Activist. Organizer. Teacher.

Feb 11, 2022

During Black History Month, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation is profiling pioneering Black leaders past and present who have made a mark on our community. Throughout the month, we’ll be sharing stories of these important figures and showcasing their work to make Fairfield County a stronger, more equitable community.

When Dr. Vanessa Liles attended public school in Norwalk, she discovered at a young age that chalkboards weren’t the only things being erased.

Vanessa recognized early that despite the diversity within Norwalk schools, her classmates and teachers still had a way of affirming White culture.

“I really felt like my culture was erased,” she said. “At the time, I couldn’t place it. But it just makes you feel like you don’t belong or you’re not good enough.”

It was only later that she realized that these feelings were the result of the structures that surrounded her — and that she had the power to claim her voice. In turn, she also learned that she could help others lift their voices and advocate for change.

These discoveries were driven, in part, by her desire to learn. That desire led her to earn undergraduate degrees in Black Studies and Political Science, a Master’s degree in Elementary Education, and ultimately a Doctor of Philosophy in Urban Education and Leadership. Her current research focuses on education policy and practice with a focus on Participatory Action Research.

Her education, in turn, has fueled her work helping young people and as a community organizer and consultant in Bridgeport.

As an education consultant, Vanessa helps lead difficult conversations about race and equity.

As a community organizer in Bridgeport, she has become deeply embedded in efforts that help those who are living in public housing work together to advocate for change.

As Co-Project Director of PT Partners — a grassroots nonprofit that works with residents in low-income, public housing — Vanessa works with partners on project ideas and finds resources and support for them. She also manages all aspects of the resident-led initiative for self-determination and empowerment.

Since PT Partners’ inception, our Foundation has collaborated with and supported its mission and work.

The foundational modeling of PT Partners is structured so that there is no one leader or supervisor. Instead, the organization is considered “leader-full” — meaning resident leaders have the power to make decisions that best benefit the 360-unit apartment community.

The organization not only provides tools and resources for residents but also gives them the power and support they need to engage in making their neighborhood a healthy and safe place to live and work.

That collective power has led to tangible changes and is the impetus behind a campaign to bring back the Gary Crooks Memorial Center – a community center located within PT Barnum Apartments. It was dedicated to the community to be used as an art center for Black culture and to build community awareness. But unfortunately, it has not been used as a community center since the 1980s.

“In this community, there needs to be a space where people can gather safely and build and have ideas,” Vanessa said. “We had to slow down our efforts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are now actively working on a campaign to return Gary Crooks to the community.”

Such work allows Vanessa to proudly fulfill a promise that she made years ago — to use what she has learned to educate the community she loves and help empower others to advocate for change.

“Real activism comes straight from the community,” she said. “The work being done is work that everyone can do from wherever they are. And it won’t work if people don’t believe that they have a role to play.”

PT Partners is a grassroots, resident-led community organizing nonprofit that aims to rebuild community in Bridgeport’s PT Barnum Apartments. Learn more and contribute.