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In the nation’s largest city, the least powerful people and communities are coming together, taking charge of their destinies, and creating a democratic society truly “with justice for all.” Across America, similar communities in the shadows of society are taking note.
Oona Chatterjee believes that each community can be the steward of its own future, and the path to a more humane, vibrant society lies in the effective, large-scale engagement of ordinary people. Oona’s idea is to engage the least powerful people in changing the systems that oppress them. Her insight is that every person who seeks social services is and must be viewed, not as someone in need, but as someone who is needed. Oona co-founded Make the Road New York, a membership-led organization of primarily Latino and African American residents of low-income communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, to amplify residents’ voices and enable them to achieve self-determination.
Residents of the neighborhoods served by Make the Road New York suffer the harsh consequences of poverty. Make the Road provides the relief that residents urgently need from the conditions that undermine their health and well-being. However, the organization also engages every person who comes for assistance in understanding the political forces that perpetuate their situations. Oona’s vision is to build Make the Road’s base of active, deeply engaged members into a force so large and strong that its influence will equal that of any organized constituency in New York City and it will be the largest formation of low-income and immigrant people in the U.S. Across the country, poor communities are recognizing Make the Road’s unique scale, quality, and impact. Oona is setting a new standard for how to systematically inform and engage people on the fringes of society in civic life, and translate their influence into policies that challenge poverty at its roots.
Through its name and actions, Make the Road embodies a social change theory shared by legendary grassroots leaders Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School and Brazilian educator Pablo Freire. Oona is guided by their core principles: Love for people, respect for people’s abilities to shape their own lives, and the capacity to value others’ experiences. She is demonstrating the power of practical, participatory education in the service of social justice. The organization she leads takes its name from the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado: Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking.
Bushwick, Brooklyn is in the center of a neglected, low-income area that is home to half a million people. Over 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line and rely on government benefits. Welfare reform radically curtailed federal support, particularly for poor women and legal immigrants. Today, 75 percent of the infants born in Bushwick are born into poverty. The official unemployment rate is double the national rate. Until recent reforms at the city level, the high school dropout rate was nearly 80 percent. Individuals with limited English skills (one in four) are ill-prepared to challenge bureaucratic errors that deprive them of legal rights and benefits. Workers struggling to support themselves and their families face abuse at the workplace. Sweatshops flagrantly violate laws requiring a minimum wage, overtime pay, health and safety measures, and prohibiting discrimination. Residents live in deteriorated, rat-infested buildings with absentee landlords, or in tax-foreclosed properties. Conditions in this substandard housing account for the highest rate of new cases of childhood lead paint poisoning in the city. Bushwick residents lack political and economic power. Almost half of the 65 percent Latino population are legal permanent residents who cannot vote.
Others are undocumented or too young to vote. Many newcomers to America live in profound isolation from mainstream society. Immigrant groups have difficulty gaining public acceptance and the financial resources they need to achieve an equitable standing in American society. Since September 11, 2001 this problem has been heightened by increased anti-immigrant sentiment.
Most efforts on behalf of immigrant and low-income groups have been unsuccessful in creating deep, lasting change because the ideas and leadership do not emerge from the communities affected. Thus, they fail to draw on the wisdom or reflect the needs of community members. Within those communities, people who want to organize for change lack the ability to navigate political systems and awareness of the laws that impact their lives; and, there is no systematic process for training emerging leaders and community organizers. The separation of immigrant and low-income groups keeps them from mobilizing together around issues that affect them. Few action-oriented entities succeed in weaving together grassroots communities across geographic, ethnic, and language lines.
Make the Road New York blends direct service and community organizing to assist, educate, and build the collective power of individuals who live in the most marginalized communities. Every community member who enters their storefront office is essential to the growth and effectiveness of the organization. While many of them receive one or more services, all are invited to join the organization and participate in ongoing efforts to improve their community and their city. They enter a “family” with an ethic of mutual help and dignity. The message is clear: If you need access to health care, English classes or legal aid, we can help. But we need your help to change the systems that oppress you and our community.
Make the Road is a gathering place where people of all ages work together. It’s also a cultural space for the neighborhood. Youth who might be on the streets or in gangs go there after school to work on projects or just socialize. To participate and receive services, residents pay $100 over two years to become lifetime members. Prospective members enter through a variety of doors: Legal aid, literacy and adult education classes, an LGBTQ youth group, and the rapidly growing Youth Power Project. Youth leaders often become staff or board members. Half of the board is elected by and comprised of members. All decisions are made by consensus.
Members learn together to analyze the root causes of problems, advocate effectively for themselves, see beyond their own concerns, and come together to solve problems. Residents lead initiatives to improve their neighborhood, largely by making governing institutions accountable to them through democratic processes. Committees of ten to forty members meet weekly to advance projects on workplace justice, housing and environmental justice, education and youth development, and health. For example, members developed the “healthy homes” project, a policy initiative to make landlords subject to severe penalties for failing to improve dangerous conditions. Their successful effort now benefits countless low-income tenants. Strategic use of the media builds broad public support for these community-led initiatives.
Oona realized that outside a university setting, people have few opportunities to share their personal stories and engage in thoughtful discussions about the problems that concern them. She adopted “the problem tree” used by Myles Horton and Pablo Freire. To discuss immigration every person puts a leaf on the tree (posted on the wall). As they do, they tell a story about why they came to the U.S. Then they discuss the causes of their circumstances. Coaching and mentoring help members build confidence and skills. Each committee meeting includes a five to ten minute mini-training. Workshops cover the root causes of immigration; race, class and gender; democracy; and the power in community organizing. Members become leaders by learning that they have legal rights and can exercise them; how to facilitate community meetings; how to self-govern and develop a campaign plan; and how to engage proactively in effective ways. They also learn that identifying with a group can be a powerful force (for example, if you wear a Make the Road T-shirt into a hospital you get translation services right away).
