothers came in to work and had no childcare for their children. You see that and ask: So how do we create childcare? You see that people can’t get jobs because they went to prison early in their lives, that’s the world that presents itself to you, and you ask yourself how to participate in that world, what small action you can do in that world.

The whole world is on that bakery floor.

I felt funny being the old-timer there. I thought of so many others who worked at Greyston in the 1980s and 1990s who weren’t there to witness what had happened to Greyston over the years, how it had become a meme for spiritually-based social change, even a myth. Ben Cohen, who has had his own adventures with Ben & Jerry’s, shook his head as he said to me: “Who’d have thought back in the late 80s when we started working with this small bakery in Yonkers, New York, that all this would come about?”

I sat in the very back watching the two films and thought the same thing: Sure, we worked hard, but this is bigger than anything anyone imagined. Except for maybe Bernie, who had an amazing instinct for what’s to come along with a powerful imagination.

We started our work during the time when Yonkers was deeply segregated. Federal Judge Leonard Sands ruled to integrate the schools, and when Yonkers resisted, he sentenced them to a fine that doubled every day, soon reaching millions of dollars. Not the best time to start work on revitalizing an impoverished neighborhood. But the schools integrated, and something shifted. The local government became more mixed, African-Americans (then a majority in southwest Yonkers) claimed their own power and authority. Sometimes, when you reach the lowest point possible, there’s no direction to go but up.

In that connection, I’m sad not to have a photo of Symra Brandon and Andrea Stewart-Cousins who were there that evening, two tough African-American women who helped Greyston to broaden its activities. They had broken all kinds of ceilings for women and African-Americans, on some years working on the Greyston Board.

We talked and reminisced, wondered at how well everyone was looking. Symra  Brandon is 91 and a few months ago was appointed to fill an interim position on the County Legislature. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, now 73, serves as Senate Majority Leader for New York State. These two were powerhouses and they shook their heads thinking of Bernie, saying, like many others: He wasn’t like anybody else. We were joined by Ken Jenkins, former head of the NAACP who had been on the Greyston Board for many years and now is Westchester’s Deputy County Executive.

I wish I had a photo of us talking and laughing together, but I hate to interrupt a good conversation by stepping away and asking if I could do a photo, even in service of this blog.

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