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Kelli Scott: Irvington’s Accidental Activist

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June 17, 2021

By Barrett Seaman—

When it was announced a year ago this month that there would be a celebration of Juneteenth in Irvington, a not-uncommon reaction amongst those locals who even knew what Juneteenth meant was “Why Irvington?”

The commemoration of the proclamation in Texas on June 19th, 1865 that all slaves were henceforth free has long been seen by the nation’s Black communities as their equivalent of the Fourth of July. But the Black community in Irvington represents about two percent of the village’s population, which is nearly 90% white.

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And yet, there it was in the parking lot of the Main Street School, with a stage, a band and an array of traditional African and African-American foods. Like the village at large, the crowd was predominantly White, although many were, in the contemporary parlance, “woke” White residents sympathetic to social justice causes. Brian Smith, the village mayor, spoke, along with two of the state’s most prominent Black politicians, Mondaire Jones, who would soon win the Democratic primary and go on to become the 17th District Congressman, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Majority Leader of the State Senate, who came partly out of curiosity as to how Juneteenth had come to be celebrated in Irvington.

The answer to that question appeared on the podium that afternoon in the person of Kelli Scott, a chef by training from a rural parish in Louisiana who had been in the village for only six months, part of which was spent being hospitalized for and recovering from COVID-19.

Now just 31, Scott had spent the past decade preparing menus in various  restaurants and summer camps around the country (she also cooked for staff at The Masters golf tournament in Augusta GA each spring). While working at a camp in Maine in 2019, she met and befriended Fran Bean, wife of the Reverend Gareth Evans, the Rector of the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington. Inspired by discussions she’d been having with a women’s group at St. Barnabas about “radical hospitality,” Fran proposed to her husband that they invite Kelli to come back with them and live in the church’s spacious Rectory. “It was somewhat of a leap of faith,” recalls Rev. Evans. “We would provide space and she would make a life in New York.”

Beyond that, there was no plan. Kelli arrived in early January 2020, began a private catering business and occasionally cooked meals for church events. By mid-February, when it became clear that the coronavirus was about to disrupt life, including that of the church, she and Reverend Evans began to prepare St. Barnabas for “virtual” worship.

By March, Gareth Evans had contracted COVID and was seriously ill for three weeks. Fran also fell ill, and it wasn’t long before Kelli contracted the virus. On March 28th, she was admitted to Phelps Hospital. “It was a scary time,” she remembers. “The lady next to me would succumb. You’re in this battle and then you’re watching someone else lose the battle.”

She survived, however, and returned to St. Barnabas. On May 25th, 2020, Kelli was setting up video equipment for the church’s weekly remote services when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.

“George Floyd changed everything,” she says flat-out. Along with the death of Breonna Taylor, “it was something you just couldn’t look past and turn off.”

In the aftermath, there were two protest rallies in front of Irvington’s Village Hall. Kelli, who had been “active” in Louisiana but not in any leadership capacity, spoke at the second one. Seeking a way to contribute, she turned to what she knew best: food. “I was going to do a meal kit for Juneteenth” as a way to tell the story of how rice came to America with slaves from Angola and how the word for Okra in Bantu is “ki ngombo.” There were other foods—yams, cola nuts… “That was the menu I was going to produce for the first Juneteenth,” she says, “but I felt like I had to do more.”

“Juneteenth holds a special spot in my heart,” says Kelli, “because I started going with my dad. This was one place people could go and really be free to celebrate the culture and the skin and the beauty of the black culture.”

She wanted to bring a full-fledged Juneteenth celebration to lily-white Irvington, but for that, she needed both support and permission. “So I reached out to the mayor. Don’t know him; he doesn’t know me; what can I lose?”

“Go for it,” said Mayor Brian C. Smith, at that point still a Republican—the only Republican on Irvington’s five-member Board of Trustees. And yet there was resistance to the idea of the village sponsoring such an event on village property—a resistance Smith says he still doesn’t quite understand. So Kelli and Gareth Evans turned to the school district with a proposal to hold the event in the parking lot of the Main Street School, just up the hill from Village Hall.

The District said yes. In two short weeks in early June, Kelli and Fran scrambled to organize the event, hire a band, rent a stage, obtain the insurance—and arrange for an all-African menu. The event was a success—well-attended, celebratory but peaceful. “Typically, we plan these things for months,” says Smith. “She pulls it off in days, maybe a week. I’ve been blown away by how she pulls these things off. “

Smith is only one of several interviewed for this story who called Scott “a force of nature.” Over the course of the summer, she became a fixture at Black Lives Matter rallies. She spoke at Patriots Park in Tarrytown at a George Floyd rally that competed with a “Back the Blue” event across the park. In September, when racist t-shirts were left on the doorsteps and driveways of newly arrived Black families in Dobbs Ferry, Scott galvanized local social justice activists to put on a protest rally. (see “I found it impressive that she was able to marshal some facts, meet with the families,” recalls Stu Hackel, an activist leader on Dobbs. “They trusted her where they didn’t trust the Dobbs Ferry police.”

Following that first Juneteenth, Kelli, Rev. Evans and Mayor Smith launched a monthly Zoom forum, “Divided Table,” inviting participants to share thoughts on race and racism in the rivertowns. It was a place to ask and answer uncomfortable questions. “Unless you live in this skin,” explains Kelli, pointing to herself, “you’ll never know how it feels. You’ll never know what it’s like to be profiled based on your skin color and to be stereotyped because of your skin color alone, and to be made to act different because of your skin color.”

Kelli Scott is not the only one asking uncomfortable questions in the rivertowns. Since 2015, Rivertowns Episcopal Parishes Action on Inclusion and Race (REPAIR) has met monthly to address social justice issues in the area. One of its founders, Karl Weber, himself a parishioner at St. Barnabas, sees Kelli as someone who operates on a parallel track, using different means to the same end. “I kind of watch and admire Kelli from my vantage point,” he says. “What’s so impressive is how she has become a leader in such a short period of time.”

“She’s made a new family of the advocates and activists in this area,” remarks Dobbs Ferry’s Stu Hackel. Early allies include Peter Bernstein and Sarah Cox of the Irvington Activists, Rob Wingate and Joe Cesarano in Tarrytown, and others. “She’s really kind of an inspiration to all of us,” allows Cesarano. “She certainly has more affection for and dedication to her community than people who have been here for 50 years.”

She achieves that largely by being there. When vandals spray-painted a Black Lives Matter sign outside a home on Taxter Road in East Irvington last month, the call went out to social justice activists. When they arrived, says Cesarano, “There was Kelli out there on a ladder, scraping paint off the sign.”

Cesarano calls her “an accidental activist” who seemingly fell into a leadership role. “Cometh the hour, cometh the woman,” says Gareth Evans.

“If you listen to her at rallies,” says Cesarano, “she’s very clear about what she wishes to change in people and what’s intolerable to her, [but[ she’s not an angry person.”

Juneteenth 2020 in Irvington

Weather permitting, there will be a good turnout at this Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration in the Main Street parking lot. It’s now an official holiday, both in Irvington and, as of this week, for the United States as a nation. There will be politicians on the podium, including Mayor Smith, but higher-ups as well. And there will be Juneteenth’s principal organizer, Kelli Scott. “This is a big educational moment,” she says—not just on Juneteenth but at a time of life for the country as a whole. “I will have that conversation,” she says: “What is Juneteenth? Why is it important? Why are we celebrating. Why isn’t it just another day off?”

As for what’s next for her, Kelli Scott doesn’t have an answer…yet.

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