Google the name Brodie Enoch and you pretty quickly get a sense of where the 61-year-old activist is coming from, both metaphorically and literally: He’s from Harlem, and the neighborhood is a part of him. Born in Harlem Hospital and raised nearby, he said his own life experiences reflect the ups and downs of his hometown.
Enoch has seen nearly every corner of the Harlem community, and from several different perspectives. He’s seen the inside of its drug clinics as both a patient and later as an advocate. He served on the board of several nonprofits, sat on community board committees, worked with the homeless, marched in dozens of protests, fought for voter education, and ran for New York City Council. As he leaves the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) with a master’s in social work, he’ll return to his community, this time as founder of a new nonprofit for the visually impaired called the 145th Street Alliance.
A Head Start
Enoch’s story has auspicious roots. He attended the prestigious Ethical Culture Fieldston School before heading off to Boston University in 1976. Despite problems with his eyesight that began when his left eye was hit with a baseball as a child, forcing his right eye to work harder, he continued to play baseball in college. But he left Boston after two years under the false impression that he wasn’t doing well in school. He took a job offer at a bank in back in New York City.
“I fooled myself into thinking I was doing badly at school so I could come back to New York,” he said. “I was making good money at the bank, but I also wound up working at some famous nightclubs.”
He said he’d stay up all night at the club and try to work the next day at the bank. Something had to give, so he dropped his job at the bank, stayed at the clubs, and worked a bit in real estate. He was the living the quintessential lifestyle of what became known as the Go-Go ’80s, until things took a turn for the worst. He became addicted to cocaine, which lasted until the mid-2000s. He became homeless.
Getting Back Up to Run
A shaky recovery began in 2003. He joined Picture the Homeless, an organization founded by and serving New York’s homeless population. By 2007 he was officially clean. Among the established nonprofits he worked for are Hope Community, Working Families Party, and most recently for Transportation Alternatives, the nonprofit advocating for cyclists, pedestrians, and straphangers. There, he helped strategize with the group to gather more than 45,000 signatures in a campaign to improve public transport. But by 2012, issues with his eyes became very serious.
“My eyesight was bad for a while, but then it started getting really bad and I realized I could no longer do that work. I was tired of running into things on the bike,” he said.
He had been diagnosed with glaucoma and cataracts and could no longer work with Transportation Alternatives. To make matters worse, he was battling lung cancer. He had two lobes removed. On recovering, he decided he wanted his voice heard, loud and clear.
“One door closes, another door opens,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well what can I do?’ I said, ‘I know what I’ll do, I’ll run for City Council.’” And he did, in 2013.
“I lost to Mark Levine, but that’s cool. Him and I are still close. He’s a good guy.”
Enoch knew his chances were slim, as most of the candidates had already secured union support and political endorsements, but he had grassroots support. At the time of the race, New York Amsterdam News, the august African-American newspaper, called him “a Harlem resident with a rough past.” It was a description he wore proudly; Enoch made no secret of his battle with cocaine addiction—a struggle many voters in the district understood, he said.
“If you look at my history and the history of Harlem, it’s the same,” he told the website DNAinfo during his run. “We’ve had our downtimes and now we are where we’ve always wanted to be.”
Learning to Learn
In 2015, he formed the 145th Street Alliance as an LLC, in an effort to keep the issues of the blind at the forefront of politicians’ minds. But his failing eyesight became something he could no longer ignore. He went to the New York State Commission for the Blind, which offers an array of services for the blind, including career services and training.
A counselor there suggested he apply to City College, though he was warned, to his secret relief, they would not likely accept his 40-year-old credits. As an older student, he was more than a little reluctant to return to school. But his relief was cut short by a surprise. When his transcript arrived from Boston University it turned out that he had actually excelled in college, despite his youthful insecurity about his grades. He was accepted into the college’s prestigious Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
“I thought, come on, will somebody say no? Will somebody stop this madness?” he said with a laugh.
Though he graduated magna cum laude, he didn’t get into the law school. Again, he breathed a sigh of relief—until Fordham’s GSS accepted him.
“I’m like, [expletive], I guess I have to go,” said the reluctant scholar.
Enoch’s journey continued to evolve. The GSS faculty began to recognize Enoch’s growth and his potential as a leader within the school’s community.
“Brodie’s background brings that connectivity between being an advocate and his own resilience and that makes for a great social worker; we’re just putting on the final touches to mint him as a part of our profession,” said Ji Seon Lee, Ph.D., associate dean at GSS. “Like a lot of people who come to this work, Brodie has a sense of what he wants to do; we provide structure so he can have a guided purpose to achieve his goals.”
Enoch’s field placement with Pastors for Peace allowed him to delve into his passion for policy via a street-naming project that put him back in touch with community board members and City Council. Alongside his placement, he continued with his own work with the 145th Street Alliance.
“It was at that point that I spoke to a couple of people at Fordham and realized that it would be better for me to start a not-for-profit, and that’s what I did in January of this year,” he said.
The 145th Street Alliance’s improvements to the built environment for the blind help create safer streets for the elderly and for young children through the group’s Walk Safe 20/20 project, he said, which addresses street safety.
“If you’re doing stuff for the visually impaired, it works for everybody,” he said.