It was the summer of 1982 in the South Bronx, and the borough was gasping for air.
With the previous two decades came displacement and decay. The installation of the Cross Bronx Expressway left thousands of lives ruined and neighborhoods destroyed. Small businesses collapsed. A steep economic plunge caused the poor and mistreated to revolt – civil unrest ending in a slew of arsons engulfing Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series.
This, of course, ignited the infamous phrase “The Bronx is burning,” when baseball commentator Howard Cosell allegedly described the situation outside the stadium walls. And although game footage has proven Cosell never said such a thing, the words – and what they stand for – wouldn’t go away, lingering sourly on the city’s tongue for years to come.
This is the scene that welcomed an 18-year-old Gregory Acevedo. Long before starting his 16-year career at GSS, Acevedo came to the Bronx as a Wharton Business School student – set to teach Bronx middle schoolers through a Christian Brothers community summer higher achievement program at 150th and Melrose. He’d spend the summer in the classroom, help out where he could, then go back to UPenn and discuss the GDP.
At least, that was the plan.
From Micro and Macroeconomics to Micro and Macro Social Work
That summer changed him. When fall came back around, Acevedo knew the business degree wasn’t his route. The work in the Bronx impacted him in ways he didn’t think possible.
“That refocused my whole direction,” he said. “It was a game changer in terms of the kind of work I was doing, and as a Puerto Rican, the Bronx is a major historical aspect of Puerto Ricans living stateside and the island so that’s always been an interest of mine, too.”
So, he switched his major to psychology, eventually receiving his PhD in social work from Bryn Mawr College. And the next summer, he went back to teach again. It was another opportunity for this kid from Buffalo to experience the Bronx’s unique culture and intertwine himself with his own, rich heritage. Little did he know that in 2004, he would come back to the Bronx to teach again – this time with bachelor’s students.
Acevedo thanks the Bronx for allowing him to find his true path. Now, he’s trying to show Fordham students just how great the various communities of the Bronx are.
In 2017, Fordham College at Rose Hill made some significant changes to its Undergraduate Honors Program curriculum, reimaging it as “A Community of Scholars for Justice.” Through this effort, the honors curriculum made social justice a priority and created a new required course for first-year students called Bronx Exploration: History, Economy, and Culture – and since Acevedo had a background in both the Bronx culture and social justice, who better than to marry the two and collaborate in designing the class?
“They [the Honors Program at Fordham College at Rose Hill]wanted to offer a required course for all first-year students to help them engage and understand the Bronx from a more positive perception, rather than the negative perceptions of crime, delinquency, and so on. The director, Dr. Eve Keller, knew of my interests and asked if I’d be interested in creating the course.”
So, Acevedo designed Bronx Exploration and implemented the class in fall 2019. Anchored around his passion for social work, he took an interdisciplinary approach to the classroom themes – cross-pollinating the historical, economic, and cultural aspects of an area these students would live in for the next four years.
“I think what’s interesting is it’s fulfilling the University’s mission to be more interdisciplinary, and connect undergraduate to graduate professional education,” he said. “As far as I know, it’s the first time a professor from GSS has had this kind of involvement with the Rose Hill Honors Program.”
As director of GSS’s Bachelor of Arts in Social Work program, Acevedo is used to working with and teaching undergrads; however, those students are typically juniors and seniors, well on their way to becoming MSW practitioners. In Bronx Exploration, attendees range from multiple disciplines. Acevedo said he enjoys the opportunity to teach from a multidisciplinary perspective.
“For some of the students, it’s their first entrée into anything that has to do with social services,” he said. “I structure the class around themes like community and economic development, and I think it makes sense.”
Key Projects, Topics, and Issues
If the goal of the class is to show Fordham students the positive aspects of the Bronx and the community around them, Acevedo completes that with his class trips. In fall 2019, Acevedo scheduled expeditions to the borough’s many landmarks – his most memorable being when the Bronx Music Heritage Center took the class on a walking tour of the musical hotspots weaved throughout the community.
“It was so much fun,” he said. “Elena [Martinez, co-artistic director of the Center] was asking my students questions, and people from the Bronx community would pop in and answer them.”
Acevedo also used an app called “Fulcrum” for one of his community-engagement projects. Students conducted a structured walk through the Fordham Road Business Corridor, searching for and geolocating pinpoints of amenities and services like small businesses and social services, pooling their findings for a virtual map of the area. They also took pictures during their walk-through and they were incorporated into a photo essay.
And while projects like these are certainly a fun way to display the Bronx and where it thrives, there are also parts of the class where discussion can take a more serious turn. Gentrification and displacement – these are topics students are worried about, and they vocalize those concerns in class almost immediately.
