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The Beauty Of Brooklyn Community Services

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BCS is one of Brooklyn's oldest and largest non-profit organizations, serving over 18,000 people in low-income communities every year. If you'd like to support BCS, you can donate here.

Beauty allows us to shape our individual stories and find ways to connect to others all at once. With The Top Shelf we discover personal narratives through beauty routines. In The Beauty Politic, Into The Gloss explores how beauty connects communities, and how it informs a sense of self for the people within them. Beauty can be used as a tool not just for self-expression, but for empowerment and preservation as well.

Towering over Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty is one of New York’s most outsized symbols of American freedoms. But just beyond it, about a mile into Brooklyn, is the organization that quietly puts the statue’s symbolic gestures into practice. It’s called Brooklyn Community Services, and the 150-year-old organization serves Brooklyn’s most vulnerable: homeless and impoverished New Yorkers. The Brooklyn downtown office is its headquarters, but there are in fact 25 different BCS branches throughout Brooklyn, which support over 18,000 people each year. Many of them are young people, to whom the nonprofit provides a variety of social services, including early childhood education, afterschool programming, therapy, and career development. It takes a village of 500 people to run these services, and Into The Gloss caught up with four. Below, a glimpse of their amazing work, and how beauty is the through line that pushes them forward.

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Janelle Anderson

Director of Outreach and Volunteerism, from Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York

“When people think of social work they think about direct practice—I am a licensed social worker, but I do social work on the administrative side. My job here is mostly bringing in resources for our clients, whether that’s people’s time or in-kind donations. And what I really love about it is that I get to see my hard work—for example, let’s say I put together a project for a corporate group, I get to go see the group come in and the joy that it brings to our kids and staff. It’s a very concrete, warm feeling, and it’s great.

I think what’s most important in my role is to look approachable, and friendly. When I’m at the program sites, I’m probably wearing my Straight Outta Brooklyn hat and Chucks. I love red lipstick or Kat Von D’s Motorhead, but during the week lipstick makes a statement that I don’t necessarily want to make. If I am wearing a lip to work, I like the Nyx Butter Gloss in a nude—it’s not so shiny where you look like you just had chicken. I’ll wash my face with Cetaphil in the morning, put a little Vaseline on my face, a little Butter Gloss, and I’m out.

With homelessness, appearance is everything. I see girls dressed to the nines when they enter the shelter, and five months in they’re not putting themselves together out of general discouragement or because they’re no longer able to afford what they need. The beauty basket drive used to be a toiletry drive, but now that we’ve changed the name we’re getting more makeup, and haircare, and moisturizers. You know, things that will hopefully make our women feel beautiful. Folks who maintain their beauty regimens go on interviews and get the job—someone who can afford the Butter Gloss and someone who can’t have very different experiences.

I did my big chop in 2014 and was natural for a year, and honestly, that one year was really hard. The only thing that helped were these huge combs I got at the beauty supply store for a dollar. When I decided I wanted to get dreadlocks, my uncle was worried it was going to hurt my job search. But actually, when I interviewed at BCS, my interviewer had locs. It was kind of like I was looking at myself a few years down the road. There is still a stigma against dreadlocks being unhygenic. I think social work being a field dominated by black and brown women helped, but I was still sensitive about being in certain spaces. I would do my own maintenance, which took around eight hours every two to three months—eventually I just couldn’t give my hair the time anymore, so I cut them off.

I leave work at around 4:30, and run to daycare to pick up my son. I have a toddler, which is madness in itself. Sometimes people let me go outside, which is when I’ll put on my Motorhead and have a whisky sour… that’s the blessing of having a lot of siblings and a lot of support. Otherwise it’s Elmo and kettle corn, and then I have between 8 and 10PM to myself. If I make it to 10, anyway.”

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Zoe Heegaard-LeGross

Educational/Vocational Specialist, Transitional Living Community, from Minneapolis, Minnesota

“I studied queer theory and anti-violence in college, and coming to New York City after I graduated, I was just looking for any job under that umbrella. I ended up working in a trans youth shelter, which was really stressful—when a trans person of color doesn’t come back at night, there’s always a thought that they could be dead. A lot of trans people actually don’t make it into shelters, which is why trans-specific shelters are so important. At the Transitional Living Community we’ve had several queer clients, and even some trans people come thorugh, but it can be rough.

One side of my job here is increasing the income of the 10 clients I work with. That can mean helping people get education, internship opportunities, work with a clubhouse—all the steps towards entering the workforce again, or maybe for the first time. The other side of my job is a more liberal interpretation of increases. We’ve set up art classes, dance classes, and a book club, and I take people to museums, the botanic gardens, and brunch on weekends. It’s these quality of life things that make the difference between people feeling like they’re being pushed around a system and like they feel seen and loved. No one wants to be in a shelter, and when they’re on their feet enough we move them into permanent housing.

My mom is a big second-wave feminist, and when I started getting into makeup she was so disappointed. In the ‘70s feminism was about not wearing makeup. I had to explain to her that makeup can be a really powerful tool to reclaim your body. I appreciate people who glitz and glam out, but the one thing I do is blue eyeliner. It can be a really queer statement, or it can just be a little something for work. But the biggest beauty thing I do is tattoos. In a similar way to makeup, I’ve found tattoos to be so helpful for making myself into who I want to be.

