We are all familiar with the overplayed, frozen-in-time
image of Martin Luther King Jr. expounding his dream for unity and equality at
the nation’s capitol. What gets less play is Dr. King’s later Poor People’s
Campaign, which focused on economic justice for all poor Americans and included
Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and poor whites. The
campaign geared up to build a "multiracial army of the poor" who would converge
in Washington, DC, and meet with government officials to demand jobs,
unemployment insurance, a real minimum wage, and education for adults.
Because of King’s assassination the campaign never realized
its intended potential. But today in New
York City, seeds of that dream are springing to life.
Make the Road New
York, a Brooklyn-based, member-led community organization, recently held
its first annual Community Assembly, where 600 members presented a
several-policy platform to elected officials, unions, and other grassroots
leaders. "It’s not every day that poor people get to meet with two potential
candidates for mayor," says Co-Executive
Director Andrew Friedman, referring to the city council speaker and city
comptroller, who were both present "to show solidarity and hear from members"
on issues from education to immigration.
MRNY is the 2007 melding of two influential grassroots
organizations, the Latin American Integration Center and Make the Road by
Walking. Now with four branches in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten
Island and a combined budget of $4 million, the new 4,000-member
organization is a force to be reckoned with and it plays that way. MRNY’s
mostly low-income, people of- color and immigrant members make the news by
publicly shaming slumlords for violating housing codes; taking legal action to
ensure that pharmacies and hospitals properly serve limited-English-speaking
New Yorkers; confronting the labor abuses of area retail employers; and walking
door-to-door to urge thousands of
immigrant neighbors to come out and vote.
Putting Organizing at
The Bushwick office of Make the Road New York feels like a
bustling community center. At noon, one member begins cooking the meal for an
evening committee meeting. In the basement four members diligently prepare the
inventory for the next day’s weekly food pantry. And by 4 p.m. the front office
floods with young people streaming in for after-school programs.
But MRNY is not a public service agency. "The organizing is
the center of the work we do, and the services we provide," like access to
Medicaid and legal help with eviction notices, "are in the service of the
organizing we do," says Irene Tung,
Director of Organizing, who oversees MRNY’s housing and environmental
justice campaigns with coalitions city- and statewide, as well as their LGBT
rights and workplace justice campaigns.
While some services are available to the public, like
English and computer classes, MRNY dedicates the bulk of its resources,
including the expertise of eight staff lawyers, to active members "who are
making it happen," says Friedman. So if a tenant organizer is facing eviction,
MRNY will take up the fight, enabling her to remain active in her community
"Fundamentally, we’re about building power through organizing,"
To "make the road" by walking on it couldn’t be a more
fitting metaphor for an organization that has evolved into a multi-issue,
full-service community center and organizing machine. The organization’s focus
areas have "sprouted organically," spurred by issues central to members’ lives.
MRNY didn’t start out intending to create Bushwick’s first adult literacy
program, but "it fit the model" and was necessary to move forward on their
Similarly, MRNY started GLOBE, Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick
Empowered, the neighborhood’s first gay advocacy group which addresses
homophobia at five high schools, including two new schools that MRNY helped
found because a youth member saw the need and wanted to organize it.
While organizers actively recruit new members through
door-knocking and street outreach at check-cashing centers and hospitals, the
organization’s "tentacles" reach deep into the neighborhood, providing "lots of
avenues for folks to come to us," says Friedman. Folks who would otherwise be
isolated in the city at-home mothers and LGBTQ folks in Bushwick, Mexicans on
Staten Island have joined the organization
and transformed their families’ lives.
MRNY is admired in New
York City for its consensus-based, collective decision-making,
an intensive process that builds strong, trusting relationships, leadership,
and shared agreement among members.
Members fight to win, and their organizing model has led
them to recent legislative victories. MRNY spearheaded the city’s recently
passed Safe Housing Act, legislation that requires landlords to begin repairing
thousands of the city’s most dangerous apartments per year. The other is
legislation that gives tenants the right to sue landlords for harassment.
In ten years, Make the Road has "catalyzed $4 million in
public investment for concrete, big-money change in low-income communities,"
says Friedman, including combating lead paint poisoning, the unchecked abuses
of slumlords, and school closings; and helped unionize at ten workplaces,
doubling the pay and creating benefits.
Works-in-progress include campaigns to end hazardous housing
code violations that have led to an asthma "epidemic" in areas of Brooklyn, to implement rent regulation for what remains
of the city’s rent-stabilized units, and to provide necessary translation
services at city agencies.
Oppression, Inside and Out
How does this large and growing, multiethnic group of
activists conquer the institutional injustices that could potentially divide
them? They become steadfast allies to each other. We’re "trying to confront a
million overlapping oppressions in one place," says Friedman. And "the stuff
that people carry with them manifests itself," in the process, like occasional
scuffles between African American and Latina
Because MRNY is "forthrightly committed to being a safe
space for all members," Friedman says, the organization actively educates
members about the roles of oppression. For instance, after male members
harassed a transgender receptionist, the organization responded by reminding
them of the organizational principles they signed on to, and holding trainings
for members and staff on homophobia.
While Make the Road has lost some members who "couldn’t
hang" with the organization’s commitments, usually these confrontations help
folks "move to a new place," Friedman says. And many experience "a level of
gratitude" for not having to behave within the oppressive cultural norms
expected in society.
MRNY aims not only to "vigilantly call people out on the
bullshit," but to "bring them together around a common fight" says Tung. Staff
organizers help the community "find the multiple intersections across each
others’ struggles," because no one is "just a tenant, parent or worker," she
At the Thursday evening meeting of BASTA!, the committee on
housing and environmental justice, about 30 members convened the gathering with
a boisterous chorus of revolutionary chants in Spanish while jamming with
hand-held instruments. The evening’s topic was, surprisingly, machismo in the
home. Circled around a small table, the group preceded the popular
education-style discussion on domestic violence and women’s household labor
with each member lighting a candle in the name of powerful women in their
People "find resonance and gravitate toward dialogue," says
Friedman. Because they’re in the same organization as the young people who were
recently illegally arrested while walking to a funeral, undocumented immigrant
men have come to see that they share similar experiences of police harassment;
and older Puerto Rican women with concerns about neighborhood safety have begun
thinking differently about policing.
So, Tung says, "We treat people as whole people, and they
start to identify with each other as whole people, too." Thus, one African
American woman who was primarily active in the weekly LGBT group became the
main person to testify and speak to the press about the Safe Housing Act, and
got quoted in the city’s Spanish language newspapers.
This dialogue also influences organizing strategies. For
instance, while working on a campaign to get interpreters and translated
materials at the welfare center, Latino immigrant members might propose
targeting the African American agency staff for their negligence. The members’
approach might be to "get them in trouble with their nice white bosses," says
Friedman. But staff organizers help the members have a conversation about the
agency workers’ heavy workload and the rigid rules they have to follow, and
identify the real culprit the institution that needs to change.