As a young girl, Alexie Torres climbed atop the radiator underneath her ninth floor window in the Bronx River Public Housing Projects, watching fires burn through her borough. Torres didn’t understand that these fires were a result of “planned shrinkage” and “urban renewal” in the 1960s and 70s -- which meant, in theory, that municipal authorities could close down public services with the intention of redesigning and rebuilding better. For the residents of the South Bronx, though, it didn’t turn out “better." Fire stations were shut down even as fire emergencies rose, and residents, who had no voice in the rebuilding of their own communities, were increasingly displaced.
These early impressions would lead Torres to social and environmental justice, locally and nationally. By her early 20s, she founded Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) where she labored with young people on issues from policing to education and environmental justice. A cornerstone of her work was the reclamation of the Bronx River, which was highly industrialized and inaccessible to her community. She co-founded the Bronx River Alliance, which today continues the work of protecting the river.
As an urban planner, activist for environmental justice, and community organizer, Torres has lived into the full meaning of her given name, Alexie: “Defender of Humankind.” Torres’s mother and father were immigrants who came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico as teenagers. After being homeless for a while, her father got a job as a deli man, a dishwasher, and ultimately moved up to become a maintenance man in the public housing projects in which she was raised. As Torres grew up, despite how much she loved her family and community, she learned that the rest of the world would define her success by how far away she could escape from them.
So in her 20s, she left the Bronx for Manhattan. Working a corporate career, she became “a conscientious objector to [her] own story,” But during that time, she also became involved with the Williamsburg activist group, El Puente, her introduction to the power of grassroots organizing. In 1992, Torres returned to the South Bronx to participate in Holy Cross parish’s anti-drug rally. When local drug dealers attempted to burn down the church and intimidate them, twelve hundred neighbors -- those the world might deem powerless -- came forward to march. “[To have] people coming from the margins and into the center,” Torres reflected, “… that's where the heart of my planning heart was born.”
She went on to found YMPJ, with the mission to prepare young people to become prophetic voices for peace and justice, and served as its executive director for 17 years. Through YMPJ and affiliate projects, Torres has helped create new parks, provide access to the Bronx River, and clean up brownfields. Despite these external achievements, she recognizes that it is “even more important that I contribute to leaving a legacy of a community that understands its own power.”
In 2013, Torres was awarded the prestigious Loeb Fellowship through Harvard University. Her service on the national stage has included the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which aimed to reduce poverty and inequality and create opportunity for all. She is the Managing Director of Jubilee Gift, board member of Fr. Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, and most recently, co-creator of the Soul of the Movement Fund to connect healers and wisdom keepers to social movements. For her body of work, she has been named one of "50 Visionaries Changing Our World."
A mother of two, Torres has inspired a new generation of young leaders dedicated to promoting peace and justice in their communities. Her vision for change in the face of daunting obstacles has led to success in her efforts to effect positive change within public spaces and marginalized communities. She is a national voice on issues of faith, community organizing, and the sacred work of social justice.
Please join us in conversation with this dynamic grassroots activist and defender of humankind.