By Tobias Salinger
CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
Claudia Cochran, who runs a mentoring program at the Biko Transformation Center in Bushwick, helped her teenage protégés assemble a buffet line at a fish fry on a recent Friday night.
The feast wasn’t a celebration: She hoped the sale of heaping plates of whitefish fillets, macaroni and cheese and other homemade fare at $10 a pop would keep what locals affectionately call “The Biko” going.
“I don’t believe that God is going to allow something like this to flourish and then let it end,” said Cochran, who works with children at the Biko Center as part of the Project Mentor Development Council.
Cochran’s after-school dance and education program is one of several activities that will become stranded when The Biko moves out of its headquarters at 1474 Bushwick Ave. at the end of the month. The Biko’s board of directors decided to return the former monastery to its landlord, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, amid the arts hub’s inability to stem mounting debts.
“People don’t fund a building with well-meaning people,” Biko Center co-founder John Robertson said in a phone interview. “People fund a clearly-defined program with clear goals and objectives. The Biko Center was more of the former and less of the latter.”
The 61-year-old former monk, who serves as the secretary of the center’s board, cited a rent shortfall of $34,000 that’s growing at $2,000 a month. Expected funding from the city and the Episcopal Charities of Long Island didn’t materialize, leaving the center to make do with a $3,000 grant from a nonprofit arts group.
The board’s decision rankled some, including co-founder and program manager Tyrone Uwusu Slater. Though he receives no salary or benefits other than free living quarters upstairs, Slater maintains that The Biko’s cash problem is manageable.
“Thirty-four thousand dollars is not a lot of money,” said Slater, 58. “And if we make a concerted effort, we can make it out of this situation.”
The lack of funds did not prevent The Biko from making an impact during its six-year run. Local writer Carden Michael said that reciting his work at the center gave him the confidence to perform in public.
“I used to be intimidated, but, because of the positive energy of the Biko Center, I was able to develop,” said Michael, 48. “The Biko Center has been a blessing to me.”
Robertson said The Biko’s activities are a reflection of its namesake, the South African anti-apartheid martyr Stephen Bantu Biko. Episcopal monks first dedicated a room in the tall brick house to Biko in 1983.
“Biko represented someone who had a vision where black people didn’t have to define themselves according to white culture,” said Robertson, who is white.
The six-story friary proved fertile ground for cultural programs – ranging from Bible study to after-school activities to performance art – when the building became the Steve Biko Transformation Center in 2006. One of The Biko’s mainstays is musician and activist James Lovell, who leads efforts to preserve Garifuna, a language native to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean.
“I just feel like if the people who own this building knew that The Biko is a beacon of light in Brooklyn, in Bushwick, they wouldn’t close this place down,” said Lovell, who practiced nursery rhymes and songs with neighborhood children in his Afrigarifuna Youth Ensemble as the fish fry went on elsewhere in the building.
Lovell and others have to clear out their belongings by Jan. 31. The Rev. Shawn P. Duncan, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, noted that Biko leadership had elected to move the arts center. He said diocesan leadership had not made a decision on whether the building will be sold.
Organizers, who said the Jan. 10 fish fry raised $700 for the Biko Center, are looking for a new home. But Cochran, who runs tutoring, training and dancing classes six days a week, said finding alternate space would pose a steep challenge.
“In most places I check out, they want $2,000 a month, and I don’t have that,” said Cochran, who pays The Biko $275 every month.
Lovell said the plight of the arts center had taught him a lesson.
“What I learn from this whole experience is that it all boils down to money,” said Lovell. “I don’t care how good what you’re doing is for the community, if the money isn’t there, it doesn’t work.”