“I really do think that is one issue that I’ve gotten a lot of questions about,” he said. “I think it’s interesting to the students, gentrification and what can be done about it. I get questions like, ‘What are people doing to manage it?’”
Acevedo says he doesn’t want to create a cohort of “well-informed cynics,” which can be an easy mindset for students to absorb during a time when it seems so much is wrong. But to ignore these important conversations would be to ignore half the education. There has to be balance.
“It’s definitely harder [to not be a cynic]— between the electoral process and handling of this pandemic,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot to be hopeful for, because of the differences that emerged this time around with antiracist struggle. The whole idea is, if you stay with the mission, you won’t stray from that motivation to move forward, even when the obstacles and the challenges are in the way. You’ll keep going.”
Portrait of the Social Worker as a Young Man
The connection seemed obvious – Acevedo comes to the Bronx as an 18-year-old first-year, and now he’s teaching those in the same circumstance. But when I asked him whether or not he can see a bit of himself in the students he teaches he said yes, but for a different reason.
“I certainly had a similar experience,” he said. “But the difference is, I had a similar experience at UPenn in terms of living in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood notorious throughout Philly for being dangerous, and parents not feeling comfortable with kids moving off the campus and into West Philly proper. I think another difference is that I was born, raised, and have always lived in inner-city neighborhoods.”
The divide at UPenn was similar to what Acevedo has seen at Fordham in the past.
“I understand this feeling of being a kid in an entitled, privileged university and wanting to have a connection with something that’s happening off campus and in the community.”
Acevedo said many students in his class come in asking questions about this separation between them and the community. They see the gates surrounding Rose Hill and wonder, why? What are they there for? What should we be doing about it? And while Acevedo said he understands both sides of the situation – the need for security, but also the frustration felt by some students – he said the progress in the past three years to quell these physical and symbolic boundaries has been exemplary – thanks, in no small part, to Fordham’s Chief Diversity Officer, Rafael Zapata.
“In the 16 years I’ve been here, there’s been more progress in the past 2-3 years than ever. A lot of it has to do with Rafael Zapata when he came on as CDO,” Acevedo said. “I think when they created the Center for Community-Engaged Learning, it gave a whole new focus and impetus to community engagement. It’s starting to take root in different schools and disciplines.”
Keeping Connection During COVID-19
Bronx Exploration, like many classes across the country, switched to an all-online format for the 2020-2021 academic year. Whereas in 2019 the class was conducted in the Alpha House on Rose Hill, last year Bronx Exploration was housed by Zoom. Acevedo said it can be hard to get a read on how students are enjoying the time.
“Covid has taken a beating on that closeness I had,” he said. “I don’t want to generalize, but it’s hard to get a sense [of the students’ engagement]virtually.”
But Acevedo was creative. Elena Martinez came back last year (virtually) for another Bronx music tour, and his students questioned what they can do to help in pandemic recovery efforts.
And with Bronx Exploration back on campus for the fall 2021 semester, Acevedo is excited to reconnect in-person. He and the students can really get back to the “explorative” roots of why the class was created in the first place.
I’d never heard of Frankie Knuckles (Francis Warren Nicholls, Jr.) before this interview. Born in the Bronx, Knuckles was known for popularizing the house music movement in Chicago in the 1980s.
And although Acevedo conceded to Fordham professor Mark Naison when it came to all things music, he revered the chance to speak on Mr. Knuckles and the history of house music in the Bronx.
“I love house music, and they call Knuckles the grandfather of house,” he said. “Also Louis Vega of Masters at Work, another house music pioneer, is from the Bronx, too.”
It’s that personal connection to the area that gives Bronx Exploration a distinctive intrigue and flair. And it doesn’t stop with music. Acevedo also highlights the Bronx as an immigrant destination, and how that should be preserved.
“If gentrification overwhelms the Bronx as one of the last affordable places for housing, then you really are displacing a part of New York that many people still love dearly, and that’s the part of New York that they think of,” he said. “I have people who, when I say Bronx, they’re like, ‘My people came from Poland/Ireland/Dominican Republic/Bangladesh/Ghana!’ and they usually tie to a specific neighborhood.”
Because from Frankie Knuckles to Fordham University, heritage and culture is what exploring the Bronx is all about. And by teaching these principles in cohesion with the Jesuit mission, Acevedo is hopeful for the next generation and the Bronx community.
“Mission is the biggest thing separating us from other schools in NYC,” he said. “It guides us towards new ways of looking at the world and calls on us to be a part of making it better.”