Building Grassroots Power in New York
by Alexa Kasdan, Maria Mottola, and Jennifer Ching
This is an exciting time for organizing in New York. After years of deadlocked political power in Albany, voter mobilizations resulted in significant electoral transitions. 2019 saw Democratic majorities in the State Senate and Assembly for first time in a decade. Moreover, several of the newly elected legislators came to Albany as the result of powerful, grassroots campaigns. Their victories infused energy into the political sphere and opened greater opportunities to advance campaigns by and for low-income communities of color.
This report shares the lessons learned two 2019 statewide campaigns that were led by grassroots organizations working in coalition with broader policy and advocacy networks. Housing Justice for All and Green Light NY won significant changes for low-income renters and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, respectively. The campaigns challenged the model of traditional top-down advocacy by centering directly-impacted people from low-income communities of color in leadership and decision-making. Both campaigns also demonstrated that community power can be leveraged between grassroots electoral organizing and issue-based legislative campaigns. Finally, by centering member-led organizations from rural, suburban and urban communities, the campaigns demonstrated how progressive policy changes require long-term investment in groups that build people power across regional difference through shared mass mobilization strategies.
Philanthropy has long avoided supporting work led by communities of color that challenge entrenched systems of power. Indeed, less than 3% of philanthropic funding goes towards social justice movements. This report is a call to action for donors, funding networks and philanthropic institutions. Together, we need to fund movements in order to build power. This means we must pivot as many resources as possible towards grassroots organizing or we will not only lose again in 2020, but we will lose a generation’s worth of progress.
On behalf of the New York Foundation board and staff, and the North Star Fund Community Funding Committees, board and staff, we thank the 30+ organizers who took the time to share with us strategies for building a future that centers grassroots power. Our colleagues are on the frontlines defending and building a more inclusive democracy. We are grateful to share their wisdom and vision.