Local Groups on the Front Lines by Altaf Rahamatulla

Posted on October 11, 2017

Local Groups on the Front Lines

By Altaf Rahamatulla

Cities and states have traditionally been incubators of reform—local policy experiments and innovation have stimulated national discourse and influenced broader efforts. This is especially true in this moment. Though the past year has been marred by rabid anti-immigrant sentiment, consistent assaults on healthcare and the social safety net, and enflamed racial tensions, community groups have provided a glimpse of what is possible in such a fraught climate. Despite instability at the federal level, a number of states and localities have displayed a willingness to lead on proactive, progressive reform. What’s more, the boldest and most pronounced voices advocating for the rights and dignity of immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities are at the local and state level.

New York Foundation grantee partners have engaged in significant civic engagement and base-building efforts, secured historic policy victories, advanced critical social conversations, and forged new partnerships and models of solidarity. Just in the past few months, current and former grantees have been:

  • Protecting immigrant New Yorkers: Several local immigrant rights groups, including Make the Road New York, New York Immigration Coalition, Chhaya CDC, DRUM—Desis Rising Up & Moving, Minkwon Center for Community Action, African Communities Together, Arab American Association of New York, and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, among many others, have bravely responded to flashpoints around immigration through the year. On September 5, the Trump administration moved to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program despite its clear social and economic benefits. This is only one of several decisions made by the administration, ranging from amplified immigration enforcement to the Muslim and refugee bans, which has caused deep fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities. In a matter of days, organizations that have been in constant rapid response mode and called on so heavily in the past year, organized mass mobilizations and demonstrations, hosted informational briefings and Know Your Rights trainings, offered amplified service provision and legal consultation, and moved forward on strategic advocacy. As Murad Awawdeh, Vice President of Advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition remarked in the spring, “This again, is our New York – a city that stands up for everyone.”

  • Expanding language access for immigrants: For the past few years, African Communities Together (ACT), an organization of African immigrants fighting for civil rights and economic opportunity, has been advocating for New York to expand the languages it requires agencies to provide services in to include those widely spoken by African and Arab immigrants. ACT engaged in concerted outreach with government officials and organized its members and allies on the issue. Earlier this year, the New York City Council unanimously passed a bill that expands the number of required languages to include French, Urdu, Arabic, and Polish. As Fatoumata Waggeh, ACT’s Civic Organizer, explains, the policy affirms immigrant rights and has clear national impact, “this language access victory functions as a breakthrough because it shows [the city’s] commitment to protecting immigrants. Places around the country are turning to New York City for information about how to structure their local systems and processes.” In the coming year, ACT aims to ensure full implementation of the expanded language access law and guarantee that city and state agencies are more culturally competent.

  • Securing tenant rights: Tenant advocates celebrated an enormous victory in August 2017, when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the nation’s first right to counsel legislation into law, requiring universal access to legal representation for low-income tenants in the city. The Right to Counsel Coalition of NYC, comprised of tenant organizing and advocacy groups, law schools, and legal service organizations, including Community Action for Safe Apartments, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association and IMPAACT Brooklyn, among several others, has led the effort to advance quality legal representation of tenants in housing court for years. Sixty-five percent of New Yorkers are renters and close to 300,000 New Yorkers are brought to housing court every year to challenge an eviction. Ninety percent of landlords have attorneys in housing court, while 70 percent of tenants do not. In 2015, 22,000 families were evicted in the city, and roughly half would not have been had they had an attorney. The law will be phased in over the course of five years, by zip code. During that time, the Coalition will work to ensure comprehensive implementation. This has already spurred other jurisdictions across the country to consider similar efforts.

  • Ensuring students’ nutrition and success: Following persistent community engagement and coalition-building, Community Food Advocates’(CFA) Lunch 4 Learning campaign commemorated an enormous development on September 6, when New York City Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Free School Lunch for All, which guarantees free lunch to all 1.1 million public school students regardless of socioeconomic status. Since 2013, CFA’s campaign, which is made up over 200 organizations and 60 elected officials that include youth, labor, parents, public health, and anti-hunger groups, has fought to bring universal free school lunch to New York City public schools and improve the health and well-being of low-income New Yorkers. The initiative ensures that more children will receive appropriate nutrition through the day and, as Liz Acles, Executive Director of CFA, notes “put an end to the stigma and other financial barriers that prevent children from receiving the food they need to thrive in our schools.”

