Since 1982, El Puente (Spanish for “the bridge”) has been improving the lives of many in Williamsburg with their dedication to developing the community, inspiring leaders of tomorrow, and supporting countless justice-based initiatives. And at its helm is Dr. Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s president who co-founded the organization that’s become a staple of Southside Williamsburg, along with Luis Garden Acosta and Gino Maldonado.
Lucerna in particular went on to start the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in 1993. In partnership with the NYC Department of Education and with funding from New Visions for Public Schools, the alternative school was founded with a focus on human rights and social justice curricula for high school students. The El Puente Academy is considered the first public school focused on human rights in the United States.
A Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education study by Jacqueline Ancess and Bethany Rogers praised the A-rated public high school’s structure and emotional-social connection.
“The small corridors with classrooms on the second through fourth floors provide a sense of intimacy. Student work and school banners decorate the walls. Larger-than-life original murals of human rights activists, including Rosa Parks and Huey Newton, anchor the staircase landings. The office hums with students, facilitators, and staff passing in and out; everyone is greeted kindly, by name. There is a sense of liveliness as students change classes or anticipate after-school events and activities,”Jacqueline Ancess and Bethany Rogers
In the forty years since its inception, El Puente has co-founded the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, torn down a wall that segregated children in a Brooklyn public school (P.S. 16) by leading a month-long, total student boycott; created Brooklyn’s most comprehensive Latino Center for Art and Culture, co-founded the Latino Commission on AIDS, and worked closely with local orgs on many initiatives dedicated to improving the lives of those in the Williamsburg community, particularly with regard to pollution and climate change (and much more).
“The issue of environmental justice came from recognizing the issue of the deterioration of the community in terms of its physical infrastructure, the fact that we had no trees in the community at all. There was nothing green in this community, let alone there was nothing built in this community, it was rubble, and so the issue of environment and the issue of what that meant for our community was pretty clear. And we were working with young people who were living in the community and observing this also. The trigger to this whole environmental movement actually came out of a class that we had at El Puente at the time. It was these same young people who became nationally known as El Puente’s ‘Toxic Avengers’ that actually uncovered Radiac [editor’s note – Radiac is storage facility for radioactive material located close to the school]…We followed up on it, and then that was a trigger for us to really start to activate this issue of what this facility was and the danger it posed in our community.”Excerpt from an interview with Frances Lucerna from the Women Build Community archive.
Thanks to the success of El Puente and the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, Lucerna has been recognized with a Heinz Award in the Human Condition from the Heinz Family Foundation (in partnership with her husband, the late Luis Garden Acosta), Neighborhood Champion Award from North Brooklyn Neighbors, Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa from the Bank Street Graduate School of Education.
To this day, Lucerna continues to be heavily involved with El Puente.