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THE URBAN CONGRESS AND THE URBAN UPRISING: Steps towards building the municipal united front

takebacklaIn Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, David Harvey explains that the right to the city is far more than access. Harvey writes, "It is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts' desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends on the exercise of a collective power over the process of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is... one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?"

Right to the City Alliance's (RTC) Urban Congress Model is an attempt to answer that question. RTC developed this model as a means to create intersections amongst diverse sectors in the city, foster relationships within regions and mobilize organizations in our network. Our groups support each other in addressing their communities' respective city struggles through sharing strategies and effective tools for organizing. Some examples include: the organizing of street vendors into worker's cooperatives in Los Angeles, through the East LA Community Housing Corporation and Esperanza Community Housing and the "sword/shield model" for eviction defense (to be explained later) developed by Boston's City Life/Vida Urbana. The Urban Congress consists of panel presentations, organizational model shares (where organizations provide tools and techniques for building successful local campaigns), and direct actions based on regional issues. The actions unite diverse constituencies and bases. Homeowners demanding new rates on their mortgages have an opportunity to intersect with tenants in foreclosed buildings seeking repairs and local groups tackling large scale municipal development and displacement plans, Undocumented workers come together with prison rights' advocates to call for greater inclusion in civic engagement and educate each other about the links between displacement and rising incarceration and deportation rates.

In 2011, we held our first successful member Congress in Boston; it yielded a funded regional organizer, a civic engagement table and greater unity amongst the work of Boston organizations. Right to the City worked with City Life/ Vida Urbana to support their local eviction blockades and promote their Sword and Shield Model. This was done through holding workshops for Right to the City Alliance member groups and other housing groups fighting displacement throughout the country. The Sword/Shield Model is an organizing methodology that involves a paired legal defense strategy (the sword) with direct action work (the shield). This collaborative model serves to teach tenants and homeowners how to conduct effective eviction blockades.

Last year, 2012, Right to the City Alliance organized three Congresses. In Charlotte, North Carolina, we brought community groups and Occupy activists together to protest Bank of America at their annual shareholders' meeting, as part of the 99 Power Coalition. Using acts of civil disobedience as well as political theatre, we created a boxing ring in the streets with the characters of Ms. 99 going head to head with the CEO of Bank of America, Brian "Big Banks" Moynihan, which generated increased awareness to the role of Bank of America in the foreclosure crisis.

In New Orleans, Right to the City tackled the infamous Louisiana justice system, which has criminalized generations of poor brown and black people. Organizing groups included: Safe Streets/Strong Communities, Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, VOTE, New Orleans Workers Center, STAND, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, and the Greater New Orleans Organizers' Roundtable. Through our actions in Louisiana, Right to the City helped unite immigrant workers being detained for their political involvement in advocating for better working conditions (the southern 32), and prison advocates responding to the bloated budget of the local prison system.

In the last Congress in LA, we returned to our roots of fighting gentrification and organized an action on the Los Angeles Metro concerning development plans that would displace hundreds of LA residents. In addition, we held an action in the Pasadena central headquarters of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally funded mortgage lenders who are considered major instigators of the foreclosure crisis. This action was significant in uniting tenants and homeowners, many of whom were Black and Latina women. While homeowners were at threat of losing their property, tenants suffered in deteriorating conditions losing access to heat, hot water and other services when landlords could not keep up with mortgage payments.

In New York, while not officially holding an Urban Congress, we worked with the Brecht Forum, Center for Place, Culture and Politics and the Urban Ecologies program at Parsons on a congress-like model called Urban Uprising. The event was a more academic conference that created a reflective space where we could use our hearts to re-imagine and rebuild the kind of New York city we desire.

 

FannieFreddieProtestTRANSFORMATIVE DEMANDS

The Congress provides a space for the collective construction and definition of "transformative demands" and "immediate demands" that focus on city residents' dreams of building communities that meet their needs and reflect their identity. Immediate demands are demands that speak to our base directly, for example, getting a stop sign in a neighborhood or getting a landlord to make repairs in an apartment building. While winning these demands may invigorate a base, they do not change or transform power structures that reinforce race, class and gender oppression. Transformative demands address the root cause(s) of a problem in society, alter power relations, and cause systemic change. For Right to the City, transformative demands, particularly in terms of land and housing use, embrace and maintain the following ideals: solutions that put people's needs over profit, opportunities for social ownership like fighting for worker and consumer limited equity cooperatives, community land trusts, and creative social housing development.

Central to these demands is democratic control, meaning that residents and communities must be the primary decision-makers. While many of these projects can and have been achieved on a local level, we understand that to foster a strong regional movement they must achieve scale. They may begin locally, but have the potential to be replicated and adapted to communities, cities and regions across the country to impact millions of people. Transformative demands are part of campaigns and fights that develop the consciousness of our members, activists and the larger public. We seek to increase awareness on many fronts, including: the importance of organizing, analyses of the problem(s), our values/principles/vision, and our concrete solutions. We often draw from the lessons of the civil rights era to reflect on the power and challenges of movement moments. An example of a transformative demand from that time was the demand to "End Jim Crow," which included the demand for full enfranchisement for African Americans.

Transitional demands open up the space for transformative demands to become more relevant and relatable to people's lives. An end to segregation of lunch counters, buses, and schools, for example, are transitional demands that connect to the larger transformative demand to fundamentally alter southern society. These transitional demands played an important role in organizing impacted communities and their allies through creative, local, and replicable actions and helping to win changes that mattered to people. However, participants in these actions never lost sight of their larger transformative demands. The Urban Congress strategy is a point of intersection where we can further our intention to help our organizations fight not only for immediate demands but for more transformative demands that help maintain their stake in community and bring about positive systematic, societal change.

This Spring, 2013, Right to the City is focused on moving forward a national campaign and platform around land and housing, specifically targeting Obama, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD), and mortgage lender Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This includes supporting the local work of organizations in our network that are fighting on many fronts to prevent ongoing gentrification, displacement, and criminalization in our cities. We will track and acknowledge the progress they are making incorporating transformative demands into their local work.

 

LOS ANGELES (LA) CONGRESS: CONCRETE WINS FOR OUR CITIES

The LA Urban Congress on September 12-14th, 2012 tackled issues of urban displacement and gentrification in Boyle Heights, LA and throughout the country. Some of the organizations that participated included Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), East LA Community Corporation, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation (ELACC), Union de Vecinos (UV), and the Bus Rider's Union (BRU). The Congress served to improve and strengthen the relationships between ELACC, the Bus Rider's Union and the Right to the City Alliance's national staff to fight for more cohesive national and translocal land, as well as to make an impact on housing and transit reform. The work in LA got a shout out from activist scholar, David Harvey, who talked about the power of a collaborative alliance of organizations, individuals, and communities. Harvey stated, "A configuration of social movements is beginning to emerge in many cities that could possibly start to exercise power over the whole city," but, he cautioned "it's in a very early stage of doing that." Right to the City hopes that these relationships and the collective work they yield will become stronger and more focused. This will expand our impact in LA, a city which can then serve as another growing region that maintains the values and principles of Right to the City.

Particularly, East LA Community Housing Corporation and Union de Vecinos have been part of a struggle against the LA Metro's (Los Angeles' transit system) plan to build a CVS pharmacy in Boyle Heights. MTA's expansion policies have dislocated thousands of families in Boyle Heights, and they haven't been guaranteed a right of return. For example, the community's only supermarket was demolished to make way for a Walgreens, a process that entailed the destruction of affordable housing and green space and created a proliferation of empty lots throughout the area. The community has been demanding that space be returned to build affordable housing, to expand public space for the community, and to give nonprofits and local community organizations an opportunity to develop the space. Boyle Heights residents had been engaged in an ongoing battle to protect two family owned pharmacies from future displacement. Recently, due to their organization and unity, they have won part of this battle!

According to the newspaper, La Opinion, in early December 2012, the Metro Director released a quote saying that they {the Metro} would not be pursuing the CVS project. At the Right to the City LA Congress in September the rumor was already brewing, and as ELACC organizer Reina Fukuda announced that the Metro plans for construction might be changed, the crowd of over 250 LA Right to the City Congress attendees and local Los Angeles organizations and residents shouted with joy. Dr. Michael Ramirez, owner of Ramirez Pharmacy on Soto Street and Cesar Chavez, eloquently stated "Let them know what you really need- Whether it be housing, or a market. They have to listen to the community."

The Bus Riders Union worked with the Right to the City Alliance to pull off this year's LA Congress and brought some of the best energy, vision, strategy, local issues, and chants with them. An ally of ELACC, the Bus Rider's Union had been diligently working to stop Measure J, a ballot proposition opposed by residents and community members aiming to extend a half-cent sales tax benefiting transit projects until 2069. If the Measure went through, it would have helped facilitate 15 major transit and freeway projects that would promote further concentrations of poverty and gentrification. Recently, the Bus Rider's Union won the postponement of Measure J.

