Maria Forbes

Maria Forbes

  • National Congress of Neighborhood Women Board Member
  • Clay Avenue Tenant Association, President 1990-Present (2020)
  • NYC Emergency Management CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) Chief 2005-Present (2020)
  • Huairou International/National Congress of Neighborhood Women Member 2005-Present (2020)
  • United Nations Habitat Only US Delegate of Public Housing Tenant Association 2016-Present (2020)
  • Maria Forbes INC. CEO 2020

Maria Forbes was born on October 29, 1962 in Manhattan, one in a set of triplets. Her father, William Smith, had immigrated to New York from Belize 15 years earlier and worked as a merchant seaman.  Her mother, Velma Thomas, the great-granddaughter of slaves from North Carolina, grew up to become a mental health therapist.  The family later moved to Highbridge in the Bronx. The youngest of her family of seven, she has always called the Bronx her home. Maria’s mother volunteered as a tenant, civil rights and community advocate. Growing up Maria’s mother worked hard to instill her values of serving the community in her children.  Early on in her life Maria began her community activist career at the age of 13, when she was chosen to represent her school and met the then Mayor of New York City, Abraham Beame, at that time she began speaking out for social change. 

Maria, a single mother of three has served as President of the Clay Avenue Tenants Association in Bronx County since 1990 and in this leadership capacity, she has led Clay Avenue residents to advocate for increased tenant services and community programs.  Maria has worked with several elected officials of various levels in law and government; Borough President, State Senator, City Council, State Assembly, Federal Government, Community Based Organizations, the New York City Housing Authority, etc.  Maria has instilled in the residents of the neighborhood that it takes a group effort to instigate changes, and motivates others to see the same.  Maria has worked to address other issues on Clay Avenue such as improved housing, safe streets, step street maintenance, drug elimination, drug prevention programs for youth, increased youth programs at the Police Athletic League and Stop The Violence forums to mitigate high incidents of crime in the community. She has encouraged our teens and young adults to stay in school and assisted them with employment. 

She is greatly motivated by the fact that there are people in the community who are unable to speak for themselves or to fight for their rights because they lack the knowledge it takes to do so.  She works closely with senior citizens who have sacrificed and given so much in their lifetime, now they need someone to speak for them and that someone is Maria. 

Her most significant achievement was experienced in August of 1995, when her Tenant Association was awarded a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing Urban Development.  This grant funded an opportunity for the Tenant Association to implement a job training readiness and placement program in order to move the tenants from welfare to work.  Subsequent to receiving the grant she was able to incorporate the Tenants Association as a 501C (3) nonprofit organization. Clay Avenue association has been fiscal conduit for the state senate managing over $350,000 for 21 NYCHA developments. Maria is a board member to a gun violence program called Release The Grip (BX Connect), founder of a tenants organization Called Residents Alliance (Community Service Society), A member of the citywide RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration), co-author of the Resident Handbook, and a Community Partner of the 44th PCT.
Maria has been NYC Emergency Management BX Team 4 Chief for CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) since 2005 overseeing the evacuation for CB 4 and on call for any citywide events, she is now the only NYCHA TA president for the USA  that has been serving as a delegate for the UN since 2016. Maria has represented the USA in Quito, Ecuador in 2016, Malaysia in 2018, Nairobi, Kenya in 2019 and has attended the UN assembly to discuss the New Urban Agenda to discuss the 17 sustainable goals for 2030 for Abu Dhabi in February 2020.

Maria has been on the frontlines serving the community during the Covid-19 pandemic, assisting community members with responding to the Census2020, and acquiring free health in surance; serving as a beacon for hope to the community. Maria has made sure meals were brought in to the community; essential PPE was distributed, and kept an open safe space so the community could continue to receive help and services. Continuing to work closely with elected officials to make sure our most vulnerable community members were not left behind in the shuffle and were kept informed. Maria has consistently given her time and energy to serving the underserved, and making sure our youth have opportunities to prosper.

Betty Jean (BJ) Michelsen

Betty Jean (BJ) MichelsenBetty Jean (BJ) Michelsen was a founding member of The National Congress of Neighborhood Women.  She died on December 16, 2017. She was a dear friend and a powerful force for justice. Below is her obituary.  

