[From La Guardia airport on the way to Detroit, 12 Nov 2011]
I have spent the last 4 days visiting a community organizing development programme in New York City which has striking similarities to our emerging home-grown Community Organisers programme in England. I am indebted to all the wonderful people involved who looked after me so kindly and made the trip so useful and inspirational.
Sometimes it is said that Americans think they know it all about regeneration and aren’t interested in learning from the rest of the world. I didn’t find that at all. They were fascinated by the scale and ambition of our programme, and as bewildered and entertained as we are by the fact that it is initiated and supported by the British Government! We began to use the short-hand of the ‘ess’ (organising) and the ‘zee’ (organizing) to capture the differences between the Programmes and the attitudes on either side of the Atlantic.
The Center for Neighborhood Leadership (CNL), directed by Hector Soto, recruits 10 apprentices each year to be hosted as community organizers by 10 local organizations.
The programme was put together by two umbrella organizations, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) and the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) in partnership with Public Allies, a national institution funded through Americorps. Apprentices are paid a stipend and health benefits for 10 months during which they have two 3-day retreats and weekly trainings every Friday, while working 4 days a week for their host organisations. At the end they receive an education grant which they can use for college courses, to pay off student loans or for other costs like buying a computer for further study.
I spent time with Hector and with two of the hosts getting to understand the programme in detail and was privileged to join the apprentices at a whole-day training as well as meeting their supervisors and former apprentices.
Let’s start where I did on Wednesday with the wonderful Irma Rodriguez of Queens Community House (QCH) who has taught community organizing for 17 years, serves on the CNL advisory group and has hosted apprentices in all three years of the programme to date. QCH has 20 sites across the borough of Queens, including Jackson Heights, the most diverse area in the whole of the US. Their work is primarily with immigrants, including about 30% undocumented, and is anchored by a superb 5-level ESOL programme. As with all their services, this both meets a direct need and acts as a tool for engagement, in this case using the common goal of learning English as a unifying force.
After meeting with Anna, one of QCH’s experienced organisers, Joel, their current apprentice and Farzana, the CNL apprentice from the first year of the programme, we visited one of the classrooms – which included students from Mexico, Ecuador, Bangladesh, China, and Tibet. The teacher, Bruce Armstrong, immediately turned our presence into a learning opportunity. Called ‘master-teachers’, the tutors are full-time and relatively well paid with proper benefits. They are engaged with the wider work, making it easy for QCH’s community organizers to come into the classrooms and talk to the groups about wider issues. The benefits of this recruiting ground became clear when I attended a meeting with some ESOL learners who had been identified by their teachers as potential community leaders. Anna and Joel led them through the aims of the proposed Emerging Leaders training and all of them signed up, saying they saw it as a way to practise their English and learn how to help their families and their community. Anna said she is often asked by more traditional neighbourhood groups (Friends of the parks etc) whether she can “bring people out” to public meetings; there is a sense that they would ‘add color’. The entrepreneur in me saw that the 500 people who use the ESOL service every day are a great resource for QCH, not just as a base for their own work but to ‘sell access’ to those who don’t know how (or can’t make the effort) to reach such a diversity of voices yet need to hear them to build their own credibility.
Farzana told me her story of coming from Bangladesh where she was a teacher, angry about corruption, child labor and the lack of women’s rights but powerless to do anything about it alone. Arriving in New York to join her husband, she came to QCH for the ESOL, got involved in the Community Action Group and then became QCH’s first apprentice. The 3-day CNL retreat was the first time she’d been away from family; now she has “learned this country’s civics” and can advocate for her community – by which she meant the whole neighbourhood rather than a particular ethnic group (I checked). Her dream was to provide housing assistance at Jackson Heights. She started that during the apprenticeship and continues now. She is self-consciously a role model – at first she says South Asian people just want her to get them a job but after a while “they look at me and think ‘she’s got freedom’ and that matters.”
Over lunch we were joined by Amy, another QCH organizer who has been helping to introduce a farmers’ market in a different Queens neighbourhood. The conversation ranged widely around attitudes to organising. It’s not an easy term here, having been slandered by the political Right as “Obama’s socialist army” (shades of “Mr Cameron’s Big Society”?). No one wants to be “the next Acorn” who were destroyed by a smear campaign that turned out to be fabricated but created a toxic atmosphere that makes groups like Public Allies understandably nervous.
Next post includes a trip to Occupied Wall Street, time with Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) and a visit to the University Settlement.
For now here’s the view from the top of the Empire State Building…!