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From the Rolling Stones to Rudy Giuliani: How Bronx activism led to life as a Green MSP

Green MSP Ariane Burgess worked with children from "challenging" backgrounds in the South Bronx for around a decade.

It was working with kids in the South Bronx – a tough borough of New York City – that helped set Ariane Burgess on the path to activism.

But it had started so differently in the glamourous world of music and film alongside A-list stars including the Stones and soon-to-be superstar Mariah Carey.

And it’s all a far cry from Ariane’s current day job as a regional MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

Put together, it makes for a unique journey.

Born in Edinburgh, Ariane moved to the Big Apple in her early 20s, intending to stay just six months.

She went on to call the city her home for the next two decades.

Ariane had already moved on from Scotland to study at Wimbledon School of Art, before embarking on a move across the pond to work in film.

This eventually led to a job in the music business at Sony, which saw Ariane work with major stars.

But the Green MSP – who was elected for the first time in May – says she has always had a “strong environmental streak from growing up in Scotland”.

South Bronx

She wanted to do something to help the planet and so Ariane stepped away from music and film and starting working with communities in the South Bronx towards the end of the 1990s.

The borough is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York City, which suffers from problems associated with poverty, drug crime and violence.

“I helped communities set up community gardens and then connected to that I ended up working with a social-work based organisation working with kids that had very challenging lives from growing up in the South Bronx”, Ariane says.

Bird’s eye view of the South Bronx with the Whitestone Bridge and Queens in the background.

“We would do a lot of work with them…bring them to the gardens and connect them to another aspect than a life of concrete, TV and violence in some cases.

“It’s so interesting with the South Bronx. There’s a lot of external ideas about what that area is like through movies and characterisation and I remember the first time I ever went there arriving on the subway and coming out with a feeling of trepidation.

“That very quickly dissipated because what’s going on in the particular area I was working in is a lot of really amazing families, waves of immigration, Puerto Rican, and Dominican, and then the more recent waves were from south and central America.

“People who are still very connected from their culture to nature and growing their own food.

“We were doing what we could to make it possible for them to grow their own food if they want to.”

Campaign to save gardens

Ariane was involved in a city-wide campaign to save hundreds of the gardens after then Mayor Rudy Giuliani launched a bid to bulldoze them to develop housing.

In an article in The New York Times in 2000, the now-Green politician is quoted at the scene of one community garden in the Lower East Side as it was razed to the ground.

However, the overall campaign ended up a “massive success” as 124 gardens which would have gone up for auction as plots of development were saved and taken on by two large third-sector organisations.

Highlands and Islands MSP Ariane Burgess is pictured in her home town of Forres, Moray. Pictures by Jason Hedges.

The display of people power taught Ariane the importance of working together to achieve a common goal but working in one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods also challenged her.

She said: “There’s a lot to be said for collaboration and different people across the city had different ideas about how we were going to succeed and we didn’t stop each other from pursuing those ideas.

“Some people took the route of direct action to really bring that into media attention, some people were going for can we get legislation changed, some people going for what can we do in the courts of law with existing legislation, and others focused on educating more people.

The New York City skyline.

“I think that’s why we ended up succeeding.”

On her decade working in the South Bronx, she said: “It was rewarding and it was also very challenging at times as well just because life there is very challenging for people.

“I had to be able to have my own personal resilience to be able to support them. You’ve got to have your own wellbeing strategy to work there.”

Return to Scotland

The Highlands and Islands MSP had long felt an emotional pull back to Scotland and it was in 2010 during an extended visit back home when the idea crystallised.

Returning to Manhattan to pack up and close that chapter of her life that same year, the versatile activist would return to Edinburgh, before moving north to settle in Forres.

She admits she “never had any political ambition”, in part because of the “massive” two-party state political system in the US and instead was “pushing from the outside”.

Like many, Ariane became politically active during the 2014 independence referendum when she says is because she felt “strongly that we need all the powers in Scotland so we can make the right decisions here”.

Ariane Burgess pictured in Forres. Pictures by Jason Hedges.

She joined the Scottish Greens around this time and after failing to be successful in the 2016 Holyrood election, Ariane was later elected as Highlands and Islands MSP in May.

The Green politician hopes that she can take her experience in the US, where she joined forces with others to enact change, and put it to good use in the Scottish Parliament.

“Now in my role as an MSP, I can’t do that alone. If people are bothered about something I need to know this is an issue that really matters to people”, she said.

“What I’m reflecting on as an elected representative is yes I’m there, people have said we trust you to go and represent us but I also think we could do a lot more in Scotland to help more people understand how the parliament works and what that really means.”

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