Balm in Gilead: Aleciah Anthony
July 24, 2014
July 24, 2014
As the first African American Executive Director of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition(NWBCCC), Ms. Aleciah Anthony created a new path of leadership for women of color in the Bronx. She joined the staff of the NWBCCC as a Community Organizer fourteen years ago and recently, before leaving the organization in March 2014, Aleciah supervised the negotiations and approval of the historic Community Benefits Agreement at the Kingsbridge Armory.
Aleciah was born and raised in the Bronx, holds a bachelor degree from New York University in African Studies with a specialization in Urban Studies, and is a single mom of two boys. She is passionate about the pursuit of justice and committed to organizing across social sectors for the vibrancy and wholeness of families.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Aleciah Anthony: I wish I could say that I always knew organizing was what I wanted to do with my life, but I stumbled into this work and needless to say, I have not regretted any of it. Back in 2000, I was an unemployed college graduate looking for work to take care of myself and my family. I was a single mom on welfare and assigned to a back to work program at Hunts Point Workforce Development. The job developer sent my résumé to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition where I was quickly told I should seek work as a social worker. However, at my insistence, NWBCCC placed me in the organizing apprentice training program called Training Institute for Careers in Organizing (TICO) and my whole life changed.
KR: What did you learn in TICO that changed your life?
AA: Being in TICO as an Organizing Apprentice taught me that it was not only okay to fight against the status quo but it was my right. I could dream of a world that valued my contributions and then work to make it happen. For a Black woman who had done what I was told, gone to school and stayed out of trouble, I had still not achieved the American Dream. TICO gave me the political analysis to understand that that dream was never intended for me. I was not a failure. There were systems at play that kept me, and especially people of color, from achieving success. Those systems of institutional oppression needed to be dismantled and TICO gave me the organizing tools and freedom to do just that, break down barriers standing in my way.
KR: How did you build your skills as an organizer?
AA: As a beginning organizer everything seemed unusual and overwhelming. The early days were a lot of gut instincts and calling supervisors. It was some time before I came into my own personal style and mechanism for working with people in the neighborhood. It was important that I allowed myself to be open to ideas and criticism from others. And of course, we worked really hard knocking on doors, walking the blocks, sitting in people’s living rooms and attending meetings. There was room for creativity and mistakes, but most important was learning and growing from each experience. Each day was another chance to convince me to get back out there and get it right.
KR: Tell me a little more about your early days of organizing. What was the biggest challenge for you at that time?
AA: Besides adjusting to long and sometimes unpredictable hours, my biggest challenge as a new organizer was getting the people in the neighborhood, my neighborhood (I organized the same community in which I lived) to trust me. For many people in the neighborhood, older African Americans, they had spent most of their lives not seeing people that look like them and live amongst them, in leadership positions. They had been conditioned to acknowledging and respecting white professionals as experts. The young black girl with the clipboard was insignificant. I think that all changed because I would just not go away and there wasn’t any white professional coming to change their circumstances. We had to do it together.
Working together became very important as the neighborhood was changing. We always had many immigrant families but were experiencing a rise in first generation African families. Additionally, the neighborhood seemed to be bursting at the seams with younger and poorer residents. Many middle class African-Americans families were leaving the neighborhood and taking with them deeply rooted traditions of the community. The neighborhood was becoming more transitional, making it difficult to engage people between 18-30 (my age group) and even more difficult to create synergy between them and the 40+ generation. What eventually brought us together was an attack on our safety and personal survival in Morris Heights.
Morris Heights, policed by the 46th precinct, was a high crime riddled community. Residents felt like they were under siege in their own homes. Undercliff Ave, which would soon become notorious for crime, wasn’t any different. As a new tenant organizer, I wasn’t yet prepared to deal with issues of crime but I began to learn very quickly when my tenants on the isolated block of Undercliff complained about weekly robberies that had escalated to rape in at least two incidents.
