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By Donna Lamb

 
 

Kendall Stewart: a Personal Triumph over Adversity

hen you meet Council Member Kendall Stewart, one of the things quickly apparent is he can never resist helping people. He is very practical and creative in his approach, always searching for feasible solutions to the problems facing the people of his 45th district in Brooklyn. He is intimately acquainted with those problems because he has lived so many of them. As an immigrant himself, he knows firsthand the sacrifices, ingenuity and persistent hard work it takes to better oneself.

A Caribbean Youth

Kendall Stewart was born some 50 years ago in the West Indies on poor but beautiful Union Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, population about 3,000.

The island was small, but the Stewart family was large. Kendall was 1 of 12 children. "I was somewhere in the middle," he explains.

His father, Solomon Stewart, a seaman for the Harrison Line, was gone for 6 to 9 months at a stretch, working to provide for his family. Kendall's mother, Millicent, was a homemaker.

From the age of about 4, Kendall was no stranger to hard work. He labored along with the rest of the family in their gardens and fields, helping to grow their food. Like others on the island, corn and peas formed their staple diet. They also grew nuts, casabas and potatoes, which they ate with fish. Because of their poverty, at times they had only one meal a day. Meat was a luxury.

His parents could read and write, "But that's about it," Kendall said. "They never had the opportunity to go beyond primary school, so they were always concerned that we have an education. Even when we were still in primary school, my mother bartered things like fresh eggs or garden produce in exchange for extra lessons for us."

When he completed primary school at the age of 14, his parents scraped together the money to send him, as they had his older siblings, to St. Vincent to continue his education. During the next 5 years, he led a semi-independent life, boarding with different families while he attended school.

Kendall didn't like school very much. "The teachers were quick with the strap if a student did even the smallest thing wrong," he explained. Still, he was fairly happy because he had lots of friends, saw his brothers and sisters often, and got to go home for vacations. The boat ride home could be treacherous, though, especially during December, the hurricane season. He still mourns the loss of good friends who drowned when their boats sank in those storms.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Trinidad's Caribbean Union College. Never one to flinch from hard work, he paid his tuition by working as a day laborer in the fields, plowing and planting oranges, papayas, corn and other produce.

Coming to America

Kendall Stewart graduated from Caribbean Union College at the age of 21. He then wrote to an older sister who was living in Washington, DC and asked her advice about migrating to the United States. She replied that life in the States was not for him; it was too dangerous.

Still determined, he wrote for information about a computer school in New York that accepted foreign students. He applied for admission, sent a deposit, and set about getting a visa.

In order to obtain a visa, Kendall had to prove that he had the money to pay for school since it's illegal to work in the U.S. on a student visa. "I borrowed $3,000 from my relatives, took it to the embassy, got my visa - but then I had to return it all before I even left!" he stated. "When I got here, I had only $25 in my pocket."

He headed straight for Brooklyn, where he stayed with an uncle and his family. His uncle knew the owner of a large nightclub, the Tropical Cove, on Franklin and Fulton Street. Kendall got the job of cleaning up after it closed.

Pretty soon he was settled into a routine. He got up very early and went to work at the nightclub at about 5 am. "For 3 or 4 hours, I picked up bottles, swept, mopped, then polished the floors, cleaned the bathrooms, and so on," he recalled. "When I finished that, I went looking for other jobs in the neighborhood, like painting and light construction work. I attended computer classes in the evening until 10 or 11 o'clock. Then I went home and fell into bed!"

He was happy with the cleaning job because it paid what was to him pretty good money for 1973: $60 a week. Half of it went for tuition and the rest to his uncle for room and board, with a little left over for pocket change. He was fairly pleased with his various day jobs, too, although there were a few contractors who refused to pay him. "They knew that in my situation as an immigrant there was nothing I could do about it," he stated.

After several months in his uncle's crowded household, Kendall thought he was doing well enough financially to move on to renting his own room for $50 a week. Later on he graduated from the computer school and was offered a job. However, he'd come to feel that computing wasn't for him, and decided to explore other options.

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The College Years

The option Kendall Stewart chose was to study at City College. Back then, it was open enrollment, which meant that U.S.-born and documented students attended for free, but as a international student, he had to pay $888 a semester.

He quickly figured out that if he took a normal course load each semester it would take him 4 or 5 years to graduate. "However," he said, "if I took at least 22 credits a semester - which cost no more than taking the usual amount - and attended summer school, I could graduate in 3 years." And that's exactly what he did. He made sure to keep his grades up so no one would challenge him and possibly disallow him from taking so many credits.

While attending college, Kendall found employment during the week with different community-based organizations tutoring other Caribbean immigrants. He taught keypunch and related subjects to youths interested in computers and helped adults prepare for their high school equivalency exams, among other things. On weekends he took additional jobs with renovators of expensive Manhattan apartments, and over the summers he worked in a paint factory. "These types of menial jobs helped sustain me all the way through college," he said, "even during the additional years I spent getting my master's degree in natural science."

Although his life during these years consisted pretty much of study and work, he didn't feel lonely or isolated because he was as outgoing then as he is today. He hits it off with nearly everyone he meets.