Lebanon, N.H. — Betty Jean (BJ) Michelsen died on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017 – peacefully and easily in the Green Street home that she loved with the care and support of family; good friends – both old and new; neighbors; members of her close-knit support group the “Hot Tub Chicks”; fellow UV United Unitarian Universalist Church members; and a team of compassionate, professional caregivers who traveled along in BJ’s journey. BJ was diagnosed with lung cancer two and a half years ago. She was a trooper and an eternal optimist as she challenged the illness. Continue reading

Caroline Pezzullo

Caroline Pezzullo

Photo by Martha Stuart Communications, March 1980

Caroline was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Her interest in social justice led her to join the Young Christian Workers in her youth.  Her experience working in development transformed into a commitment to empowering grassroots women globally. In the mid-1980s she became leader and board member of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW), where she co-designed the Annual Institute on Women and Community Development. Caroline’s vision of a network of grassroots women’s organizations that would act and speak on their own behalf in global development arenas became Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Continue reading

1995 – Beijing Conference and Huairou Commission


‘The founding members and leaders of the Huairou Commission (HC) came out of the global women’s movement, working relentlessly to advance women’s meaningful participation in UN conferences and other global processes.  Among them we find members of Neighborhood Women and GROOTS. Grassroots women’s groups were largely absent from these global processes  for years.  A common concern was growing among women committed to advancing grassroots women in development Continue reading

1985 – GROOTS


As grassroots women we learn from one another in solidarity. Let all policymakers recognize for once and forever that our concerns are part of increasingly larger agendas- so that our vision will positively impact the effects of development on the lives of everyone.’

GROOTS International Network News, Vol. 1 Issue 1, June 1992
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1982 – Neighborhood Women Living and Learning Centers

‘After thirty years in separate communities, we are ready to institutionalize the gains and insights of our local places. We’ve shared leadership support training and methodologies, annual institutes on community development and peer-to-peer exchanges. We have applied these learning to our community work. Our works are making an impact, our works have attracted partners. Our works, our style and our operating principles are being shared with larger numbers of local people. We are opening our doors to visitors, insisting that to learn from us requires submersing oneself in the community. Continue reading

1980s – Institute of Women Community Development


‘As grassroots women and professional women from outside the neighborhood find each other and commit to the support of grassroots neighborhoods, partnerships emerge. They have a shared perspective about the connection between global and local issues. They identify with the seed, with the base, with the beginnings of social creations.’

Marie Cirillo, NW Board
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1978 – Leadership Support Process

‘The education is that we had to change the nature of how women learned and make it communal and familial. We set up a community-based college because otherwise our education systems were draining all the best leaders away from the community, making them not appreciate their community and families. Then we created leadership support and women had to learn how to work with each other and support each other and not be competing with each other. They also had to learn how to do that. We established methods, tools and basic agreements on how women could work effectively to build and operate organizations. We saw that women leaders usually stayed in one place and they couldn’t delegate. They were leaders doing all the work and not learning really how to build real organizations, and learning to move within their communities.

Jan Peterson, NW Founder

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1975 – First Conferences

1976 National Conference

“For years we neighborhood women have been working to improve our communities. We have done it unrecognized, often unthanked, and almost always without the help we have needed to be truly effective… The National Congress Of Neighborhood Women wants to change that. COME TO OUR NATIONAL CONFERENCE AND SEE FOR YOURSELF!”

Flyer NCNW National Conference, Neighborhood Women a Call for Action, 1976 Continue reading

Marie Cirillo

Marie CirilloMarie Cirillo, a Brooklyn native, left her home at age19 to join the Catholic Order of the Glenmary Home Mission Sisters of America in Ohio. She worked in impoverished and rural areas as a teacher, cook and missionary. Marie was encouraged by the order to attend college in Chicago, where she demonstrated a special interest on rural outmigration and complemented her studies with extensive fieldwork in Appalachia. After 18 years as a nun, Marie left the order to form along with other former Glenmary Sisters the  Continue reading