I have one tattoo of an elk skull—I grew up hunting deer with my family, and for my Danish ancestors elk was an animal that represents protection and strength. I have one of Pioneer 10, the first probe to ever leave the solar system, and another of the alchemical sun, moon, and earth symbols, which I got when I stopped studying physics. It was a reminder that I loved these things and would continue to, even when I wasn’t devoted to their study. My last tattoo is a jack pine tree which, in the US, only grows in Minnesota and Maine. I needed to leave Minneapolis for some really complicated reasons, but it was important for me to have some representation of home.

One of the hard things about working in a youth shelter was that kids have a lot of feelings about the way you look. But really, I feel the most beautiful when I’ve been doing a lot of hard physical labor. I love baking sourdough bread, or hiking, or running events where I have to just keep moving. I definitely look the least conventionally beautiful covered in sweat, grime, and grease, but… It’s almost like I forget I have a body.”

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Adrienne Terry

Program Director, Transitional Living Community, from New York, New York

“I’m the kind of director that likes when people don’t know I’m the director. After all of my reports are done, I’ll walk the halls, go into the dorms, sit down in the TV room... One time, I found out that a client didn’t have soap or a coat that way. So connecting as a director is really important. I don’t want to just push papers.

Twenty-five years ago I was a studio assistant at a pharmaceutical advertising agency. The clients were rich, and part of my job was making sure everything was in place for the executives coming in for $10,000 meetings. Then I’d walk home to my small apartment, stepping over homeless people on my route. At the time I had a friend who worked for the homeless, and when she told me about an open entry-level position my first thought was, ew. But I thought about it, and after a while I called her and said I wanted to go for the interview. The job was engaging homeless people on the street to get services—and I absolutely loved it.

I went back to school and got my masters in Human Services, and then again for Mental Health Counseling. Now I’m working on my license. The majority of our clients are bipolar or schizophrenic, and when a client comes in—you know, I hate to call them clients. I really call them my ladies. When one of my ladies comes to me with a crisis I can’t get scared, because I’m the professional. Last night a young lady came to me and said, ‘I’m having racing thoughts and hearing voices, and I don’t know what to do.’ It’s 8PM and I’m not a psychiatrist, but I looked at all her medication and sent a long email to the morning staff to make sure they follow up with her doctor. Things like that keep me late. I’m not going to walk out because my shift is up—my ladies come first.

Around Christmas, I make sure to get them all lotions and sprays from Victoria’s Secret. That’s what I would say to people who want to do something for the homeless: They’re humans too, and they’re women. Would you use 99-cent shampoo? I wouldn’t. When I walk around, I’ll hear things like, ‘Oh, Miss Terry, I’m trying to be like you!’ They ask me what I put on my skin and what makeup I use. Right now I’m using foundation from Morphe, but I think it’s a little too matte for someone my age. I usually wear a pink lipstick from MAC. And every now and then I’ll notice some women with the same hairstyle or lip color as me—they can’t afford the same products I use, but it’s close.

Sometimes I do shut-in nights, because I absorb so much energy. Even though we’re problem-solvers, we’re still human. Church is good for me, and I feel the most beautiful on Sundays. I’ll wear something a little more glamorous, and I’ll put a little more effort into my makeup. It used to be Friday and Saturday nights, but I don’t do that anymore. [Laughs]”

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Kenya Matta

Program Director, Turning Point Young Women’s Shelter and Henry Street Houses, from Brooklyn, New York

“I’m the oldest girl of six siblings, and my mom was a single mom in nursing school. I’d say the Boys and Girls club raised us. We’d go after school, and they’d help with our homework and get us ready for the next day. Being able to escape there, and not have to worry about being a mom to my brothers and sisters, was something I looked forward to. I went to school to become a director of my own kind of Boys and Girls club, and now every day when I come to work, I’m greeted by 39 young women, ages 18 to 25. But the difference is, when I was 18, I wouldn't have gone into a shelter—I would have been shacked up with some guy. I always say to my women that they’re stronger than I’ll ever be.

You have to be a mother, a counselor, a friend—it’s almost like how with makeup, I can’t put the same shade of color on each person and think it’s going to fit. It’s not. Sometimes the women need somebody to say, ‘No, that doesn’t look professional.’ Sometimes when they come to me, they don’t know how to dispose of a pad properly, or why you should go to a gynecologist. I have an open door policy, and we can be as real as we need to without being disrespectful. I have two young girls of my own, so I just try to guide these young ladies the same way. We work through things—we don’t leave upset.

In this job you’ve got to be vulnerable, and for me, asking for help is hard. Even help from my coworkers or my husband. I just have to hope that the people I care for will give it back to me with the drive, and enthusiasm, and empathy that I might need at that moment. What BCS does is phenomenal. But we have a job because of other people’s misfortunes—what are we going to do with that?

I’m on call 24 hours a day, so my time for myself is really in the shower and on the train—I could read a book or just look up at the ceiling. I go to therapy, and my nail tech Selena is my therapist too, sometimes. I take a lot of pride in my nails. I even do my toes the same way. I’ll go to Selena every two weeks, and when I leave her I feel beautiful.

I buy makeup from all different brands, because when I like the color I’ll just get it. Once a few women in the shelter said to me, ‘We realize that your mood changes based on the color you wear,’ and they’re right. Red is my favorite—when I wear red, I feel powerful. I like a red lip like this with bronze-y colors that make my skin pop, because I think I have a beautiful smile. Just saying! [Laughs] Makeup makes me feel good in the moment. I forget about things. I’m excited when my girls get to have those moments, too.”

Employees of Brooklyn Community Services photographed by Alan Winslow in Brooklyn, New York on February 4, 2020. Hair and makeup touchups provided by Glamsquad.