Becoming a Podiatrist

One day someone showed Kendall a brochure about podiatric medicine. He'd never heard of that field, but it sounded interesting. He did some research and then sent for applications from 2 schools of podiatric medicine. "That was all I could afford," he explained, "because each application cost $50."

He took and passed the necessary exams and then sent in his applications. The first school accepted him, but when he went for the interview and they found out that he was an international student, they turned him down.

This taught him that to get into the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, he had to say he was a citizen. He did, and they didn't check up on it so he was admitted.

They directed him to a bank where he got a $5,000 loan to pay for his tuition and everything else for the first semester. "But," he said, "just as with college, I got to thinking that maybe there was a better way to do it."

Kendall had met and fallen in love with Selene Mulzac, and they decided to marry. It seemed unwise to continue paying rent if he could invest in a home instead, so after much searching, he found an abandoned, dilapidated house at 3820 Church Avenue in Flatbush. He used $3,000 of the loan as a down payment. It was the best he could afford, but he figured he could use his skills to make it livable.

So all about the same time in 1977, Kendall began studying podiatry, he and Selene got married, they moved into their new home, such as it was, and soon their first child was on the way. He continued studying and working while he raced against the clock putting in windows and trying to get the heat and hot water operating before the winter set in.

The next 4 years were tough, full of grueling hard work and study. However, in 1981, life became a little easier. Kendall graduated with his degree in podiatry and began to work with some other doctors. He also got his legal status.

As he continued fixing up the house, he made a pact with himself that every 2 years he would try to invest in a piece of real estate for when the children were ready for college.

He also put in his citizenship papers. As soon as they went through, he registered to vote and also began sponsoring his brothers and sisters to come over. They, in turn, sponsored other family members until eventually the entire Stewart family became permanent residents or citizens of this country.

His Community Involvement Grows

Instead of just focusing on himself and his own family, during the 1980's Kendall Stewart became increasingly involved in the community. He provided free podiatry services and helped seniors and other people with their immigration, housing and education problems. He told them how to handle certain situations, and when necessary, he called and spoke to people on their behalf. He assisted people with getting into schools, helped fill out all kinds of forms, including documentation and citizenship papers, and explained where to go with them. If he didn't know what someone needed to do, he read up on it.

Kendall also sponsored people to come from the West Indies as nurses aides. In those days this was much easier to do, and he had a great feeling of fellowship with the others who wanted, as he had, to reach the USA so they could improve themselves and do something for their families.

At one time he even bought a Haitian restaurant, and, though he didn't know the language, tried to keep it going so that several Haitians at a time could have an income on which to sustain themselves.

Entry into Politics

The way Kendall Stewart came to enter politics is this: As he had promised himself he would, he was investing in real estate. However, after he owned 3 or 4 two- or four-family homes, he was finding it difficult to pay the mortgages and the upkeep because several of his tenants couldn't pay their rent. "I understood their situations very well because I had been there," he said. "I just couldn't make myself take them to court or evict them, so I was actually using the money I earned from my medical practice to subsidize my real estate investments."

When he explained his problem to a friend who was an attorney, he told Kendall, "If you want to make a difference, why not get involved in politics? Become an elected official. That's the way you can make some real changes for the better in people's lives."

Kendall didn't want to relocate to Albany, so the lawyer suggested he run for district leader. He put Kendall's name on the ballot and it took off from there.

Due to his popularity because of all the things he had been doing throughout the years to help people with their problems, he easily won the election.

That was 1992, and after that, even more people were saying, "If you have a problem, go to Kendall Stewart. This guy helps everyone." Soon he found himself almost overwhelmed with requests for services and contributions.

Half of his time and about a third of his income were spent helping individuals and community organizations. In addition to all the things he was already doing, he began working with several groups to develop steel bands and to provide soccer and cricket teams with equipment. He worked with many groups on a wide variety of issues and projects.

During the 1990s it was becoming even more natural for Kendall Stewart to work with the public and to help people secure resources and find out how to advocate for themselves. Then some people said to him, seeing that he was doing so much for Haitians and other Caribbean groups in his district, why not run for the City Council so he could serve their interests even better?

That is what he did, and he won a seat in 2001. Since being elected to office and appointed the Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, he is a strong advocate for the immigrant community, working unstintingly to protect their rights. For instance, he has introduced legislation on behalf of immigrants being able to access services without fear of their immigration status being disclosed, and against the so-called PATRIOT Act, which he opposes because it limits the civil liberties of immigrants. Plus, he works tirelessly to serve all the people of the 45th district.

Kendall is also proud to have a record as an independent politician who is unafraid to take unpopular positions when he believes it's in the best interest of the public good. That has, at times, brought him some heat from political opponents. But he says, "When I'm being attacked I always remember one thing. When I was a kid in the West Indies, I'd go to the mango fields where I'd see some trees with a lot of ripe mangos and others without any. The only trees I'd throw stones at were the ones with the ripe mangos, not the ones with nothing. Now when people may throw stones at me, I think it's because I have the "ripe mangos." If I didnít have good ideas and wasn't doing things right, no one would be attacking me".

Kendall Stewart says too, "I have tried to live a good life, a sharing life, a caring life. I love what I do helping people and I hope to go on doing it, in some capacity, for a long, long time."

r power, prestige or money but for justice and equality for all people."

Donna Lamb can be reached at dlamb@gis.net.

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