  • Advancing conversations on healing and trauma: How Our Lives Link Altogether (H.O.L.L.A.!), a group led by people directly affected by criminalization that focuses on healing as a means to counter the trauma of structural oppression and mass incarceration, hosted a national conference at Columbia School of Social Work in mid-September that brought together youth leaders and criminal justice activists. Their healing framework relies on education, youth leadership development, and organizing to promote individual and community recovery. During the summit, Cory Greene, founder of H.O.L.L.A.!, reflected, “harm happens on an individual level…harm also happens [on] institutional levels…and then, the real question [comes to] courageous grappling.” He spoke deeply of building authentic connections with community, “we’re not just doing any kind of youth leadership; we’re doing block leadership, hood leadership…that’s part of our culture…analysis…and spirit.”

  • Shining a light on the need for fairness in academic standards for all students: Advocates took to the steps of City Hall in September to call on New York City’s Department of Education to release the findings from its investigation of a number of yeshivas for falling short on state requirements to provide education that is “at least substantially equivalent” compared to public schools. Approximately 57,000 students attend ultra-Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in the city, and according to Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), an advocacy group committed to improving educational standards, many of the students will finish school with limited English and math skills, and little knowledge of history or science. This month, YAFFED also released a report, Non-Equivalent: The State of Education in New York City’s Hasidic Yeshivas, writing, “when a group of children has been excluded from receiving an adequate education, and the government turns a blind eye, it is a tragedy that no one can afford to overlook.”

  • Lifting the voice of youth and calling for the end to the school-to-prison pipeline: In late September, Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF), a member-led organization of youth of color in the Rockaways that advances social, economic, and racial justice, joined Urban Youth Collaborative, Make the Road New York, and Dignity in Schools Campaign, at City Hall to call for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and disparate discipline practices, and further, greater investment in supportive programs, employment opportunities, and higher education preparation. As 17-year old RYTF organizer, Andrea Colon, a senior at Rockaway Park High School, fiercely stated at the demonstration, there is a need to “divest from school policing and invest in restorative justice.” The rally came at the heels of an analysis that indicated that while Black and Latino youth represent 67 percent of the student population in New York City, they comprised over 92 percent of arrests, and almost 89 percent of summonses and juvenile reports in city schools in the past year.

  • Fighting against wage theft: In the past few weeks, the New York State Court Appellate Division issued decisions in three cases affirming that it is illegal for employers to pay only 12 hours for 24-hour shifts. For more than two years, home attendants who worked 24 hours a day have been fighting against their employers to recover stolen wages. The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, a multi-trade, multi-ethnic worker center where working people collectively fight for labor and civil rights, has led the Ain’t I A Woman!? campaign to organize home attendants through grassroots, policy, and legal advocacy. As almost 90 percent of home attendants are women, and home care represents one of the fastest growing industries in the country, the campaign, as well as the decisions, has set a significant precedent in the fight against wage theft.

  • Addressing construction safety: In late September, the New York City Council passed a bill mandating enhanced safety training standards for construction sites—a notable step in addressing dire workplace safety issues and an alarming increase in construction accidents and falls, particularly among Latino workers. A January 2017 report on the depth of the health and safety crisis facing New York’s construction workers, finds that Latino workers are disproportionately impacted by unsafe working conditions and “are more likely…to die on the job due to cases of extreme employer recklessness…and more likely to be victims of wage theft, experiencing dual exploitation by their employers.” Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), along with groups like the New York City Day Labor Coalition, are leading the effort to create a culture around safety and guarantee the protection of the lives and rights of workers. WJP plans to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the law through organizing and building worker power.

What emerges from these examples is a basic and fundamental perspective: look locally for solutions and trust in the power and promise of community, especially in moments of adversity.