Commotion erupts in the South Bronx: staccato, piercing shouts punctuated by thunderous stomps. These are the sounds of peace in McKinley public housing—joyful noise caused by the South Bronx McKinley Clovers, an all-girl step team, celebrating life.
Each of the teenage girls’ claps and shouts acts as a counterbalance to the cacophony of fighting, arguments and gunshots that formed the soundtrack to their childhood.
Step is rooted in traditional African foot dances that use the body to generate sound. The gumboot dance, for example, communicated messages by South African miners forbidden to talk. Today, the Clovers message of peace is carried throughout their community on their echoing steps.
Pouring their passion into their vibrant moves, these girls advocate against for harmony and raise hope. Since first getting involved with WE in 2015, the Clovers have transformed from an after-school club into a powerful force in the South Bronx through WE Volunteer Now, a campaign empowering students to take action through transformative volunteer projects.
The Clovers were formed in 2012 by Alisa Pratt, a mother figure who naturally dominates the room with her effervescent personality. Now Program Director, Pratt was looking to keep the girls safe and off the street while providing an outlet for their enthusiasm and energy. “We saw people getting shot, we couldn’t go outside, and I said to myself, we have to come together and do something,” Pratt reflects. “The group has become a safe haven.”
In their early days, the Clovers tried cheerleading, then dance, but neither fit. When they experimented with step, the percussive, eye-catching medium immediately spoke to them and they began imbuing a message into their moves, chanting about peace and calling on their community to stand with them against violence.
“It’s different to see a group of women making loud noises,” says Clovers member Deliya Bright. Known as Lala to her friends, the other girls descend into fits of self-conscious laughter as she speaks. “When you see us, you may not expect much, we might look fragile, but when we step, we put our feelings into it and that is power.”
Behind their passion for peace, they all have stories to share, experiences that add force to their steps and guttural chants; for some, the cause hits especially close to home.
“My cousin was shot in front of me,” Lala confides. She was in Grade 6, he was a few years older; it was his birthday and the two were on the street in their neighborhood when shots rang out. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t run, I didn’t react, I just froze. He grabbed me and pushed me and that’s when he was hit. He saved me.”
Lala, like many of the Clovers, deals with frustration and anger over what she’s experienced—but she channels it into passion as she steps. “When she felt it, we all felt it,” explains Pratt. “So now when we step, we’re even louder.”
That noise has garnered them respect in their community—and brought them into the orbit of many outside of it—as their activism has earned them invitations to perform on MTV, at The Apollo and at numerous other special events.
But it was Pratt’s participation in WE Volunteer Now, she says, that empowered them to become community leaders and step up in big ways to transform their neighborhood through volunteerism. Since getting involved with WE, the girls have collected food for the homeless, hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas events for families in need, volunteered at their church and tutored classmates. They’ve become a beacon of hope.
And many have gone on to college, fulfilling Pratt’s dreams for them. New members, meanwhile, have joined the crew. “I’m going to be here, preparing the next group to achieve,” she says solemnly. “I always tell them, step strong and step proud.”
The Clovers are making noise. And people are listening.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.