A coalition alleged that the leadership at the Bronx River Art Center (BRAC) has run a hostile work environment, hired people without being able to pay them and is poorly run overall.
On Oct. 14, an intense Community Board 6 meeting took place where this group tried to show why Gail Nathan, executive director of BRAC and her staff need to go. However, CB6 did not support a motion of their revitalization plan.
The coalition was led by Laura James, the founder and director of BX200, and Dr. Sonia James-Wilson, who has had a career in urban education for more than 35 years. So far, 600 people have signed a petition calling for the overhaul of BRAC.
At the meeting, the coalition said that they wanted funding stopped for BRAC, called for the district attorney to investigate the organization for the misuse of funds and labor violations and also wanted the leadership thrown out.
“Our concern is BRAC is not fulfilling its stated mission,” James-Wilson said. “BRAC is supposed to provide affordable arts and programming to youth. The kinds of things people are concerned with are things going on for years.”
In September, she contacted Nathan and the board via email, but neither party replied. On top of that, James-Wilson said she found it odd that the organization recently appointed 10 new board members.
“The original plan was to try to work with the board to turn the organization around,” she explained. “We do not have faith the board leadership will have the community’s best interest at heart.”
Several former employees told James-Wilson about the toxic work environment and the need for change.
At the Oct. 14 meeting, the room was split on keeping BRAC as is or removing Nathan and the leadership for a fresh start.
Angel Chevrestt a former photography teacher at BRAC praised the facility and Nathan for what it does for the community.
“Gail has done an amazing job with BRAC,” he said. “BRAC and Gail Nathan have done so much for the community over the past 20 plus years. If more can be done, then why not work with Gail?”
Artist Irina Danilova first met Nathan through BRAC in 1998 when she was sent there to give a presentation. After emigrating from the Ukraine to the states and eventually moving to the Bronx, she truly felt welcome at BRAC.
Danilova is currently an instructor at CUNY College in Brooklyn and said they do not even have the equipment that BRAC has.
“Through all the years I was constantly amazed with Gail’s enthusiasm, how professionally she runs BRAC and all she accomplished,” Danilova said.
Mikey Wheeler, a former employee and student at BRAC, was shocked at all of the hatred towards Nathan and the facility. Wheeler met Nathan when he was 14 and started out there as a volunteer.
He watched her make flyers, hang them in businesses and show up for the community.
“It’s been a honor to be a part of such an amazing cultural center piece in the Bronx,” Wheeler said. “I find it redundant to attack the center and not actively have ways to improve or even taken action to work with the center to improve.”
Eileen Walsh said her experiences with BRAC as an independent curator and volunteer at times were very negative.
“It was exciting to see the new space, but the actual programs were mostly all brochures and no actual program,” Walsh said. “Each experience was made as difficult as possible by administration. We deserve better.”
Artist Rachel Sydlowski and illustrator Charles Esperanza shared her sentiments.
“As an artist, the River Rising experience was not a positive one,” Sydlowski shared. “BRAC needs to do better for the community and artists.”
“I have worked at BRAC for two years and have been witness of the toxic environment,” Esperanza added. “Something must be done!”
One resident who attended BRAC for 10 plus years and taught there from 2006 to 2010, witnessed several teachers and supporters unnecessarily fired and turned away due to mismanagement, herself included.
“The turnover rate at BRAC is through the roof,” she said. “This isn’t about a month of emails. This is about years of misrepresentation and mismanagement.”