Direct Action Governing

When community developers and organizers get elected to office, how do they preserve the community-minded sensibility and ethos that got them there? What lessons can they bring back to their colleagues on the ground? Shelterforce sat down with a cadre of organizers- turned–New York City Council members to find out how to bolster the bridge between the city and City Hall.

The streets around New York City Hall normally brim with activity. Throw a district local rally into the mix, and it’s downright gridlocked.

It’s May 31, 2012, and members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees wave signs that read “Yes to Children, No to Child Care Cuts,” protesting anticipated cuts to Head Start and other after-school services for low-income youth. The entire scene happens just feet away from the offices of the city’s 51 council members.

“When I’m sitting at City Hall and there are people coming to protest, I’m now in the position where I wonder how much is the protest pushing their issue forward?” asks Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn native who unseated an incumbent in the 2009 Democratic primary in New York City’s 45th district. Williams, a community organizer who at one time helmed the Flatbush East Community Development Corporation, would once have been one of those protestors outside City Hall, possibly being escorted off the premises or even getting arrested for the cause. “The power of protest can’t be underestimated,” he says. “But now that I’m in there, I know that protest isn’t the only thing that’s actually going to help.”

Williams’s time in office has not mollified his inner activist — to the contrary, in fact. Williams has emerged as a leading critic of the New York Police Department’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, a stance only bolstered when he and an aide were thrown to the ground and handcuffed by police after a dispute over walking on a closed sidewalk during the West Indian Day Parade in 2011.

But his time at City Hall has given him a more “comprehensive” perspective when it comes to the meeting of direct action and government action. In 2010, the homeless advocacy organization Picture the Homeless shut down a council hearing in an attempt to get a hearing for a bill that would have the city conduct an annual count of vacant buildings for the purpose of providing low-cost housing. “They had kind of skipped a step, and I could see that because I was now an elected official, whereas before I probably wouldn’t have seen the other side,” says Williams, who battled internally over how to react to the protest. “You have to ask yourself when and where is the best time to do each action?”

Williams was part of the same freshman class on City Council as Margaret Chin and Brad Lander. Chin is a founding member of the Chinatown-based community development group Asian Americans for Equality and a former board member of the New York City CDC organization “Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development”: http://www.anhd.org/. Lander is the former director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and before that was the longtime director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a CDC in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area known for being committed to both development and organizing. All three are founding members of council’s Progressive Caucus.

Chin was at that May AFSCME rally, as her district faces a 70 percent cut in after-school programming. This was an instance, she says, where action was entirely appropriate and their particular role as elected officials involved “convincing people that there is hope and that we’ve got to fight. You can’t just sit back and let it happen.”

“The fact that a lot of parents and kids came up was amazing. We even got families and relatives and friends to show up. Everybody was involved as a community. Being an elected official, we have additional tools to engage our communities and to urge other people to show their support. It’s not always about which district you live in,” she says.

Lander agrees: “Having been an organizer and worked in community development, you’re predisposed to believe in the voice and vision and power of organized people in your neighborhood. That has a lot of influence over what the three of us are trying to do and how we work.”

Using the rally as a launching point, Williams, Chin, and Lander spoke at length with Shelterforce about the perspective they have gained on finding that critical balance between community organizing, community development, and government.

Shelterforce: What have you brought as an organizer to City Hall that helps you better engage your constituencies?

Williams: As a community organizer and doing work in nonprofits, I had a point of view on the things that were actually needed in our community that could actually have an effect, because I was doing that work on the ground. And because I had a good idea of how to organize the community to get that power, I viewed City Council and my position as community organizer as a way to harness energy.

I think, so far, we’ve done a decent job, but we have a long way to go. That vision and a sense of how to generate power from the district can provide answers that could work.

Chin: I’m the first Chinese-American elected to represent Chinatown on City Council, and we fought for the seat — it took four tries, but we won. I think the difference this time around was that I’m more focused on activism. I really don’t remember former members doing as much organizing, even around budgets, but it’s happening now.

Lander: That’s right. We started this new thing — participatory budgeting — where we each took $1 million of city capital and said, rather than have us decide what to do with it in a fairly traditional, kind of “elected official” way, we wanted to have people in our communities decide what to do with it, and not just come out and vote, but to organize to come up with the ideas.

