By SARAH HUFFMAN
The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters welcomed actor Malik Yoba to their school March 28 to present his documentary series, The Real Estate Mix Tape Vol. 1, which also stars Majora Carter, real estate developer and founder of Hunts Points Boogie Down Grind cafe, can be seen.
According to various sources, Bronx native Yoba is an actor, filmmaker and writer known for starring as NYPD detective JC Williams in New York Undercover and as Yul Brenner in Cool Runnings. He also appeared as former FBI Special Agent Bill Harken in the SiFi drama series Alphas, as Jim Hudson in Revolution and as Vernon Turner in Empire. He has a younger brother, Abdur-Rahman Yoba, who is a literary executive, writer, actor, producer, former indie record label owner and hip-hop artist.
During the first episode of the documentary series, students and faculty watched as Yoba shared his journey of also getting into the real estate sector and starting his own company, Yoba Development LLC. He also spoke to Bronxites about the changes they’ve seen in their communities over the decades.
The actor spoke about how the redevelopment process was very lengthy, but that the first step to get the ball rolling was to gather ideas and thoughts from the community to share with the city and the Department of Education. “So the first step is what we’re going to focus on today,” Yoba said. “The first step was to get together and have a conversation to share visions.”
Later, the students were invited to approach the microphone to discuss real estate development in the Bronx in general and share ideas for the redevelopment of their school at 339 Morris Avenue in Mott Haven.
“This was just the first day that we brought the community together to show you what we were planning to do to take some of the ideas from students, the faculty here, from the architects and anyone else who might be involved in this project, exchange. ‘ said the actor.
According to myschools.nyc, the Bronx Academy of Letters was founded on the idea that students who can express themselves in writing can thrive in any avenue. Writing is seen as another way students’ voices can be used to strengthen social justice. In addition to the school’s research-based college preparatory curriculum, students participate in regular field trips to arts institutions, overnight trips to universities, SAT preparation, and other community-building activities.
Some of the school improvements suggested by the students included larger gymnasiums, better temperature control throughout the building, swimming pools, more working elevators, a school garden and larger bathrooms.
One student suggested wider hallways, explaining that the existing hallways were too small and overcrowded, causing her to be late for class. One of the school counselors suggested adequate space for new classrooms and professional offices since many of the staff’s offices were in closets.
Yoba spoke about how the process of redevelopment is very long, but that the first step to get the ball rolling was to gather ideas and thoughts from the community to share with the city and the Ministry of Education. “So the first step is what we’re going to focus on today,” Yoba said. “The first step was to get together and have a conversation to share visions.”
Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson also stopped by the screening to talk to the students and hear their ideas. “It’s up to the architects, the designers, the developers, the district presidents, your educators, and all of us to come together and make sure we’re putting money where our commitment is,” she said.
Before the performance, a student named Constantine introduced himself and shared how he first met Yoba. He said he was walking down the hallway one day during his lunch hour and met the actor, along with Bronx Academy of Letters Dean David Garcia Rosen.
Yoba invited Constantine to a meeting about the school’s redevelopment later that day. At that meeting, the student pulled out a book on real estate investing and bonded with Yoba over their shared interest in the subject.
“He didn’t have to stop,” Constantine said of Yoba. “And he definitely didn’t have to invite me to the meeting, but he did because he wants to connect with the community to make it better for everyone.” The student later presented Yoba with a sweatshirt that said “Constantine Development.” .
The school redevelopment project grew out of Rosen’s years of efforts to build sports facilities for the school’s sports teams. Amy Schless, the principal, credited Rosen with getting the ball rolling on the school’s redevelopment through the partnerships they formed with Yoba and a certain architectural firm.
“Thank you all for being here to share our excitement at what began as David Garcia Rosen’s dream to improve our athletic facilities,” said Schless. “Here at Bronx Letters, that dream has now evolved into building a new school, a new sports center and homes. And so, now, this potential project will benefit not only our students and our student-athletes, but all students at Bronx Letters, all of our employees and the wider community.”
Rosen, who has worked in education for 24 years as a teacher, athletic director and coach, explained that his career began with the inception of the Small Schools movement. The movement, a national initiative to restructure schools into smaller autonomous schools, allows teachers to have smaller classes and get to know students better.
However, according to Rosen, it presented a challenge because classes were crammed into buildings that didn’t have adequate space, and not every school had the resources and extracurricular activities that some schools had, including physical education.
“As someone who worked in these schools, worked in sports and spoke to students who dropped out because they didn’t have baseball or football, it was the same kids who dropped out [that] the kids came into my office and said, “I want to play soccer, I want to play baseball. Where’s the football team?” And I don’t have any good answers because New York City just didn’t care,” Rosen said.
According to Rosen, the Small Schools movement left 17,000 black or Hispanic students in New York City schools without high school athletics, while white and Asian students had twice as much access to high school athletics.
The Bronx Academy of Letters, which consists mostly of Black and Hispanic students, only had two athletic teams five years ago. Rosen and the school community are committed to providing access to physical education for students, and the school now has 29 athletic teams.
The Bronx Academy of Letters has partnered with The Urban Assembly, an organization that helps improve public schools and currently works with 22 other public schools. The congregation helped Rosen and his students advocate for the sport by writing letters to those in power and offering support.
Despite adding 27 athletic teams to the school, the Bronx Academy of Letters still doesn’t have the athletic facilities students need to play. Rosen said three schools share a tiny gym and they only have a small field. He said they don’t have proper fields, courts or a swimming pool to accommodate the activities they offer.
David Adams, CEO of The Urban Assembly, said the Bronx School of Letters had the opportunity to enter into a public-private partnership with two development companies looking to invest in expanding the school and/or starting an entirely new school named the Community.
“We’re excited about this because we know that The Urban Assembly’s public-private partnerships have defined the way we improve public education, and this is an example of what that looks like,” Adams said.
Rosen said that when the initial idea of building a sports center for the students came up, he got a call from an interested architect. However, they are now talking about the refurbishment of the school as a whole.
“So we’ve been working with the community for the past five years to develop an idea from the base, and we’ve been really fortunate over the past year to get in touch with Sherman P Architects and Yoba who’s developing this project is just ahead of it about a month and a half ago,” he said.
Rosen insisted that schools do not have to accept the norm with no sports or lower quality facilities or three schools in one building and that they could work to bring about change in their community.
“There is an opportunity here to do something revolutionary, something special for our students,” he said. “And I’m excited to be a part of that and I really believe, even though I’m already talking a lot about potential opportunities today, I believe it’s going to happen!”
*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.