Blog Post 3: New York Communities for Change

Prompt: What does change or progress look like at your organization?

Change for me starts small. It’s shifting one man’s stature and expression. He’s hunched over his phone, eyes narrowed, scrolling aimlessly; shoulders squared away from me.

I get a hard profile to talk to. All stubble, snapback and tired eyes.

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“Good.”  He mumbles still not looking up from his phone.

“My name is Gabriel. I work for New York Communities for Change, a local community organization that fights for affordable housing, good jobs and other issues like that.”

He looks up from his screen.

“We’re here in East New York to demand a real investment in good jobs with living wages. What do you think of the job situation in East New York?”

He shrugs. Eyes though, are scanning me and the petition I’m holding.

“Do you feel like there are a lot of job opportunities?”

“I mean…” And then it happens. He shifts his hips and shoulders so that they are squared to me.

This is the first small change.

These days I am doing field work in East New York and Brownsville to invite folks to our worker’s committee meetings. I visit Workforce 1 centers, SNAP offices, parks, housing projects, bus stops and other locations to meet local residents and talk to the them about the aims of the worker’s committee. The worker’s committee connects folks with job opportunities as well as fights for government investment in permanent job programs with living wages in East New York and Brownsville.

The first change might seem small – just a shift in posture – but hopefully that is the start of a real conversation. Maybe he will sign my petition. Maybe we will meet one on one. Maybe that will be the start of a real organizing relationship. Maybe he will come to our first meeting. Maybe he will invite his friends. Maybe he will become a leader in the worker’s committee.

Engaging one individual and bringing them into our community of activists is a profound change. Chris Chrass wrote, “Capitalism and other systems of oppression are designed to make almost everyone feel inadequate, isolated and powerless.” These systems of oppression thrive off of people feeling separated from their internal power and communal power in numbers. In this way, even bringing just one person into NYCC’s community can be a profound change.

A single worker voicing a complaint will not be able to change an institution or years of under-investment in East New York and Brownsville. However, once workers, unemployed and underemployed folks are able to come together and agree on specific demands, a number of strategies can take place to promote change. Common NYCC tactics include publishing reports, creating press conferences, rallies, marches, strikes and protests. A working relationship with the press is crucial to building public support and antagonizing bad employers or corrupt politicians.

For instance, when the #fightfor15 started in 2012, people laughed at the prospect of more than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to the demanded for $15. Today, over 22 million people across the country have won raises thanks to the collective power and tireless fighting of the workers and organizers behind the campaign.

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

Blog post # 4: New York Communities for Change

Hello everybody!

This is Gabriel. Back for my fourth blog post in as many weeks. Today I am answering the prompt:

What skills are you gaining and how will you employ those skills in the future (at Brandeis or beyond)?

One concrete skill I am learning at NYCC is the ability to use Powerbase. Powerbase is an open source database tool for organizing. With Powerbase I can input contact information, communication preferences and more for all the people I meet. I can also log when our contacts attend meetings or 1-on-1s or make commitments. José Gonzalez, the Director of Data Initiatives and Research for NYCC, wrote about how data collection has expanded NYCC’s political and financial capacity: “PowerBase has allowed us to create a realistic landscape of our membership and its characteristics. Because we are able to quantify the amount of members we have and document where they live, we are able to put forth an actual number that illustrates the support the organization has and therefore our political power. We are also able to qualify for funding through grants because of the same numbers.”

While Powerbase is valuable at organization-wide level it also helpful to the individual organizer. It helps me keep track of who I have contacted, when I first met them and how our phones calls or other communications have gone.  In conjunction with Hustle, Powerbase allows me to send out mass text messages reminding folks about meetings or upcoming actions.

Images from our #TenantMarch in DC

I did not foresee gaining technological skills at NYCC. However, I did anticipate learning about how to build relationships with folks and motivate them to join our cause. Throughout my time speaking to people at workforce centers, community centers, parks, bus stops, apartment complexes, barbershops and other local business, I am learning how to best present myself and frame issues in ways that are most likely to resonate and inspire people to join. Every person is different and I have to find that mutual ground. Especially coming as a white dude from Western Mass, I can’t front and pretend like we are all in the same boat. I can’t organize the same as my colleagues who grew up in Brownsville. However, if I come grounded, with an understanding of why I am doing the work and where I stand in the fight I find that I am super comfortable speaking with folks and making a connection. While I am comfortable starting the conversation, I’ve had a harder time getting folks to commit and come to meetings. I don’t like to demand things of people in my daily life. I am working on becoming more firm and insistent. My confidence grows as I understand and build faith in the mission of NYCC.

All these skills are transferable to my future career as an educator. Comfort with data collection and organization is helpful to almost any organization that works with a large contact list. I could foresee a school wanting to send out automated messages to parents from different grade levels or classes. However, the most transferable skill is building relationships and motivating people. Building a strong relationship with my future students and making a connection between their lived experiences and the content material will be incredibly helpful. Motivating them to follow and do their homework will be my biggest challenge.


Post #2: New York Communities for Change

Hello all!

I’m back this week to answer the prompt:  What have you learned at Brandeis that informs your thinking about your organization’s work?