Founded in 1997, within ten years the organization had grown to 4,800, members and over sixty staff whose policy efforts backed by “grassroots muscle” had leveraged $400M and achieved substantive policy changes: Filed and won federal class action suits to ensure equal access to Medicaid, food stamps and other basic services by securing language assistance for limited English speakers; Obtained $12M from the Department of Education for a translation/ interpretation unit so parents with limited English could help their children in school. This is trickling up to state and federal levels; Won millions of new funding to address lead poisoning; Improved patient care through increased interpretation services and signage at hospitals. The State Department of Health issued new regulations requiring these services; Recovered $1.2M in unpaid wages for immigrant workers through the Workplace Justice Project (a coalition of unions, churches, and nonprofits used their shopping power to support the campaign); Won a contract to increase funding for workers’ health care and salaries by $1M a year; The Youth Power Project redirected $53M from juvenile jails to youth development projects.
Youth Power members are leading a three-year high school reform project which has prompted city officials to address urgent overcrowding, facility needs, and safety concerns. This project has drawn city, state, and national attention to the role of youth in school reform initiatives. To achieve justice for youth, Make the Road formed an Urban Youth Collaborative with ten organizations, engaging 800 youth in forty high schools. They also documented and combated national origin discrimination in New York public schools and government agencies.
Perhaps the boldest, most precedent-setting project Oona has designed is a joint venture of Make the Road members and the Bushwick School for Social Justice, the only full partnership between a community organization and a public school. When the city’s New Century High Schools initiative started breaking up large high schools into smaller “theme” schools, they decided, without consulting the Bushwick community, to replace a local high school with two schools, one of which is the School for Social Justice. Oona saw an opportunity, which she brought to members who were parents of eighth graders. The group invited the Director of Education to visit and hear their concerns. As a result, Oona and the parents’ group co-created the school, helping to select the principal and develop the curriculum. Today, Make the Road is an integral partner of both local high schools, promoting the students’ civic engagement. All students attend a daily social justice seminar and develop community action projects. The graduation rate has improved to 82 percent (from 23 percent). Students enjoy after school activities at school and at Make the Road, which also hosts the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment’s after-school program for eight to twelve-year-olds. Oona and her team are working on a second school, the Pan American International High School.
Every direct service program offered at Make the Road reflects its core values. The legal services team, an integral part of the organization, not only represents residents, but offers free clinics and training to help members learn to use small claims courts and other grievance processes. Instead of traditional ESL classes, residents learn survival English, Spanish literacy, and computer skills first, then gradually acquire English language proficiency. Students in adult education classes discuss the causes of and solutions to poverty. Youth publish a newspaper, develop service projects for high school students, and foster community organizing to influence public policy.
With a five-year membership goal of 10,000 (equal in strength to a labor union), building the base is a key responsibility of members and staff. Their work is guided by one concept: IDEA—Integrating new members; Democracy; Education; Action. In 2007 Make the Road merged with the Latin American International Center, a like-minded program partner with a strong presence in Queens and Staten Island. This combined effort, Make the Road New York, serves a population of 3 million from diverse immigrant and ethnic groups. Oona sees the merger as a unique way for community organizations to get to scale, and a new way for social change to happen. Now that the organization is stable enough to be intentional about replication, Oona will base expansion on the core philosophy. The particular issues each site addresses will emerge from community members.
Oona knows what it means to stand up to political oppression. Her mother’s parents were deeply involved in India’s independence movement, working closely with Gandhi and Nehru. Her grandfather was jailed several times for his political convictions. Her parents immigrated to Mississippi to matriculate in graduate programs at “Ole Miss” (just after its desegregation). Oona was born there, but grew up in a primarily white, economically diverse suburb of Philadelphia. As a child, she navigated the intersections of race, ethnicity, and class. She also visited India many times and took to heart “the migrant’s notion of a homeland.” She learned to cherish the revolutionary ideals of democracy, equity, and sacrifice for the common good that had shaped her parents’ lives.
In ninth grade, Oona started a school newspaper. By senior year she was Executive Editor. In college she won the John Hershey prize awarded to one graduating Yale student whose body of published writing reflected a deep exploration of social issues. During law school at New York University, she met Andrew Friedman, who began working with Oona when she founded an organization to challenge people to use their law degrees for the public interest. She also started a small study group that chose to read, We Make the Road by Walking, conversations between Myles Horton and Pablo Freire. Oona decided to use her legal skills to bring people together to improve their communities. With Andrew’s help, she started Research, Education and Advocacy to Combat Homelessness (REACH). Father John Powis, an activist, was the first to support Oona and Andrew’s community organizing ideas. He provided a room in his rectory in Brooklyn where they started Make the Road New York while still in law school. They received seed money from New York University for two summers; by the third year they both won fellowships that they used to rent office space in Bushwick and begin their work in earnest.
Oona shares ownership and leadership of Make the Road in a way that preserves the principles of participatory democracy. Oona and Andrew work side by side, with Oona leading the policy work, youth programs, strategic partnerships, and educational initiatives. Andrew leads the direct services programs. Oona’s husband, Angel Vera, is also a colleague at Make the Road. Oona’s eyes light up when discussion turns to education. She intends to create a network of groups that talk and learn together about increasing civic participation and grassroots community organizing. Now that she’s built an infrastructure that works at Make the Road, she intends to play a major role in creating a similar infrastructure for the field.