We had hundreds and hundreds of people at these neighborhood assemblies. They formed committees. They developed the ideas. It really looked like community development stuff that Margaret and Jumaane and I have all done, where you say “What’s the need? How are we going to solve it? Let’s bump our heads against the problem a million different ways.” I mean, that was really, in some ways, more like participatory community development than it was like an organizing campaign.

Would you say that’s become your approach to legislating?

Lander: I think we’re more likely to approach things as organizing campaigns. [We’re] used to working with groups and people that reach out to people who are most directly affected by a problem, get them involved, link them up with other people, have a strategy for a campaign that involves a lot of people in the community and across the city organizing. [I am] not thinking my job is to just be on the inside, but a bridge between advocacy groups and organizing groups and the inside process.

Williams: I think all of us can reach the people on the ground immediately. If we have an issue about something, and can get on the ground, find out what’s going on and what organizing campaigns are going on, we can harness an energy, I think, a lot more quickly because we do have some credibility from having come from that world.

How is this approach — and even your backgrounds — viewed by your Council colleagues?

Williams: To my surprise, the overwhelming response has been positive, and that’s been very helpful. But I was concerned about it. My mother definitely was concerned about it. (Laughs.) I think the community was waiting for this, for someone to be vocal and be outspoken; to be an activist on the issues that had been affecting them for quite some time.

Chin: I mean, there is also a perception of “Oh, she’s an activist. Can we talk to her? Is she going to be reasonable? Or is she just going to say ‘no’ to everything?” You get all these questions. Just talk to me directly. I’m a reasonable person!

Williams: And I think that actually makes us more dangerous, because we’re willing to engage in conversations. It’s not just fire, fire, fire, and brimstone. We want to sit down. We want to discuss.

Chin: I don’t call that dangerous.

Williams: It makes us more effective.

Chin: Effective, yes. That’s a better word.

Williams: Here’s a good example: People were waiting to see how I’d react to my arrest at the West Indian Day Parade. There were many people who were kind of shocked that I started off my press conference saying, “This is not an anti-NYPD rally. That’s not the conversation that I’m here to have.” People were expecting a much different kind of a press conference. But that allows you then to have the conversations you need to have, gain credibility, and show that you’re actually trying to do something that’s effective.

What about your constituents who aren’t familiar with community organizing or are more accustomed to the way your predecessors operated?

Lander: I think a lot of people definitely see it as just protest and maybe not as something designed to build relationships to win change. And I think, in some ways, that the set of questions raised by Occupy were interesting on these grounds. I mean, Occupy is not the more conventional form of community organizing that the three of us have done. We’ve practiced a pretty specific model. We talk to people one-on-one; connect them to a group where there’s a shared self-interest to try to make specific pieces of change; [and] design a strategy to make that change, which involves organizing more people [and] building power, but also building relationships with people who have the ability to make the change and figure out what will move them.

Whether you think of that as Alinsky- or congregation-based organizing, it’s a classic kind of community organizing that I know all three of us have done. It also translates pretty directly into how to run for office and what to do when you’re in office. There are going to be different tensions, but still, it’s a lot like what we do here. Whether you’re knocking on doors because you’re asking for a vote, or people are coming to my office, or you’re meeting them out at schools and churches and synagogues, it’s all about talking with people. You look for opportunities where enough people care about something to make a change on it.

I think not everyone’s as familiar with that as organizing, and so that may mean that they just assume, “Oh, if they’re out there holding up signs, they’re a bunch of crazies protesting and we can’t have a dialogue with them and reach agreement.”

Chin: I think the benefit of having the organizer background is that we’ve been on the outside. We know how to do that part. And now we’re on the inside. We’re able to utilize the experience from the outside to really bring about some change.

I remember, back in the old days, we would be demonstrating and fighting, and somebody else would go in and do the negotiation and get the result, and we’d be left out. Things that we had demanded wouldn’t get met, but somebody else went in there and got their demand met.

We were able to mobilize the community and bring about some change. In City Council, we do resolutions, right? But as elected officials, we’re able to come out and work together with the community to really draw some attention to an issue. I think the things that I’m proudest of have been things the Progressive Caucus has been able to accomplish from these inside-outside campaigns.

Lander: And you’re not only thinking how are we going to win this campaign. You’re thinking how we are going to bring more people into the organization, build more leadership, get people more skills, and set up so that we can continue to drive toward the mission and the future.

Thanks.

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