Daylight Begins to Unravel RISA's Dark Side

How Roosevelt Island Failed Its Most Vulnerable Neighbors, Part 2

David Stone
How Roosevelt Island Failed Its Most Vulnerable Neighbors, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we reported on how a bank's negligence opened the door to forgeries that enriched RISA's Program Director, Rema Townsend, and how the Main Street WIRE continues helping out with a misinformation campaign to protect what's known as "New RISA." In Part 2, we take a closer look at Townsend and those who worked with her, either blind to or unconcerned about her antics.

The Unexplained Rema Townsend

Coupling Rema Townsend with her much used alias, Rema Rozay, creates an instant set of paradoxes. 

  • Grifter paired with a proud and loving mom. 
  • Striver who went off course and stole funds intended for seniors. 
  • Cheery optimist turned resentful cynic.
  • Sensible professional and flamboyant opportunist

All of these are Rema Townsend.

There was a time when you could see it in her Rema Rozay Instagram account, now made private and restricted, where soft porn photos and combative, profanity-laced quotes bumped up against fun-loving girlfriend poses, heartwarming photos of Townsend’s daughter Dallas and, with pride, her college degree.

Main Street WIRE articles in support of Townsend have also conveniently disappeared from their website, but the first, published on January 25th, 2003, just after Townsend was hired as Program Director by RISA, described a young woman, five years after receiving her college degree, with several years of nonprofit work experience, eager to put her ideas for improving Senior Center programs to work.

This Rema is upbeat and bubbling with fresh ideas for increasing participation.

We don’t find Townsend reappearing in the WIRE again until last fall. By then, according to Editors Warsing and Dana Agmon, who don’t use their own archives to fact check, Townsend’s five year gap from graduation to Senior Center vanishes.

Townsend is allowed to paint herself as a neophyte without work experience, thrown into the Senior Center, just out of college, where she is surrounded by an incompetent Board and required to do all of their work for them.

In her account, she heroically got the job done in spite of the miserable Board she was stuck with.

Gone is the smile and the determination to contribute creatively.

But in the beginning, Townsend came to work at a Roosevelt Island Senior Center that thrived through the 90s.

The WIRE similarly disappeared a 2015 interview with Dolores Green, RISA’s longtime President, in which she reminisced about the good old days.

"We used to get a lot of funding and have a lot of parties. Now we have no funding. Our grants have dried up,” Green recalled.

"We used to have 300 members, easy. Now we have to struggle to get to 100."

About the loss of grants and other sources of revenue, the ever incurious WIRE never examines this important claim.

But a cursory glance at RISA’s publicly available Form 990 IRS tax filings shows that, in 2014, RISA received more funds than ever before, topping out at over $300,000 for the first time.

And although funds were at an all-time high, complaints from seniors about inadequate services at the RISA run Center were too.

A Different Rema Townsend Emerges — with Friends

As RIRA Common Council Island Services Committee (ISC) Chair Aaron Hamburger recalls from 2015, “We received a number of complaints from senior residents about the lack of programs at the Senior Center that most NYC senior centers have. We also noted that the SC 's leadership was poor and membership had significantly dropped.”

Hamburger’s memory is consistent with what Dolores Green told the Main Street WIRE.

His Committee wanted to help.

But when it came to talk about finances, the apparent source of RISA’s greatest difficulties, Hamburger met headwinds of resistance.

“We had not looked at their finances as yet, but we noted that the SC had financial problems. They seemed to be short on money. Again it was difficult to get any data due to the lack of cooperation from the officers and the people from NYC running most of the operations.”

Hamburger asked ISC Member Anne Kanninen and Ron Davidson to meet with RISA to start a dialogue. 

Representing RISA’s Board at the meeting were Dolores Green, Barbara Parker, and Pilar Sierra. Rema Townsend in her role as Program Director also attended.

There was, by the way, no talk of "Old RISA" or "New RISA." No such division existed. Parker, Green and Townsend were RISA, in all its iterations, period.

Rather than representatives eager to team up with the Common Council to improve opportunities for seniors, Kanninen and Davidson encountered an angry group that objected to assumptions in a letter sent by Kanninen while setting an agenda for the meeting.

No, she and Davidson were told, no matter what anyone read in the WIRE, RISA membership was steady, increasing slightly over the last year. 

Challenging what they insisted was another ISC misunderstanding, the group said that the number and quality of activities were expanding, not limited.  Some classes were often too large to fit in the space provided, RISA claimed.

Finally, although Green was quoted stating the opposite in the Main Street WIRE, in the company of Parker and Townsend, she said an uninterrupted funding stream from the Department of Aging ensured that the basic programs of the Senior Center continued to be offered, although some extra "perks" were not available.

Something was amiss, contradictions abounding between published statements, public consensus and private denials. 

By all accounts from Green (in spite of what she told the WIRE), Parker, Sierra and Townsend, the RISA Senior Center programs were doing fine and not in need of any assistance.

Their claims didn’t square with what was common knowledge in the community (and later confirmed in a Common Council survey), but the conversations never went much farther because Hamburger called off the initiative, following a conversation with Green.

Hamburger does not remember the call, but he told Davidson that he and Kanninen were “poison” with RISA and especially with Green. 

Choosing peace over confrontation and encouraged by RISA’s pledge to elect new officers soon, he thought the wisest choice was to let RISA solve its own problems, even if they denied that any existed.

He was frustrated when the changes he relied on did not take place for another year and, by then, DFTA had kicked RISA out of the Senior Center, but in retrospect, he had little choice.

You can’t force help on the unwilling and uncooperative.

Kanninen’s contemporaneous take on the meeting with RISA, offered in an email to Davidson, makes interesting reading:

“Factually Rema Townsend leads the whole operation by manipulating both Dolores Green and Barbara Parker,” wrote Kanninen. “Any improvements suggested or offered by anybody during several years has been turned down and perceived as attacks. Consequently the sr. center has fallen behind in their services as compared to other sr. centers in the city.”

Stay tuned for Part 3 on how Roosevelt Island Failed Its Most Vulnerable Neighbors.

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