Bed-Stuy Blog’s newest contributor, Mikhal Weiner, is profiling interesting residents from our community for her column, Bed-Stuy Stories. First up is Gerard Miller, the Financial Literacy Counselor at the branch of Brooklyn Neighborhood Services (BNS) on Gates Avenue and Broadway.
“From my great-grandmother’s house I could walk to the Cross Street market and there were all of these mom-and-pop shops inside. Polish, Italian, Jewish, everyone had their stalls. And there was a playground that me and my cousins used to play at, sliding down the slides and all. Some years ago I was down there and went to the market for a friend’s birthday. And where the shops used to be on the street itself… just bar after bar. Inside the market, there used to be a deli, a bakery, a little coffee shop, now just more bars. Behind the building, the playground was still there, covered up with weeds and fenced off. If there is not a more perfect symbol for the change that is happening…” Miller’s voice trailed off.
Gerard Miller contains multitudes; a deep well of a person whose fields of interest and activity brought up bucket after bucket of water that nourished what was meant to be a short conversation. But there are no short conversations with Miller–once begun, there’s far too much to talk, laugh, and think about. Miller has eyes that actually twinkle, and an encouraging smile that invites both trust and confidence. Which pretty much makes their job a perfect fit.
Miller works as a Financial Literacy Counselor at the branch of Brooklyn Neighborhood Services (BNS), located on Gates Avenue (by Broadway). The BNS does it all – there’s even a maintenance class in the basement where residents can learn to fix their own plumbing, install electricity, and put up drywall. Miller, who is fluent in English and French and speaks Spanish, works with a wide array of residents in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick to navigate home ownership, support financial literacy and maintain effective finance management, foreclosure intervention, and home maintenance.
Their role at BNS is diverse, partly because the community has diverse needs, and partly because the staff consists of just six people. “I explain to a lot of our clients now that we have to understand that there is a core difference between a neighborhood and a community. A neighborhood is the physical environment. Bed-Stuy is a neighborhood, a physical location. It’s separate from Bed-Stuy as a community. Because the community is the people. The community is the connections between those people who live in a certain place.”
Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Miller moved to Brooklyn six years ago with their partner, who works as a 6th and 7th grade special ed teacher in Canarsie. “Interestingly enough, our third choice was New York,” they chuckled, “of course, fate conspires for your third choice to be the way it goes”. Miller says they knew it was a good sign when they walked into their job on the first day and found out that one of the founding board members of the organization was a distant relative, by way of marriage.
Coming from a an engaged and deeply rooted family, Miller says that socially conscious work has always been the clear path to walk upon. “I didn’t really have a choice,” they laughed, and went on to describe a bustling family, full of nonagenarian matriarchs who make clear, even when Miller was a child, what enduring value lies in a strong community. Their family is a unwavering roster of teachers, community leaders, and activists. “My maternal grandmother has a habit of adopting people,” they explained, “and my father’s mother always hosts events, running around, making sure everybody has something to eat and drink. From that I learned one of my guiding principles of life: everybody eats. And now I do that professionally.”
“Let me tell you about Brooklyn as a professional. Let me tell you about Baltimore as a resident,” Miller said, launching into what is clearly an extensive understanding about the historical, political, and economic processes that have led to the gentrification that Bed-Stuy faces today. “In the government they like to use words like ‘neighborhood improvement’ or ‘community development’, but the people who live there get the sense that all of these changes, as positive as they are, they’re not for them.” Miller went on to describe, in depth, the economics of the past 80 years that have led to the reality we now inhabit, from the G.I. bill of the ‘40s all the way, through Reaganomics, to the influx of new populations into Brooklyn at the turn of the 21st century, and ending with the clash of cultures we see today. “That’s where the economics come in,” they said, when describing the experience of displacement many have undergone in recent years in Bed-Stuy, “you see different kinds of people moving in and now stuff is changing. So you get this misplaced resentment.”
This clear vision of their place along a historical arc only further fuels a desire to do what they call ‘Good Work’. They described this as a passion they’ve shared with their partner since day one. “It helps us to know that when we go to work, the work that we do as individuals and as an organization is Good Work.”
And Good Work is what they do, whether at BNS or in their free time: gardening, going door to door to help a diverse public stay engaged, or attending community board meetings. When I asked what people in Bed-Stuy can do to strengthen neighborhood ties they spoke about relatively simple things. “The first thing you can do, especially if you’re new to a neighborhood, is talk to your neighbors. It might seem silly or simple… but the difference between a neighborhood and a community is the connections between people. Just as little as saying hello on your way to work in the morning. Letting your kids play with the neighbors kids. Simple things like that.” But there are also a plethora of existing Bed-Stuy institutions to take part in–block associations, schools, churches, community gardens, community boards, the list is ongoing. Miller described easily a dozen ways for a resident to be a strengthening presence in their neighborhood.
As our conversation drew to a close, Miller put both of their hands on the table gently, looking at once pensive and lighthearted. “You see, we all have something to give,” they said, “It may not be what you do as a job, and you may not be able to be at every protest or demonstration, and it may seem crazy. But every one of us has something they can give to somebody else. We are all full of resources, whether we see it or not. And recognizing that in yourself and then finding a way to share that out with other people is the biggest thing.”