Ever since Frank Waters arrived in Kingston from New York City eight years ago with his wife and two children, he’s been helping transform the city’s cultural scene and cement its community bonds. He launched MyKingstonKids, which organized and created events, play activities, a radio station and even an apparel line for local youths. He was a co-founder of Harambee, which hosted the city’s first African American Festival and helped save and will manage the African Burial Ground, a cemetery dating back to the 1600s located in a back yard on Pine Street. He ramped up Black History Month into a rich series of events ranging, in 2019, from a historic walk retracing the path of Sojourner Truth to expanding home ownership.
That was just a beginning.
As executive director of Kingston Midtown Rising, a neighborhood organization founded in 2015 to develop and enhance the educational, economic and housing opportunities within the community, Waters has now introduced a service that will enable residents of Midtown to better connect with the area’s multiple service providers. Midtown residents register for free on the Kingston Midtown Rising Connect website or call in by phone to learn of the various offerings, many of them free, posted by businesses, nonprofit organizations, and municipalities.
The service launched on July 1. As of July 13, 33 providers were listed on the site. Waters expects that number to reach 100 by the end of the year.
“A lot of the organizations I have a relationship with are dying to connect with the Midtown community, but they haven’t been able to navigate how to reach these people,” Waters said. Connecting is integral to the mission of Kingston Midtown Rising, which is improving people’s lives “by using the asset-based community development strategy, which is providing resources from within the area.”
Not all the providers are located in Kingston — the common denominator is that they provide service to Midtown. Among the more unusual participants are Horses for Change, which offers riding lessons at a farm in Esopus; Seed Song Farm, located along the Esopus Creek in the nearby Town of Ulster; and Circle Creative Collective, a nonprofit whose members teach a variety of traditional African crafts. Many of the services listed on Kingston Midtown Rising Connect will be discounted or free, and it is the responsibility of the provider to list and update the service, event, or product.
The goal is for Connect to eventually reach 60 to 70 percent of Midtown’s households, Waters said.
Since only 35 percent of those households are connected to the Internet, according to comments made by Waters in a webinar on the new service held on June 23, an important component of the sign-up process is specifying the participant’s preferred method of contact, be it by phone call, text, email, Facebook or Instagram post, mail or picking up information at a neighborhood location. (People without Internet service who call the Kingston Midtown Rising number, 219-5400, ext. 2, can leave a message and get a call back to sign up.) They can also choose how they would prefer to receive the information — through reading or through an audio or video recording. “Communication is key,” Waters said.
So is the connection to city hall, which will include updates on municipal information, changes and events. In the webinar, Waters said people who sign up for the Connect network will get an award for referring others to the service.
Given that the easiest way to engage with Connect is through the Internet, isn’t that a compelling argument for city-wide free Internet service? The cost of Internet service is not the only impediment, Waters noted. “Some people are older and not tech-savvy or not interested,” he said.
On August 1, Kingston Midtown Rising will launch a marketing campaign that will publicize Connect through social-media posts, video podcasts, radio announcements, banners, flyers, posters, and direct mailings to the estimated 6600 Midtown households. The initiative is being funded from the NoVo Foundation as well as grants from the federal government connected to the 2020 census and from the North Star Fund, a non-profit social-justice organization. Kingston Midtown Rising is also accepting donations on its website.
Waters is a compelling testament to the power of connecting, given his success at transforming Black History Month into an invigorating series of forums on many facets of Black identity and history as well as practical seminars designed to empower individuals. How does he do it?
“The secret is to treat everybody the same and speak from your heart,” he said, noting he came to Kingston with 30 years’ experience as an organizer, activist and entrepreneur in New York City. “Don’t be afraid to talk to everybody and have no judgment. Everyone has something to contribute.”
Although that sounds simple, it’s an attitude that many find difficult to express. He credits his upbringing and specifically the example of his father, who, despite growing up in the South Bronx under very difficult circumstances, taught him how to organize. ”I was able to make it because I was taught to look at what you want in life, not just your present circumstances, and take a chance,” Waters explained.
Te decision to leave the city, where he’d had a variety of businesses, was initially made by his wife Shaniqua. “We had a 15-year-old son and a newborn daughter” — the couple have since had a third child — “and my wife wanted more trees and to be around nicer people,” he said. “It took us three year of being here.” They moved to the Lace Mill, the Rupco-owned complex providing subsidized housing for artists.
Besides his work at Kingston Midtown Rising and Harambee, Waters also serves on the board of the Midtown Arts District and on several committees civic and cultural committees.
Waters is also overseeing the year-long conversion of the former Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church to The Liberty Center, which will serve as Kingston Midtown Rising’s headquarters. There’ll be workforce training and community events and services, he said. A basketball court and other sports facilities and spaces will be created there.
As a working father himself, he can speak to the challenges faced by families in Kingston and in Midtown particular during the pandemic. “We have a population with limited access to affordable healthcare,” he noted. He and his wife are fortunate in that both have been able to work from home, unlike some families who have children at home and no jobs, he noted. Services such as Project Resilience, Family of Kingston, and People’s Place have played a huge role in ensuring everyone in the city has enough to eat and a roof over their head, Waters said.
Is Connect limited to residents of Midtown? Waters said no one would be denied registering, and he expected there to be a need among residents of the Rondout Gardens public housing complex as well as in Ponckhockie — though the focus will continue to be on Midtown. “We’re keeping our ear to the street and lending a hand where we can,” he said. “We’re looking at ways to create a better life experience.”
To register on Kingston Midtown Rising Connect, visit kingstonmidtownrising.org or call 219-5400, ext. 2, and leave a message.