In many ways, it could be said that the New York Foundation did not come to the decision to support community organizing so much as the term came to define what our grantees were already doing in their work.
Our early trustees, who were the venture capitalists of their day, did not see themselves as experts in social change. Most philanthropists in the early 1900s followed the lead of Carnegie and Rockefeller, who thought that successful industrialists should put their business acumen to work to solve social problems. Instead, our trustees were interested in taking the lead from people who do the work on the ground. Acknowledging their responsibility to the community, trustees made grants in response to the concerns that community-based organizations identified as urgent, and the opportunities they decided to pursue. We still practice grant-making in a way that reflects our belief in the expertise and capability of community leaders. The Foundation’s early trustees also felt that too many philanthropists treated obstacles faced by individuals as the result of personal deficiencies, and therefore funded solutions that attempted to correct individual behavior. Our trustees believed that structural forces-both social and economic-negatively impacted large segments of society and that we had a collective responsibility for the well-being of all New Yorkers, especially those in low-income neighborhoods or who were marginalized in some way. They also wanted to take risks by making grants to organizations that were testing new ideas, trying out new strategies, and tackling issues that had not yet received public attention.
Community Organizing as a Theory of Change
Today, the New York Foundation defines community organizing as an approach that:
- brings people together to identify issues and take joint action to bring about change;
- draws on a broad constituency that shapes and guides their agenda;
- develops and trains leaders; and
- works to promote accountability.
More than 6,000 organizations in the United States use some form of community organizing to carry out their missions. These organizations harness the power of individuals-not the government, business, academia, the media or anyone else-to set their own priorities. Members and constituents develop skills to act on those priorities. Like the Foundation’s earliest grantees, these organizations aim to change public and private policies to make them more responsive to the needs of the people closest to the problem. And because New York City is dynamic and complex, these organizations work on a range of issues, responding to what is urgent and where there are opportunities for change to happen. This is also consistent with what our early trustees set out to do:
“The problems attacked have been both those requiring relatively quick results: social tensions, health, educational shortcomings, emergency situations arising out of the war; and others for which long range solutions have been sought. Many larger foundations, more rigidly committed to a specific line of action, have been unable to help in these fields. In any case, the New York Foundation has been guided by the practical, rather than theoretical, possibilities of a given program. With its limited resources, any other course would have been wasteful….The Foundation has followed a policy of complete flexibility in adapting itself to the changing times.” (Source: Forty Year Report of the New York Foundation, 1909-1949)
Queens as a case study
On May 16, 2014, the New York Foundation organized a board site visit in Queens, using Elmhurst and Jackson Heights as a backdrop to explore what community organizing looks like. The borough of Queens has seen significant growth in the number and the capacity of nonprofit organizations that use community organizing as a tool to transform neighborhoods and improve the lives of residents.
Three case studies will illustrate how our grantees use community organizing to engage workers, immigrants, and communities of faith. Conversations will provide a deeper understanding of the structure and dynamics of organizing and how our grantees are able to build constituent power to tackle complex and politically challenging social issues.The three case studies explored:
- Faith in New York, a community organizing network with member congregations throughout Queens;
- Make the Road New York, a member-led community organization that works in Latino and working class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island;
- Adhikaar, Brandworkers, and the Workers Justice Project, organizations whose members are low-wage workers.
Newest New Yorkers Report
Recently released, this report paints a picture of the increasing diversity of the city, which now has more than 3 million foreign-born residents, the largest number in the city’s history. The significant number of immigrants migrated to Queens solidifying that borough’s reputation as one of the most diverse urban areas in the world.
Workers Justice Project was founded in 2010 to build the collective power of day laborers to win institutional change that advances economic, racial, and workplace justice. WJP pursues its goal through education and training, organizing, leadership development, and grassroots economic alternative models. WJP oversees the management of a day laborer hiring center where contractors and day laborers (mostly men), come together to create a unionized system that ensures livable wages, workplace safety, job training, and skills-building opportunities. Through its Women’s Economic Justice Project, WJP organizes women day laborers who seek work at one of the only all-women corner hiring sites in the country. WJP provides guidance to a green cleaning cooperative that is run by former women day laborers.
Faith in New York is an interfaith, multicultural federation of 54 congregations representing more than 60,000 families in Queens, Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx, founded in 2013. Faith in New York’s mission is to develop grassroots leaders and support member congregations to move significant public policy change. It organizes in low-income, working-class congregations that are comprised of more than 70 percent immigrants and more than 85 percent people of color. Faith in New York is affiliated with the PICO National Network, which provides support and training to faith-based community organizing groups around the country.
Adhikaar, which means ‘rights’ in Nepali, was founded in 2005 by a group of young Nepali women to facilitate access to information, resources, and services. Adhikaar serves as a community center, a home away from home for recent Nepali-speaking immigrants who are struggling to restart their lives in the United States. Adhikaar reaches more than 750 people each year, almost 70 percent of whom are women and girls, directly through its programs, and also provides information to thousands more through outreach efforts and media advocacy. Adhikaar participated in organizing to make New York the first state in the country to pass the NYS Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, led the first campaign to get Nepalis counted in the U.S. Census, and published a report based on a needs assessment of its community.
Brandworkers was launched in 2008 by retail and fast-food employees who were active in worker centers and labor unions. Two years later, Brandworkers won its first workplace justice campaign against a seafood retailer and wholesaler that provides high-end restaurants with fish and seafood products. Since then, Brandworkers has won settlements and judgments that netted close to $2.5 million in unpaid wages and compensation for workers and improved conditions for hundreds of workers in the food processing and distribution sector. Brandworkers has three core programs: organizing and workplace justice, public education and advocacy, and legal counseling in workers’ rights.
Make the Road New York was created in 2007 with the merger of Make the Road by Walking and the Latin American Integration Center, two of New York City’s most innovative and effective grassroots organizations. The merger created a citywide organization that combines community organizing of low-income people, social services, and public policy advocacy.