Friday 11th November 2011, Veterans’ Day
Up early to make my way to East Harlem where the Center for Neighborhood Leadership/Public Allies training would take place at the sparkly new Hunter School of Social Work building. The bright white atrium – incongruous in its scruffy, colourful surroundings – is due to become a gallery for local artwork. Upstairs in a classroom space the 10 CNL apprentices and their fellows from Public Allies gathered for their monthly joint training session. Hector Soto, the larger than life director of CNL, and Marissa Guiterrez-Vicario from Public Allies New York welcomed me with a gift of Paul Schmitz book Everyone Leads, launched just last week. Zera, CNL’s assistant director, arrived with the adorable 11-month old Sofia who took the whole thing in her stride.
Hector launched straight in, asking each of us to say one or two words about what “housing” means to us. SAFETY, SHELTER, SANCTUARY, COMFORT, REST & DREAMS, HOME, INTIMATE, ROOTS, CULTURE, A HUMAN RIGHT, A ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD, FAMILY, TRANQUILITY, WARM, PLACE TO KEEP YOUR THINGS. We discussed these in three groups and were asked to come up with 3 sentences that captured our thoughts. Almost everybody had spoken about housing as an ideal in contrast to the perceived hostility of the streets. Housing was a place of shelter where you feel secure and it is a human right to feel safe in the home. Stability and continuity were core ideals and yet… slowly everyone remembered that these are not common, and that in reality ‘housing’ is a business, whether run by private or public landlords, and the odds are rarely stacked in favour of the ideals we had discussed. We began to introduce the idea of ‘housing’ as a process, a verb, raising the question of whose responsibility it is to house others. The discussion included several very personal stories (“when I was young and rebelling my dad always said ‘there’ll always be a roof over your head here'”; “on the way here I overheard a woman shouting at her son, ‘if you leave this house don’t think you’re coming back'”). A series of dualities emerged – the physical/emotional nature of housing, its individual/collective aspects (surprisingly no-one had mentioned neighbourhoods when asked to respond to the word ‘housing’), the dream vs the reality, questions of process and questions of access. Overall I found this an excellent introduction – far more than the usual ‘ice-breaker’ it got people thinking deeply about the topic in preparation.
We then had a series of four speakers which Hector said was unusual and would have been too much except that they were all brilliant.
- Dave Hansell from the Association of Neighbourhood and Housing Development gave a gripping and useful overview of housing issues in New York City since 1974, from abandonment to affordability. Thirty years ago the City invested in private investors to rehabilitate buildings as long as they kept them rent-regulated for 30 years – that time is up now and 40,000 affordable units have been lost while a further 55,000 are at risk. In any case the housing lobby forced through loopholes in the regulatory system and 341,000 units left rent regulation 2001-2008. ANHD’s current focus areas are: locking in permanent affordability to future schemes and tackling predatory equity in which new landlords bought rent-regulated property with bank debt and then caused trouble for tenants to try to force them out so that they could redevelop the blocks at market values. This model has collapsed in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving many of the properties owned by banks unwilling to reduce the price to a level at which new owners might purchase.
- Ericka Stallings from the Initiative for Neighborhood and Citywide Organizing gave an excellent overview of organizing and voiced the relationship with the Occupy movement that has been a feature of all my conversations here. I loved the way she acknowledged that the decentralization of Occupy is alienating for traditional organizers – “never mind the opposition, we the progressives can’t wrap our minds round it so we can’t co-opt it” – and then joked that as she walked round the tent-door she was still saying “who is the person I can email?”
- Rolando Guzman from St Nicks Alliance made me wish I had another day in New York to get to see what sounds more like an English development trust than anything else I’ve come across. In the 1980s when New York was ‘a warzone of abandoned buildings’ there was a fire in a block in Williamsburg. Six families died and many others were left homeless. The St Nick’s pastor worked with local people to rebuild the block and manage it against drugs. Williamsburg was an ex-industrial zone with a gorgeous view (sounds familiar to London’s Thames-side communities). They confronted and campaigned, facilitated and built a stake-holding community that could understand and manipulate the tension between profit and need. 36 years later they own and manage affordable housing (including 1800 units for people with special needs) after-school programmes, business support. Rolando spoke of developing leadership, envisaging the community member in 10 years’ time in a decision-making position. 80% of their workforce has come through this route.
