NYC 2 – Occupied Wall Street, Good Old Lower East Side & University Settlement

On Thursday I went to see whether the original #Occupy is as well organised as Occupy London Stock Exchange, which I visited just before coming away on this US trip. I was much reassured by the similarities. Apart from the accents they have everything in common – the same focus on living democracy minute-by-minute, the same witty posters, the same cramped-up tents and workshop schedules, and always the dogs of the occupation looking on with their sad, loyal eyes. But most of all: open, friendly, peaceful people with the shared knowledge that they are on the big side of the 99%:1% dividing line.

From Wall Street to the Lower East Side, a neighbourhood that stole my heart as soon as I emerged from the subway into glorious sunshine. The perfect mix of grit and vibrancy, though suffering from not having had a development trust (community development corporation) to buy up properties and keep them affordable against the gentrifying tide.

Demaris Reyes introduced me to Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). Another of the hosts for the Center for Neighborhood Leadership apprentice organisers, they are 35 years old next year and best known for tenant organizing focusing on housing, land use, economic justice and environmental public health. There are several aspects within these which each have their own organizer working with a series of steering committees made up of members of GOLES. They all come together into the organizing committee (they’re considering the name Tenant Union) for strategic planning and then the steering committees work to develop tactics and implementation.

Demaris was explicit about the links that keep coming up in conversation between social service, learning and organising. GOLES provide direct services “because the problems are immediate and urgent” but they see this as relationship-building rather than service for its own sake. They provide training – everything from workshops on technical issues (’10 things your landlord doesn’t want you to know’) to training for organizers and leaders, including outreach, listening, public speaking, campaign planning, political science and the vocabulary of change. And they do organizing, working with those directly affected to get to the root causes and build the power to make change happen.

In the CNL programme, unlike our Community Organisers, the host must identify an issue and a plan of work for the apprentice. Demaris decided that their CNL apprentice Nikita would focus on economic/financial justice. They had a successful campaign with a group of retail workers some years ago, winning a $1.4m settlement in back pay and union card neutrality. Nikita is starting again with outreach and one-to-ones, what are people interested in, what makes them angry, what do they want to know more about? In the early meetings she is asking what people think of #occupywallstreet? Do they feel part of it? Who is the 99% and why? She is base-building, finding a ‘population’ of her own (rather than cannibalising and overloading those of the other organizers. They will partner with a specialist organization to offer training that explores the financial practices that target low-income people of color, ensuring there is a ‘takeaway’ – “planting a seed and you don’t know where that plant is going to sprout”.

One emerging worry is the ‘lobbying designation’. If you meet with an elected official or attend a rally, if you spend more than $2,000 on this kind of work then you have to register and file quarterly reports on your activities – a burden Demaris perceives as part of the US crackdown on organizing.

After a great lunch which included meeting Hector at last, my next stop, a few blocks away was another neighborhood institution – much larger and 90 years older. Established in 1886, University Settlement was the first settlement house in the US, inspired by Toynbee Hall, the oldest Locality member (founded 1884). I met with Jennifer Vallone who oversees Project Home and had recently returned from the Locality Convention in Manchester.

As with Queens Community House, the scale was bigger than most English settlements – 20 locations, $21m pa budget, working in Brooklyn and Harlem as well as LES. Although individual programmes have community advisory boards, there is no membership and the main board is ‘bigwigs’ who have a ‘give or get’ role and don’t often meet in the LES neighborhood. We talked about another key difference from Locality members who are ‘community anchors’, supporting and hosting other delivery organisations in their buildings rather than delivering all the services directly. Jennifer had sometimes wondered if running the buildings wasn’t distracting from the true mission (a question I know Locality members make sure they ask themselves regularly).

The University Settlement approach to ‘organizing’ is that staff are encouraged to be involved in policy work that affects the neighborhood. They pick issues that span various service programmes – eg welfare, language services – and work on petitions, rallies, meetings etc. Every year they take a group to Albany to talk to elected officials about the annual budget-setting. Jennifer felt their impact on the budget may be small but the opportunities for personal and group development are significant.

We went to meet Melissa Aase in the main building which is almost entirely given over to children’s services, with all the liveliness and cute tiny furniture that brings, along with a mental health service in the basement where they employ their own psychotherapist. Melissa told me about the 50-year battle over the development of a nearby city block which was finally developed to include community facilities jointly owned and managed by University Settlement and the New York YMCA. One of the wonders of the here-forever nature of our movement is its sheer staying power!

Back in Queens I had dinner with Irma and her young cousin Julie, along with Mary who supervises QCH’s community organizers. We had a good talk about the perverse outcomes and contradictions of the welfare systems on both sides of the Atlantic, the way they create and reinforce terrible dependency and then blame the people with least power for being trapped. I introduced the idea of the Community Allowance. Supporting work that is transitional for the individual and good for the neighbourhood. A win-win-win approach that helps individuals, local communities and wider society, rethinking what ‘work’ could mean in society. A million miles away from the whiplash of workfare and I believe it would be a million times more effective – they loved it!

Next blog will report back on the CNL Training Day – the topic for the day was ‘housing’ and Hector promised to change our view of what that meant.

I’ll also try to cover the other aspects of CNL – the Fellowship and the Strategic Assistance Unit (aka the Collaborative)

At some point I’ll catch up with myself…

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