Balm in Gilead: Black Organizer Series
March 19, 2015
This year, we are continuing to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by looking forward. What do Black leaders have to say about where we stand today? In this series, these leaders talk with Program Director Kevin Ryan about how they developed as community organizers, and share their ideas for building a deeper, stronger Black organizing infrastructure.
After losing his job in 2001, he spent two years homeless on the streets of Miami and ten months in a New York City shelter. He eventually overcame homelessness and has been in the housing movement based in New York City since 2007. In the fall of 2009, Rob was chosen to be New York City chairperson for the first official mission of a UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. He was a member of an advanced team coordinated by the U.S. Human Rights Network in early 2010, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland several times to prepare for the United States’ initial appearance in the Universal Periodic Review. Rob has worked with homeless populations in Budapest, Hungary and Berlin, Germany and is connected with housing movements in South Africa and Brazil. He works with the European Squatters Collective, International Alliance of Inhabitants; Landless People’s Movement (MST) and the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and is a member of the Steering Committee of the USA Canada Alliance of Inhabitants.
In December 2008, he completed a course with People’s Production House and the Community News Production Institute and has been a member of a social justice media collective which produces and airs a monthly radio show over WBAI in New York City called Global Movements Urban Struggles.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Rob Robinson: I became involved in organizing work after going through a transformation in life. I was homeless on the streets of Miami for two years (2003-2005). I found my way back to New York City and spent 10 months in a homeless shelter. While there, I started organizing other residents to fight for changes and better conditions in the shelter. The director of the organization that ran the shelter came to the facility to meet with several of us and suggested a meeting at the New York City Coalition on the Continuum of Care where I might have a greater impact. That group monitors $110 million in federal funding to the NYC shelter system. There are 24 people that oversee the administration of those funds and for the last eight years, I have been one of its 24 voting members. I started to receive emails from Picture the Homeless, a group that was organizing homeless and formerly homeless people around civil rights and access to housing. I thought it was a good idea to become a member, and that started me on a path to community organizing.
KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?
RR: Personal and family experiences were most important. I had a 30-year work history before becoming homeless, and I possessed a college degree. As I navigated through street homelessness and the shelter system, I kept hearing things like: “Homeless people don’t want to work. They are uneducated and in many cases are suffering from addiction… I felt it was important for me to take a public stand and declare, “I’m none of those things and I’ve met several homeless people that don’t fit that criteria… Therefore, we have to make our voices heard.
The fight for a right to housing was important to me because I realized how difficult it was for people to leave the shelter. In NYC, there is very little affordable housing for people in the greatest need. As I started to learn the history of housing struggles in NYC and around the country, it seemed apparent to me the difficulty played out along racial lines. I learned more about red-lining and predatory lending and realized the government was not meeting its obligations to the people. My own family may have been part of these practices. The house my family purchased on Long Island was not originally available when my parents sought to buy it. They had a friend (who was white) inquire about the property and miraculously it was available. Then I started to think about my childhood and my dad working 16 hour days due to mounting bills. Maybe a predatory loan was due? I really had a thirst to know more when thinking about what my family had gone through and what I was beginning to learn from a historical context. Connecting with members of academia helped me gain a historical analysis of land and housing in the United States. I have had the opportunity to work with distinguished professors like Neil Smith, Peter Marcuse, Tom Angotti, and David Harvey. Over the years, they have been instrumental in connecting the organizations I worked with and their students to do collaborative projects.
KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?
RR: I would say the most successful campaign I’ve worked on was Take Back the Land (TBTL). Its leadership committee is made up of African-Americans and we used civil disobedience and direct action as tactics to advance a strategy to de-commodify land and housing. Highlighting the injustices of the 2008 financial crisis and its effect on people of color and forming strategic partnerships with legal communities, policymakers, and human rights organizations were huge factors in making TBTL a success. We had very little resources but we were able to get OCCUPY to recognize our work and we were asked to take the lead on developing Occupy Our Homes. No one was talking about removing land and housing from the market then— now community land trusts and land banks are mainstream conversations taking place all over the country.
KR: You have worked with a number of organizations and coalitions over the years including Picture the Homeless, Take Back the Land, and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Through your work, organizing around land use issues continues to be one of the key themes. Why has land use been such an integral part of your work?
RR: Land is at the core of every struggle. One percent of people own the land while 99% of us are left to try and meet our needs for housing and food. If land was used for common good as opposed to commodity, we could grow food, and we could build shelter, we could self-govern ourselves. With our lives more stable, we could find education and good medical care. Land represents stability in one’s life.
KR: Land use can be a very complex and complicated issue to organize around. How have you built community leadership around these issues?
RR: Political education has been the key to our success. By understanding how the land has been used to displace communities, traditionally black communities have supported our on-the-ground organizing. Our relationship with the Abahlali Movement, (the Shackdwellers in South Africa) who were fighting for land and housing in post-apartheid South Africa, was instrumental to our success. We were able to show poor people with few resources who overcame obstacles, fought back, committed to political education, and brought issues to the highest court and won. Of course, it helped that they had a constitution that guaranteed the human right to housing.
KR: You have also been a strong advocate for Black communities creating their own narratives to tell their stories. How do Black communities build these narratives and articulate this message to allies and the broader public?
RR: Storytelling is a powerful way to raise awareness. For too long, the voices of the Black community have been suppressed for various reasons. There are tools that exist today that enable directly impacted communities to document issues and send the stories around the world in a matter of minutes. Mainstream media will not tell the stories as they happened, particularly with respect to communities of color. People in other parts of the world are hearing and seeing stories they’ve never been able to hear before. Awareness was raised to unforeseen levels with the police shooting of Michael Brown and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, all by using a simple cell phone video. Solidarity protests took place in Berlin, Spain, and China. There is a movement of resistance particularly among young people, they are rising up and saying: no more…
The Committee of Take Back the Land leadership has noticed this and we have begun to think and write about how we can have community control over the police. We put out a piece last fall called Forward from Ferguson, which talks about how we move forward in organizing the black community and fighting back against forces of oppression in this era. It draws on historical experiences while thinking intentionally about new strategies.
KR: There has been a lot of direct action and organizing work that has taken place across the country since the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York. How can Black communities effectively address the continuing loss of lives at the hands of police?
RR: The non-violent direct action has to continue. We must send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual. We will no longer tolerate the police coming into our communities and killing young men with no consequence. Elders in the Black community must take a step back and lift up the voices of young protesters. We must make political connections to candidates that are accountable to our communities and constituencies.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
EW: While some foundations have put resources into Black communities, I think going forward we have to figure out different ways to fund the work. In the south, movements of landless workers rely on member donations, both of money and time. They think in terms of cooperative models and being self-determined. We have to borrow and learn from these movements; reach out and collaborate and provide more opportunities for political education and learn from the faith community that has been doing social justice work for years but is self-reliant for the most part.