Welcome to CivicList, an independent newsletter to build community and uplift voices. In this edition I include:
What I'm grateful for.
Resources for you to take civic action today.
An interview with Dr. Rahsaan Harris, new CEO of Citizens Committee for New York City.
I’m grateful to have written letters to Congress in solidarity with international students to overturn a xenophobic ICE policy, and to have gotten hired as an adjunct professor at NYU Wagner's advocacy & political action program.
What's missing? Please tell me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Building Community with Rahsaan Harris
I've had the pleasure of getting to know Rahsaan Harris, new CEO of Citizens Committee for New York City, as I serve on the Young Citizens Committee. Watch or listen to the full interview, or read how Rahsaan uplifts voices, builds community, and stays motivated.
"I think back to my ancestors I figure how resilient they were and recognize that as bad as things might seem for me, that there's always a chance for sunshine to break through."
You run Citizens Committee for New York City. What’s it been like to start recently?
So recently that I kind of came to Citizens Committee the same way the pandemic came in New York City. I started on March 16th, the day that the City shut down, so it has been pretty incredible to run the organization during a crisis, which is kind of shadowing to our founding.
And can you tell a little bit about your founding?
Citizens Committee for New York was founded in 1975 during the fiscal crisis back then. New York City was-- I think the technical term of it like hot mess-- budgets were bad the city was in turmoil the federal government basically said ‘you're on your own’ and New York City needed someone to step up. Jacob Javits, the Republican senator, and Osborn Eliot, the founder of Newsweek got together and got a bunch of their friends together and said ‘We want to get average everyday New Yorkers to help improve their neighborhoods and solve problems’ that they've identified. In a time of crisis that's extremely important, and actually it's an important ongoing endeavor make sure that New York City lives up to its ideals. For 45 years we've been working to bring New Yorkers together to improve their communities, and we're most proud of the work that takes place in vulnerable neighborhoods.
You were founded in a crisis, and you personally started your leadership in another crisis. I'd like you know like to hear more about what your plans are for building community in a crisis situation.
Leadership in crisis is so important and being willing to step up and to be nimble is critical. When you are dogmatic, you can't necessarily address the most important points. So I think the first thing any good leader does is listen and analyze and that's what I would have done if we weren't in crisis, but it's critically important in crisis. Then the second thing I wanted to do was after we've listened to community and analyzed what data was out there was try to be as supportive and flexible as possible. After you're flexible, then it's important to hopefully collect information so that you can pivot and improve after that. And in this part we are collecting a lot of information from our grantee partners to be able to lift up their stories on a citywide level so that we can aggregate you know solutions, we can aggregate concerns, and we can make sure that people aren't invisible.
COVID has hit New York City where jobs have gone away, access to food isn't what it used to be, health is in peril, so basic needs have kind of become the focus and the screaming headline of the day. So we have given our groups that might have been block associations that were beautifying empty lots or doing after-school programs, we’ve given them the chance to talk to us about other things that they're doing. And they’re saying that they're assisting old folks to get them food, they're checking in on their neighbors, they're providing PPE protective gear and masks, and they're also providing outlets for folks’ mental health. We're giving them general operating funds so that they can do those projects and be the community leaders that they are.
We're giving local leaders-—hyper-local leaders--that are on blocks that are in communities the ability to be a part of the solution by bringing others together, and by trusting them and giving them support so hopefully we're unleashing their power in a way that other people could.
I wonder what advice you might have for leaders especially in the nonprofit world who might be a little bit reluctant to speak out for political reasons?
Education is definitely possible. Recently with the murder of George Floyd and the attention on race relations and folks getting an opportunity to hear from black people, like what it is to be black in America, I think you know diversity and this commitment of colorblindness has kind of actually silenced and made a lot of people right in front of us invisible. Leaders right now are finding their voice.
River Fields [an intern at Citizens Committee and CivicList March 2020 interviewee] right now is helping us do a survey where we surveyed New York City leaders and asked them about what they're doing youth services-wise; what do they feel about race relations; what do they feel about community-police relations? Are people filling up with census? And some of those things to some might be like ‘oh my goodness that's political’ but you know that's living in society and being engaged and that's not political that's just engaging who we are. Knowing the difference between what's lobbying and what being partisan versus just educating and providing people the tools to engage in democracy which is the foundation of this country, I think that's really important for nonprofit leaders to understand, to have the courage to step out there and if they don't know to educate themselves.
Of everything that you work on, what do you think you're most excited about?
