Art / Culture

Casita Maria’s new director brings intimate knowledge of South Bronx

Haydee Morales, executive director of Casita Maria

East Harlem native, Haydee Morales, hopes to expand arts programming to meet neighborhood needs

Haydee Morales’ work has taken her as far south as the U.S. border with Mexico, as well as South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. For the last 30 years, she has worked for nonprofit health organizations internationally, nationally and citywide. And now, she finds herself serving the very community where she has lived for 20 years and where all of her work began: the South Bronx.

“As a Bronx resident, although I love the global lens, there’s nothing like home,” said Morales. “And to me, the Bronx is home. I feel that it’s an honor and a privilege to serve the Bronx.”

In December, Morales, 51, was appointed executive director of the Casita Maria Center, the arts education organization on Simpson Street founded 80 years ago. Morales was the vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City for 13 years, and also worked with the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, the Hispanic AIDS Forum and Morris Heights Health Center in roles that included health educator, coordinator and director.

In 1994 she co-founded Casa Atabex Ache, a grassroots women’s empowerment organization, moving it to Mott Haven in 1998. Her philosophy in creating it was that the South Bronx, which includes two of the poorest congressional districts in the nation, also had a dormant resource: women and girls. Casa Atabex Aché, which translates to the House of Women’s Power, ran health education and anti-violence workshops, among other programs, for nearly 16 years before closing its doors in 2013.

As a result of her work here and abroad, Morales has a firm belief in “intersectionality,” where multiple forms of discrimination such as race, class and gender can overlap and affect outcomes and life events. While the majority of her nonprofit endeavors have been health-related, she said that there’s always more than one factor at play when providing health services. The same is true, she said, about the arts. It’s never only about helping kids make art.

“It’s more like, how does art intersect education?” Morales said. “How do you use art to help a community lift itself out of poverty, which is no small task?”

“You have to understand the complexities of what communities are dealing with, and to me that’s intersectionality. So I’m never really working with just one issue.”

One example of Morales helping kids understand these complexities was when an artist installed a display of work comprised of recycled materials. Casita Maria turned this artwork into a lesson for the children, bringing in the Department of Sanitation to teach them about garbage and recycling. It gave the art context and therefore more meaning for the children.

“Casita Maria’s role is to be cultural translators for our community.” Morales said.

Morales’ experience at Planned Parenthood gave her two important skills that she relies on now at Casita Maria. The first is the knowledge of successful program implementation, which she describes as understanding the context in which programs and people operate. The second is not just leadership, but leadership with accountability and responsibility. Morales said that as a leader, it is essential for her to articulate her vision and inspire others to help it become a reality.

As for her vision for Casita Maria, she hopes to expand its programs and capacity to meet the demands of the neighborhood. During the school year, Casita serves about 900 children in afterschool programs, but during the summer, they see only half that many. One goal will be to close the disparity in funding in arts between the Bronx and other boroughs. Morales plans to highlight Casita as an integral space for the growth of arts, especially to private donors and federal funds that contribute to the disparity between Manhattan art institutions and the outer boroughs. She wants her families to be able to rely on a safe, nurturing educational center for their kids, and that’s not something she takes for granted.

Morales lives in Soundview with her 17-year-old daughter. As a single parent for the majority of her daughter’s life, Morales is empathetic with the various shapes that families take within the community.

Born and raised in East Harlem, Morales graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School with a full merit scholarship to New York University, but transferred to Hunter College in search of a more enriching college setting. There, she studied community health education and later received her master’s in human service administration from The Audrey Cohen School of Metropolitan College of New York.

While Morales is relatively new to the arts and educational scene, she is enjoying the change of pace.

“What’s beautiful and what’s different about it here, is that there’s so much hope and possibilities in the day-to-day activities,” Morales said. “As I do my work, I hear the children playing the violin or the piano, or I hear them singing. Sometimes when you work with young people you have to wait to see the impact. But at Casita Maria, you see things happening right before your eyes.”

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply