April 2020

Welcome to CivicList, an independent newsletter to build community and uplift voices! In this edition I include:
  • What I'm grateful for while in quarantine.
  • Resources for you to take civic action today.
  • An interview with Chris Nickell, community leader in Manhattan.
  • A bit of art outside the gallery 
  • A quote by Lao Tzu

First, Gratitude

I’m grateful to have participated in "social closening" activities with MNGFL; for neighbors helping neighbors in mutual aid efforts spontaneously arising across New York and our great country; for leaders like Gale Brewer who hosted this e-town hall on online education with some of my colleagues. I'm grateful for no-frills yoga, and time inside to contemplate. 

COVID-19 Action
Take Civic Action Today
What’s missing? Send me your civic action opportunities: matt@civiclist.org

Building Community with Chris Nickell

"The health of our collective social body is what we depend on as organizers to get shit done."

Chris Nickell is Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Robert Jackson, who represents western Manhattan-—from Marble Hill to Chelsea—-in the New York State Senate. I've gotten to collaborate with Chris on a mutual aid network in New York City that Senator Jackson’s office is jump-starting; Chris approaches the COVID-19 pandemic and the response of mutual aid “from the perspective of a bilingual organizer and from a personal belief in the power of decentralized grassroots organizing." 

Originally from Pittsburgh, Chris "grew up in the church," which they see as "a really shining example of a robust social network that can provide much needed support in difficult times." Chris is from "a household where my grandma kept all the ingredients for a cheese souffle ready for whatever family might have just experienced a loss, and she would have it to them that afternoon." Chris is also a classically trained tenor and holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from New York University, which informs how they listen and build community. 
Listen to the interview here.

What are you excited about these days?

I am excited about the way that our communities seem to be responding to what is a very grim set of circumstances. And I'm excited about the community power that I see the potential for us to collectively build to emerge from this crisis stronger than when we entered it.

What are you curious about?

I'm really curious about how this moment is going to change the course of history. I think there's a potential for a lot of rearrangement and productive scrambling some of the systems that we've come to take as normal but which are actually pretty destructive and damaging and extractive of people--systems like unfettered capitalism.  We had a level of consciousness in this in this country that was already on the rise before the crisis, and I think it's going to throw into stark relief a lot of the inequities that persist. I think people are going to be talking and thinking about other ways of being in the world. Other ways of living.

What does community mean to you?

It's the sum total of our relationships with one another, that if we're doing it right, exceed the sum of those individual parts. There's an added resonance that I think you get when you have a group of people who have relationships with one another, almost a kind of hum, that I think if you're plugged into it, you can feel. I think if you step back and listen to that hum, you can you can almost feel it and you can also feel when it's not there.

How do you build community?

Through organizing, and we do organizing through deep listening; it's the first step toward understanding. Through meeting people where they are. We can't make progress in building community if we begin the relationship by asking somebody to support our campaign. The way to begin is to say, 'How are you doing? How are things going for you right now? Tell me about you.'

How do you uplift voices?

By organizing and listening to what they have to say. In my previous organizing within my community of Inwood and Washington Heights, for instance, we really seek to emphasize the voices of older Latinx folks whose first language may not be English and who have been systematically excluded from the polis, from civic engagement, because the dominant language is English. It involves thinking more deeply about how can we support the voices of the myriad single men who've come to this country sometimes without documentation to work these menial construction jobs and send money home who live six to 10 in a one bedroom along Post Avenue or Sherman or what have you. 

What's a challenge you've faced, and how did you face it?

The transition from academia and organizing to working in government has been challenging, most notably because of my gender: I am femme and nonbinary and I use the pronouns are they/them. It's been challenging because I am the only one; I can confidently say that I am the only non binary legislative staffer in New York State that I've met or heard about at this point. Navigating that identity in a space where it's not otherwise present has been challenging and I think I've relied a lot on support networks from all the different places that I've been in my life so far. And that has given me a lot of strength to have difficult conversations about gender--both around my own my own identity and also around the policies that are brought forth at the state legislature--why some of them may be leaps forward for my community and why some of them may actually not be.

What’s a small scale change that everyone can do today? 

Reach out to somebody in your building, either whom you know may need some support, or whom you've never met before, because I think one of the most dangerous aspects of this crisis is the social isolation. Because it not just affects our individual mental health that affects the health of our collective social body and the health of our collective social body is what we depend on as organizers to get shit done. And if that collective social body is not well we are powerless as a people.

Anything else you'd like to mention?

If you're interested in getting involved in mutual aid, there are so many different ways to do it. You can go out on your own and start by organizing your building by just talking to people and seeing what their needs are. If you're interested in linking up with the project Senator Jackson's office is helping get off the ground, you can go to Mutualaid.SenatorJackson.com. There's also Mutualaid.nyc for a citywide umbrella where you can find other local efforts.


"Stay Home" sign at the Grant Houses in Manhattan.

A Quote...

The wise person looks into space and does not regard the small as too little nor the great as too big, for they know there is no limit to dimensions.

Chuang Tzu