Another win by a local group was forged by the work of RTTC member Causa Justa, Just Cause. Shortly after the Congress and the actions on Fannie and Freddie (the national tax-funded mortgage holders who were also key to the financial collapse), an article was released in the LA Times that stated that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had reversed their position on principal reduction (in California) and announced that they would begin to allow their borrowers to participate in the taxpayer-funded, "Keep Your Home California" program, a dramatic shift in position for these mortgage lending giants. The announcement was made right after Right to the City had coordinated 4 local actions against Fannie and Freddie foreclosures and evictions in the cities of Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles as part of the Take Back the People's Bank campaign. While the primary credit for increased access to the Keep Your Home program goes to local groups in California like Causa Justa and allied groups like Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the escalation of actions through united regional and national organizing might have proven threatening to targets and allowed for certain reforms.

 

NEW YORK: URBAN UPRISING

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York City was in crisis and needed to heal. Member organizations of Right to the City like FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality), CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) and GOLES (Good Ole Lower East Side), along with a larger coordinated effort called Occupy Sandy, took up the cause to help local residents in the Gowanus neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn, Manhattan's Chinatown, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan to gain access to resources like food, water, clothing and shelter. The news reported that Occupy Sandy and the local organizations were having a greater and more intimate impact with city residents than the American Red Cross. While Right to the City Alliance supported the relief work financially and with staff time, there was a need to expand our work and unite organizations and institutions in other sectors of the city to reflect on these actions and create a broader urban agenda. Right to the City Alliance joined forces with the Brecht Forum, Parsons Urban Ecology Program, the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center and an emerging local group of activists called Growing Roots, to redefine and reimagine New York City through a series of reflections and actions that culminated in a two day conference and film series called Urban Uprising.

The first day at the Graduate Center, which attracted several hundred CUNY students, consisted of activists and organizers from across the world speaking about local land and housing struggles. The second day of Urban Uprising, which was held at Parsons, offered practical sessions where participants brainstormed on strategies and methods of organizing in New York City. The philosophy that guided and influenced the organizers of the convention was shaped by the work of the Growing Roots organization in Detroit, which developed alternative counter power institutions (community gardens, schools) in order to reinvigorate the city's economy through local residents rather than big corporations or developers. Much of this work is in the spirit of Grace Lee Boggs, who noted, "Building living local economies in this day and age is a spiritual activity, a way to grow our souls. In a world where a globalizing economy is destroying our communities...this evolution to a higher humanity has become more necessary and possible."

On the first day, case studies in urban settings from Brazil, South Africa and Hungary were presented to the audience. It was valuable to see many different bases and constituencies utilize the narrative of the "right to the city" frame in their work. For example, a homeless organization in Hungary utilized the model of member-led transformative organizing developed by Picture the Homeless, a collective led by individuals experiencing homelessness in New York City. There was a discussion of funding and resources for organizing, which definitely influenced the scale of work in many contexts. It was also key to understand the differences in organizing in a city like New York within the confines of social justice groups and intense securitization and militarization (meaning quick and forced evictions and breaking up of rallies and assemblies) compared to broader more grassroots landless people's movements in cities in South Africa and India, for example.

On the second day, students from the Design and Urban Ecologies program at Parsons offered insightful views on public space and the structural concerns of building cities that provide real environments that can make the city livable and sustainable for residents. Over 80 organizations from NYC participated in the Urban Uprising conference. We hope that the success of this event will lead to evolving dialogue and action with regard to issues relating to jobs and economics, transportation, public space, food justice, health care, education, criminal justice, housing, art, media, environment, and democratic forms of governance.

The right to the city is an elemental human right. It is a right that is fundamentally opposed to the financialization of our neighborhoods and the displacements and evictions that destroy urban community and render us invisible. Our commitment to trans-local (understanding that "local" embraces inherently migratory communities and diverse conditions in various cities) struggle, engagement and awareness of gentrification fights are meant to inspire cities worldwide. The Urban Congress model serves as a foundation for achieving the right to the city. It will lead us to be more proactive and transparent in honoring the immediate local concerns that urban residents have over their conditions. The Congress also provides vital information necessary in taking on national fights against the state that will help prevent the ongoing displacement of low income, working class people and people of color. Lastly, it will serve as a place to imagine and create the public spaces and cities we dream to live in.

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