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Hope Harley

Cofounder and President of the Board, Bronx Children’s Museum

The Bronx Children’s Museum Connects Urban Youth With Nature

The Bronx has a population of 1.4 million, including 250,000 children under 9 years old, and when we began was the only one of New York City’s five boroughs without a children’s museum. The mission of the Bronx Children's Museum is to inspire kids and their families to learn about, experience and appreciate the natural and cultural diversity of where they live and in turn recognize and value those elements in the world beyond.

The problem I am trying to solve

Rather than calling it a problem, we saw a void that needed to be filled, especially since life in the Bronx is challenging for many of its residents. Although it is home to the poorest congressional district in the country and has been disproportionately hard hit by COVID-19, it is a wonderful, vibrant community that deserves to have the same cultural and educational opportunities as every other borough. We introduce children to the people, places, cultures and history of the Bronx through dance, art, literacy and science. We believe that all children matter, and we encourage them to dream big.

The moment that sparked my passion

I was living and working in the Bronx in 2005 when I was invited by the then–borough president to a meeting about creating a children’s museum. I didn’t grow up in wealth, but Brooklyn, where I’m from, did have a children’s museum. My Brooklyn neighborhood had all the issues of low-income urban areas, so to be able to spend Saturdays exploring and playing in a safe, nurturing environment was a godsend to me and my parents.

It didn’t seem fair that the Bronx didn’t have anything like that. The children of the Bronx deserve to have as much, if not more, as everybody else. After I retired in 2007, I agreed to head the board of the Bronx Children’s Museum, and here I still am. Over the years, there have been many, many times I’ve said that this isn’t going to work, but each time something positive happened that reignited my feeling that this can and had to be done.

What I wish other people knew

What I’ve learned is how much energy and perseverance it takes and how important it is to have good people around you, because in the down moments there’s always someone who says, “Get back on track,” and in the up moments they remind me that there’s still work to do. I wish people knew how satisfying and empowering it is to see something go from an idea to a reality. I also want people to understand that it’s not the building that makes us a museum, since we don’t have one.

The Bronx Children’s Museum is a new paradigm for what a museum can be. Most museums find a space, decide on exhibits, invite people to come, then maybe do outreach. But we have always had to do things differently. That includes taking our big, purple school bus, which was donated to us eight years ago, to street festivals, schools, fairs and anywhere else that invites us, with our traveling exhibits.

The great news is that we’ve engaged 115,000 children, and in 2021 we’ll move into our very own building.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Don’t think you know everything. Start from ignorance and find people who can provide information that helps you move forward. Find the people who can move from ideas to reality. In 2005, I didn’t know anything about starting a museum — if it had been up to me alone, the Bronx Children’s Museum probably would have looked like every other children’s museum in the country. No one does it alone. We have benefited most from the consistent leadership of our extraordinary executive director, who has assembled a dedicated, committed staff.

Why my approach is unique

We let the community guide us. Parents, educators, local organizations, health practitioners, our board and advisers, and the children themselves all play a role in creating what we believe is a world-class institution called Bronx Children’s Museum.

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