Reflections: New York Communities for Change

What have I learned about social justice work?

Professor Wallace concluded ED170A, “Critical Perspectives in Urban Education” by distinguishing between social service and social justice. Social service, he said, is relief from systems of oppression. Social Justice means changing the structures that make that service necessary. However, changing systems takes time.

One thing I’ve learned from my time at NYCC, is that an effective community organization needs a balance of social service and social justice initiatives. Because social justice fights are long and drawn out, it’s important to offer social services to keep community members engaged and motivated.

Let me give an example. East New York and Brownsville are sections of Brooklyn that have been hit hardest by gentrification and years of under-investment. These neighborhoods have high unemployment and homelessness rates. NYCC has a worker’s committee in East New York and Brownsville with the long terms goal of ensuring that De Blasio’s $1.35 billion job plan results in permanent jobs with living wages and a provision focused on youth training. However, that fight will take years of political pressure and protest. In the meantime, we are partnering with job training programs like Pathways 2 Apprenticeship to help residents find jobs within a broken system. P2A does not change the system, but it provides a measure of relief.

Another lesson I learned about social justice work is the importance of messaging and controlling the narrative. Let me give an example. New York City subways are in a state of emergency. NYCC could fight this problem from any number of angles. For instance, they could focus on safety issues, delays, derailments, fare hikes, or the criminalization of turnstile jumping. However, NYCC has made a concerted effort to link the crisis to the fact that rich people and wall street are not paying their fair share of taxes. To that aim, last Friday we held a rally outside of Blackstone executive Steven Schwarzman’s house.

 

We linked the action with Trumps Tax Plan with the hashtag #TrumpsTaxPlan and signs like “No More Giveaways to Billionaires.” In response, de Blasio announced a plan to fund MTA repairs by taxing the rich. Wild! I couldn’t believe it. NYCC leveraged this issue to achieve a specific policy aim. That is the power of messaging. You have to know not just what your fighting against, but also what your fighting for.

 

What advice would I give to someone  who wants to pursue an internship  in my organization or field?

I would advise people to focus on building relationships. This is the most important part of community organizing. Build relationships with members. Build relationships with colleagues. Build relationships with people in the community. Community organizing blurs the line between work and leisure. It’s okay to enjoy your time with folks or take time out of your leisure to build relationships with people. For instance, one of the most meaningful parts of my summer was attending a church of one the members of NYCC. I got to see him in a different environment.

I would advise folks to ask all your colleagues how you can help. For me, I am given high autonomy in my internship role and sometimes I don’t have a lot to do in the office. The best way to find tasks was by asking my colleagues if I could help them. I learned a lot by befriending the communication team and assisting them with social media outreach. Ask organizers if you can shadow them. This is the best way to learn about on-the-ground organizing.

-Gabriel Fontes

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