The new executive director of Zone 126, who started on August 1, impressed listeners at the organization’s latest Cradle to Career Convening meeting last Wednesday morning at the Variety Boys and Girls Club.
Lopez described his new vision of family engagement, partnership development and collaborative action planning to help achieve Zone 126’s goal of transforming education and opportunities for poor families in western Queens.
Part of the collaboration involves creating affinity groups that include executive directors and CEOS, superintendents and educational and resident leaders.
“I want to see Zone 126 help, over a period of years, to be a center for cross-sector collaboration,” he said, “where community stakeholders, from residents to professionals to business people, come and get oriented, trained and incubate ideas.”
Last year, Zone 126 served 2,214 children and adults in ten public schools, according to its latest report. They worked with 21 “implementation partners” to help provide arts programming, academic support, adult education, mental health services and nutrition education to students and families in underserved areas.
Lopez, 54, comes into this role with 30 years of youth development and advocacy experience. The South Bronx native previously led the I Have A Dream Foundation’s New York chapter at age 28, and later Aspira New York at age 35.
The oldest of eight siblings, Lopez went through New York’s public education system and ended up at SUNY Binghamton, where he graduated with a degree in sociology. He was introduced to activism early, joining the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights based in the Bronx.
“I have a deep knowledge of my Puerto Rican history and the colonial relationship Puerto Rico has with the United States,” he said.
After leading two nonprofits, he went on to create some of the first charter schools in his native borough. Lopez also created the Aprendes Foundation, serves as co-chair of the NYC Youth Funders, and helped turn around the Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School.
“I bring the roots of growing up in a time in the 70s when the Bronx was burning, when it looked like a war zone,” he said. “To watch it develop on its own is something that stayed with me in terms of doing work on behalf of the community and young people. It’s a personal mission.”
Lopez said he champions the community school model of bringing in “non-traditional” players to help schools thrive. He said the old way of thinking, in which partnership and collaboration was done “for the sake of compliance,” won’t bring any impact.
“I want to identify them right here in the zone,” Lopez said about community partners. “Come in and let’s do something fresh. Let’s leverage what we have. Let’s see where the gaps are.”
That’s where Zone 126 comes in. Describing it as a hub, a bridge and an intermediary, Lopez said the organization can look at the issues and identify the barriers to student achievement. He said he wants to collect data, “work the numbers,” and create a baseline to see where investment can be targeted best.
“Right now, I think we’re thin in early childhood intervention,” Lopez said. “All the evidence and research suggest that’s where the investments should be made, so that way, as the families empower themselves through the pipeline, it gets to the point where the young people and teenagers take it from there.
“You could invest later in the pipeline, but it’s going to cost more,” he added. “If we get early childhood and middle school really right, high school shouldn’t be a problem.”
Two weeks ago, at a meeting at PS 111, Lopez said Zone 126 was called out by a local elected official for providing “subpar services” to the school. He said they were “targeted and ambushed,” but wasn’t surprised by the animus they directed toward the organization.
“In 30 years, I know I’m not here to take it personally, I’m here to help take it in a different direction,” Lopez said. “What I did say at that meeting was under my leadership, the families and community will have a voice for what happens here because that’s been missing.”
Despite the early hiccups, Lopez was well received, earning praise for his presentation and vision for the organization.
He urged all community members to join them as he continued laying out a framework.
“What’s going to shape and mold it are the people who are invested in the work,” he said. “Let’s focus on what we all do and how we’re doing it on behalf of the children.”