We first met with the Community Affairs Officers, who immediately agreed to come out to one of the buildings and attend a meeting. At the meeting, tenants were adamant that they wanted the Precinct Commander to respond and we scheduled a community meeting, my first community meeting. We then had the great idea to have a candlelight vigil right before the meeting and invited the media. Well, when the Deputy Inspector arrived for the community meeting at the local Methodist church and saw the media, he refused to stay for our meeting. I was panicked and knew I was about to be fired. Thank God for NWB Senior organizers who helped to provide support and the Burnside President who rallied the people and got everyone to agree that we would show up everywhere the inspector was until he agreed to meet with us. And we did just that!
It resulted in a new deputy inspector who met with us immediately, agreeing to nightly patrols, and working with the Departments of Transportation, Sanitation, and Parks to replace street lights and cut down trees, in order to increase visibility. We won a lot, but most importantly, we won respect. That rush of adrenaline solidified the moment for me when I knew organizing was what I wanted to do.
KR: When did you know that you were first successful as an organizer?
AA: I think the day I knew I was a successful organizer was the day I stopped looking for another job because I couldn’t envision myself doing anything different. It felt like I was always meant to be the person I was becoming. That sense of security and commitment gave me the drive to win campaign victories and develop leaders. The University West Burnside Neighborhood Association, my first organizing assignment, changed the Morris Heights Section of the Bronx. We won housing repairs, vacant land restorations and safety campaigns, all from an obscure basement office on the corner of Burnside Avenue. In the process of transforming the community, I was transformed. I came alive. I found strength. I unleashed my voice.
KR: You have moved from an organizer position to an executive director role. Are their skills that translate between these two roles?
AA: Being an organizer is just who I am now. I carry those skills and passion with me into every stage of my own personal leadership development. As an executive director, I have had to keep those skills fresh as I train organizers and leaders, and participate in coalitions and other external networks. My original organizing skills and talents were the foundational tools for the new challenges and opportunities I would face as an executive director. An executive director still has to organize, build relationships, and develop a strategy. We look towards the future while being firmly planted in the present.
KR: As an executive director, you were responsible for supervising several campaigns and organizers, how did you measure the success and performance of your organizing team?
AA: There are many factors that went into measuring our success. Naturally, because we were grassroots organizers, we had an acute awareness of the numbers of people we were working with at any given time, campaign wins that directly translated into improved conditions, and strategies that resulted in power shifts in favor of the common good. As a team, there was intentionality around consistently pushing ourselves and members beyond limits and comfort zones. The real genuine understanding of team came when all we had was each other. That’s when I really learned what everyone was made of.
KR: What is one piece of advice that you would give to a Black leader who was beginning his or her time as an executive director of a community organizing group?
AA: The most important thing a black leader can create and sustain is a strong support system that is concerned with the wholeness of being an African American leader and recognizing the different levels of intricacies involved. It is important that we are allowed the space to bring our entire being into reality through our work so that we can maintain clarity and ownership of who we are and who we are meant to be. That can’t be defined for us. We have to define it for ourselves, without judgment.
KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?
AA: There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in Black led organizing including lack of resources, deeply rooted systems of racism within social justice organizations, pre-defined models of leadership, and dominant cultural beliefs even within our own communities. Many black organizers work tirelessly to diffuse oppressive tactics on our communities by using organizing methods that were not created by us and in fact regenerate the deeply rooted trauma that we experienced initially, first as African-Americans and second from structural systems never intended to serve our basic needs. When we, as organizers, recognize this duality we experience an internalized conflict that our soul unsuccessfully wrestles with daily. This is even more dehumanizing as we work harder to organize but our people have yet to reap the full benefits of our efforts. This is evidenced more so when we organize around mainstream social justice issues as opposed to issues specifically geared towards our needs with our own definition of success.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
AA: Moving ahead we need agreement on the idea that organizing Black people is a unique process, the belief that it is possible, and the necessary resources to make it real. As a people, we can’t continue to exist in organizing silos that restrict or limit our organizing within a progressive agenda that does not directly speak to the heart of the reality of an entire group of people. Black people are still very much relevant in a true social justice movement. Similarly, Black organizers and leaders need to continue to support each other by creating a safety net, where we are loved and encouraged to always be our best selves; where, even when you stumble, someone is there to help you brush the weight of the world off your shoulders, grab your hand and say “C’mon, we still got work to do.”