- Kendall Jackman from Picture the Homeless described the vacant properties count undertaken by 300 volunteers throughout NYC over this summer and mapped by supportive experts using inexpensive software that (with a bit of detective work) can track down the owners of each lot. In just one zip code (Central Harlem) the space in vacant buildings could house up to 17,000 people while 72 vacant lots could yield over 2,000 new apartments. Given the history of 30-year agreements in the 1980s that is causing so much loss of affordability right now, permanence is important so the focus is rightly on community land trusts and mutual housing associations. However, Kendall found the Meanwhile approach appealing, particularly in the case of foreclosures like the one that made her homeless while her old house remains empty and in limbo.
On a more prosaic note, I was slightly shocked to find that the programme does not provide any kind of lunch for the trainees. They have a lunch break and out come the sandwiches or they potter off to a local café. Take note ye well-fed Englanders…!
The afternoon session grouped the trainees around the different strategies for social change:
- Community organizing (recruit, train and mobilise people directly affected by problems to create systemic change that addresses the root causes of problems; build people power and the power of an organisation directed by its constituency; build constituent leadership skills; mid to long term; change/modify existing power structures)
- Social service (provide resources or skills to address immediate direct needs; primarily individual impact; usually short term; no real change in power structures)
- Advocacy (represent or work on behalf of the constituency; protect or obtain rights, goods, services, usually for special interest groups; create or respond to legislation, address elected officials and policymakers; medium to long term; structural power changes moderately due to changes in law and/or policy; educate the public, collaborate with researchers and lawyers, testimonial/lobbying)
- Community development
[by which they mean physical development of new housing etc by community development corporations] (focus on building physical infrastructure, finance or construct housing, business parks etc; impact on individual and community; immediate to long term; moderate power shifts usually by building participation; work with agencies, funders and partners)
- Legislative/electoral change (use votes/running for office/candidates to pass legislation to create change; medium to long term; impact on communities, can engage communities; moderate change to power structures through community participation)
Each group chose a housing-related issue to consider from one of these perspectives and used the following questions to guide them:
Who will we serve? How will we serve them? What resources do we need and give? Who else cares about this? Who is against this? Who may be affected but is not involved? Who do we need on our team? Pros, cons, other considerations.
After maybe 90 minutes in their groups they were asked to report back – and what a call to order! It involved Hector doing La Bamba… say no more (I just wish I’d had the camera set to video)!
To be honest, feedback is never brilliant though it is important. I thought it was good that in each case the whole group stood up and reported rather than one poor volunteer from each. Zera kept it moving along: warm and coaxing, she insisted they manage the questions themselves. Baby Sofia is used to it all. She arrived in the world during a training session and she seems to have been to every one since!
I really enjoyed the training day and felt privileged to have met the CNL and Public Allies participants as well as the facilitators and speakers.
There are two additional aspects of CNL that are relevant to our thinking as we develop the Community Organisers programme in England:
- The Fellowship began life as a ‘mid career seminar’ to address the problem of burn-out and convince organisers to stay in the field. It became clear that there’s also need to develop and validate the skills and knowledge that organisers have built up that they can then take with them into other fields (including politics).
- The Strategic Assistance Unit, beginning to be known as the Collaborative, aimed to respond to requests for best practice, sign-posting, peer learning, to develop its own e-library and to see the bigger picture beyond the silos. Talking this through with Hector and later with various others I have met here, there is huge potential for an international, or at least trans-Atlantic approach – ‘organising without borders’ (although we’d have to decide on ‘ess’ vs ‘zee’ which might scupper progress forever if we’re not careful!)
Here’s my favourite picture. It’s got everything – dark night, bright lights, El Barrio restaurant vying with the 1 buck whopper, the ‘popular’ bank (sic) and the Loans R Us pawn shop, and the great combo of Beauty Supply, Gynecology and Dental!
Next post coming soon, in which I leave the Big Apple and land in Motor City…