I'm excited about really trusting leaders, of really understanding and seeing black Americans, blackness in this country and recognizing that because of our unfortunate history and unfortunate origin, you know our origin story has some fatal flaws with our founding fathers, and how we built wealth in this country that we were finally getting to a point where we're actually being able to examine it in a way that hopefully is not shameful but allows us to figure out how to move forward together.
I'm excited about like listening in the Black Lives Matter moment to black leaders and listening to their experience. I'm excited about listening to grassroot leaders in their in their spaces, and in this moment of crisis and not coming out with some you know already baked solution that we're trying to experiment on them, but like trusting them and supporting them and providing them a platform.
One of the first things you did when the pandemic hit was to do a big survey to find out what was on people's minds, what their needs were, and then it was very clear that those needs and experiences would be shared with elected officials. How do we hold elected officials accountable?
I think first and foremost there is very little chance of accountability if there's no relationship. When there's relationship I think there is a built-in accountability if you meet across the table with somebody multiple times and you realize that nothing's changing I think you recognize ‘well something's going to happen in this equation so I don’t want to keep coming to the same meeting and saying the same thing and getting the same result.’ That's the definition of insanity.
Constant contact and data. If you don't have that data you can't keep people accountable on what is happening communities of color. If you don't break things down by borough, by neighborhood, you know you don't understand how you can be intentional in your response. I don't mean to be too much of a data geek but you know data-- if it's not measured it's not managed. So I think you need to measure things and you can see how relationships are improving or how things are getting worse and how you need to intervene.
What are you curious about these days?
I'm curious about the future of New York City. It is almost a silly thing to say, but specifically I think is really important for leaders to think as futurists. We need to think about the jobs of the future. We think need to think about different revenue possibilities for the City. I think we need to think about how the social safety net works, we need to rethink policing. Are police there to protect? Protect who from what and how? Or are they there to facilitate great relationships? They're definitely different attitudes in policing; if you're looking for something wrong or if you're spending more time in prevention of something wrong—they’re two different approaches.
When people talk about ‘defund the police’ I think that is a scary phrase but if I think if it were flipped on his head and saying ‘let's invest in community so that police can do their jobs differently,’ then I think people would approach it differently. How do we take care of mental health? How do we take care of this surge of homelessness? How do we make sure that people coming from different backgrounds and don't have relationships, how do we form relationships so people can be you know better neighbors and be in the same space with one another? And things like restorative justice and those pieces that don't aren't so punitive because jails end up being graduate school for criminal behavior.
How do you stay motivated?
I think about my ancestors. I'm from New York City but if you look in a textbook of people of formerly enslaved folks, my family story would be in any history book. After the transatlantic slave trade coming through a port in Charleston, South Carolina, I had grandparents that once they were of age, got the heck out of Dodge and came up to New York City and had my parents, and a generation later, here I am. I think of the resilience of folks that were living a different life on the continent of Africa, free, and then having that taken away seeing hundreds, thousands of folks that they care about die, having no families ripped apart. I just think back to my ancestors I figure how resilient they were and recognize that as bad as things might seem for me that there's always a chance for sunshine to break through. I come from people that had hope when there was no hope, so I can't be a wimp about it.
What do you think a small-scale action that everyone could take today would?
Number one, everyone should vote and/or register anyone within their vicinity of voting age and eligibility to vote. So that’s very simple. If people vote and educate themselves, nationally, but even more importantly locally, then they can see how they can really implement change. Local elections are won by so few votes that if more people who voted, you could really move some thing. The second thing is--thinking about so many people unemployed right now, I really want people to support local businesses and I'll start with black businesses. You're talking about Black Lives Matter and you look at the federal response to the current economic crisis that helps small businesses, black and Latino businesses were getting denied at above 90% of their applications. So they don't have access to capital. They already had very weak relationships with banks at best, so I think if folks supported black businesses, people of color-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, local businesses, then people will start getting money moving within neighborhoods, and neighborhoods could come back. But without the money it's gonna be really really difficult.
Anything else you want to mention before we wrap up?
I would love people to check out Citizens Committee-- its www.citizensnyc.org. At the very least, sign up for our mailing list. We have great community resources there. There will be opportunities for folks to apply for local grants for their local community. And more and more we're doing community surveys so there are opportunities for you to lend your voice so that we know what you're thinking so that we can let stakeholders and local elected officials know how to best address your needs and also to highlight the wonderful things that you're doing.