Over 40 years Peterson has established a reputation as a prolific community organizer, a feet made all the more rare considering she isn't even from here.
Peterson grew up in a small town outside of Milwaukee, population 3,000-plus, where everyone knew everyone and life revolved around high school basketball games. Though she left before adulthood, a strong argument could be made that her years growing up in the tight-knit community of Cedarburg, Wisconsin were the perfect preparation for a lifetime's worth of community work on the streets of Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
Peterson came to New York in 1962. The following year, she participated in the March on Washington, and has been an avid community organizer ever since.
In North Brooklyn she started Neighborhood Women of Greenpoint/Williamsburg, the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, the group Groots International and the Huairou Commission. Today, the latter is a UN-affiliated, multi-million dollar organization with an international reach that extends to 50 countries.
Despite these successes, Peterson remains close to home: she runs all four organizations out of the same facility at 249 Manhattan Avenue. Peterson calls the building the “grassroots clearing house.”
Her efforts focus on organizing women to be active, empowered members of their community with a stake in its development. Peterson said women are uniquely suited for the challenge.
“We see women as being leaders in local development who hold the values that nurture a community,” said Peterson. “Women have a set of values that speak to development.”
Its fair to say Peterson's vision of sustainable development differs from the mayor's.
In one project, completed in the 1990's, Neighborhood Women of Greenpoint/Williamsburg developed eight affordable housing buildings on the Greenpoint Hospital site. Today, people still live there; one building bears a plaque in Peterson's name.
A future project, she said, will be the creation of a walking tour of the neighborhood, to highlight the contributions women have made to the area. Until that tour materializes (its in the works now), Peterson is content to do it alone.
“I love walking every block here and seeing people I know,” Peterson said. “I don't want to leave Williamsburg/Greenpoint. That's my home.” (Daniel Bush)