You would never know from Francine Brown’s prolific email output that she’s not well versed in electronic media.
“People think I am really computer savvy,” a giggling Brown said. “I just know how to push send.”
A Harlem resident for just over a decade, Brown’s email is a window on grassroots movements working in that community’s always-roiling social and political scene.
The Coalition to Preserve Community’s latest meeting on Columbia University’s continued expansion; Operation SNUG’s streetcorner anti-violence meetings; The Harlem Transformation Project’s upcoming State of Harlem meeting of community groups. All have been featured in Brown’s weekly email to some 400 community activists around the city.
“The problem is, we have a lot of little fires going on,” Brown said. “We have a lot of organizations doing their specialty, fighting some issue. I want to hook them up.
“When I send things out I want other people to pass it along,” she said. “Usually when you’re sending these emails out you are preaching to the choir. These are people who are somewhat informed or want to be involved.
“But I have hopes that somehow the information will get to people who are not necessarily thinking along that line and will cause them to get involved.”
Brown is a personal trainer and Zumba instructor at the Harlem YMCA. She credits Harlem with awakening her social awareness. Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, she left town to attend Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and later the Art Institute of Chicago.
For years she lived in Los Angeles, where she worked on her fashion line, now called Body Politiques. You can see her work at bodypolitiques.com.
She traveled to Europe, living in London for two semesters while in college, Paris for a year and a half, Japan for three and a half years. “I was adventurous,” Brown said. “I wanted to experience life.”
She planned on living in Europe, but when the fashion career didn’t take off Brown went back to Chicago for eight years and then moved to New York and Harlem, where a fixed sidewalk helped her find her political voice.
When she visited the city years ago Brown would stay with a friend on 120th St., which sported more than a few burnt out houses and crumbled sidewalks.
“I visited once, and the sidewalks were broken up,” she said. “I came back a few months later and they had new sidewalks. Then there were medians in the street, and planters along the sidewalk.
“I was not that political conscious,” Brown said. “When I was in Los Angeles I might circulate a petition to save the whales, but that was about it.”
Being in Harlem energized Brown politically.
“I was so naive, until I moved to Harlen, in the workings of the city, which is a microcosm of the country,” she said. “Before I moved here, I was Miss International. Most of my friends were white and I lived in majority white neighborhoods.
But watching the sudden improvements to Harlem’s infrastructure brought on by gentrification made Brown even more aware of the power of money and politics, and how, if missing one, you’d better have the other.
So Brown started attending Community Board meetings, where she made more contacts who directed her to more grassroots groups and more contacts.
She started talking politics to residents, trying to get people who were often proudly outside of the political process to understand the need to get involved.
Brown recalled two women she met while working a voter registration table on 125th St. for President Obama’s birthday last week. Both had registered for the first time in 2008, to vote Obama into office.
““But I was explaining to them that this was not the only election issue locally,” Brown said. “You have to start paying attention to your local politics. Those are the people who affect you directly. Pay attention to your City Council and your community board, and the primaries.
“You gotta pay attention to the primaries because when you don’t vote in them you are letting other people make the choice for you.”