Answer: At Brandeis, I learned about how the Federal Housing Authority and the GI Bill systematically excluded Black and Brown families from the growing American middle class. Learning how the U.S. government leveraged housing discrimination and loan programs to exclude Black and Brown communities from the American middle class helps me understand the communities I am working with. It helps me understand the financial insecurity a lot of folks face. It helps me understand that the fight for equality is a never-ending battle against a system built on discrimination.

Federal Housing Authority & Redlining

In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) as part of the “New Deal” effort to bring the United States out of the Great Depression. The FHA was created to issue and regulate mortgages and allowed millions of Americans to afford a down payment on a house for the first time. Unfortunately, millions of Black Americans were shut out from the dream of home ownership due to a discriminatory practice called redlining.

The FHA created “residential security maps” like the one shown below to determine which neighborhoods were eligible to receive low-interest loans. Low-income majority minority neighborhoods were outlined in red ink indicating that they were “high risk.” High risk neighborhoods were outright denied loans or were only eligible to receive high-interest, short-term mortgages. A 1938 FHA manual even explicitly instructed banks to steer clear of areas with “inharmonious racial groups” and pushed local governments to create zoning laws that enforce racial segregation. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Ghetto is Public Policy.”

Further reading: How We Built the Ghettos – Jamelle Bouie

GI Bill

The GI Bill is credited by many experts as establishing the American middle class by providing a number of services to veterans including generous low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans, unemployment compensation, job training programs and college tuition and fees. Overall, the bill was a tremendous success, helping over 16 million veterans attend college, receive job training, start businesses or purchase their first home.  However, in the words of historian Ira Katznelson, the GI Bill was “deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.”

Take the state of Mississippi: By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been assigned jobs by the state employment service. 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by white people and 92 percent of the unskilled jobs, by Black people. Between 1945 and 1960, only two of the 3,200 loans provided were given to Black veterans.

However, this was not just a Southern issue. Housing discrimination was rampant in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. In New York and New Jersey, “fewer than 100 of the 67,00 mortgages insure by the GI Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.”

Homeownership has been the primary path for millions of Americans to accumulate private wealth. Today, seventy-three percent of white people own a home, compared to only 45% of Black people. The average white homeowner’s house is worth $85,000 compared to only $50,000 for the average Black home. The average Black household has only 6 percent of the wealth of the average white family. These disparities are an inevitable result of the discriminatory implementation of the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration.



At NYCC I work with community members who are fighting back against “urban renewal” or “redevelopment” plans that accelerate gentrification. The progression of these projects is pretty formulaic: First, a corporate real estate developer funds a local politician’s campaign or otherwise buys them off. Next, the politician gives public land and taxpayer money to the developer to build luxury condos in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. For an example of this phenomenon please read this report on the Bedford Armory Development project in Crown Heights.

What I learned at Brandeis helps me understand that these gentrification projects are not a new phenomenon. They are merely another manifestation of state sanctioned racial housing discrimination. People in power will always uphold the status quo unless pushed to do otherwise.

New York Communities for Change


My name is Gabriel Fontes. I am an aspiring high school English teacher and this summer I am interning with New York Communities for Change. NYCC is a community organization dedicated to preserving affordable housing, good jobs and living wages, holding Wall Street accountable, and pursuing education and climate justice. NYCC was a lead organization in the “Real Affordability for All” coalition which helped win a landmark victory for affordable housing last year and a lead organization in New York City’s successful “Fight for 15” campaign which secured a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers.

I am situated in the Labor Organizing Division of NYCC. We fight wage theft, inadequate wages, confusing and unfair scheduling, unsafe working conditions and more. I have been working with organizers who are based primarily in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, working with Latino immigrants. I have been working through our phone lists, checking in with members and encouraging them to attend our various actions. For instance, on June 19th, we traveled to Albany to advocate for the passage of S.2664, a bill which “Requires car wash workers in a city with one million or more to be paid the minimum wage without allowance for gratuities.”

On June 12th, we held a rally outside of the Federal Reserve office to urge New York Federal Reserve President, William Dudley, to vote against raising interest rates. Dudley is one of 12 regional presidents, four of whom are former Goldman Sachs executives! Why should Goldman Sachs be making decisions that affect real working families? The economic recovery from the great recession has not yet reached low income Black and Latino communities. Higher interest rates will decrease wages and hiring and make debts more expensive. We were there to make our voices heard and raise awareness on the upcoming vote.

These are just two of the dozen actions that NYCC has led in the two weeks I have been here. To keep up to date visit: or follow us on twitter @nycommunities.

Most of the conversations I have with members are in Spanish, which has been a welcome challenge for me. Spanish fluency is just one of many critical skills I hope to gain this summer. I decided to work at NYCC after reading about community organizing approaches to educational justice in Professor Wallace’s course, “Critical Perspectives in Urban Education”. For instance, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, created a program called Nueva Generacion which trained community members to become bilingual teachers. Their model was so successful that it was replicated across the state of Illinois. How inspiring!!

In my future career as a teacher I hope to mobilize students and their families to advocate for better services, culturally relevant pedagogy and more. To this end, I hope that my time at NYCC helps me to gain interpersonal community organizing skills and knowledge of macro-level campaign tactics.

It is with great gratitude that I begin this journey. Thank you to all the folks at NYCC who have generously mentored me and the generous support of all the folks at the Hiatt Career Center, particularly Sonia Liang, who believed in my vision for this summer.

Gabriel Fontes