The Young and the Leftist

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Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. It’s not something I’m proud of, but there was a moment in 1992, while I sat on a friend’s couch watching the election returns, that I really thought everything was about to get a lot better. That’s what growing up during the era of Reagan and Bush does to you. My generation went through our formative years without ever having a Democrat in the White House. It can make you a little goofy-headed at the prospect of having a liberal as President.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve since noticed that some of the smartest, toughest and funniest activists around are also of my generation. Apparently, growing up during an era of conservative triumph can also make you more intrepid and more resilient–and nurture a beautifully perverse sense of humor to boot.

For too long, the civil rights generation has been getting all the credit for noble values, public commitment and social conscience. That’s not without cause: According to one depressing poll, a whopping 36 percent of college freshmen now feel that it’s important to be socially active, the lowest percentage in 15 years. According to another, 52 percent of them expect to be millionaires by the time they are 40 years old.

But not every twenty- and thirtysomething is a slacker, hip-hop impresario, internet entrepreneur or Steve Forbes booster. In fact, New York City hosts some truly extraordinary young social activists.

At City Limits, we wanted to profile a handful of these people in part for the simple reason that they rarely get recognized. We also wanted to identify what is unique about this generation of activists.

In a word, it’s pluck.

These New Yorkers are accustomed to sticking their necks out in an era that is hostile to grassroots activism and social justice. Back in the day, it might have been easy to organize a protest or start a new community group when it was the cool thing to do. These people, on the other hand, are expert at going against the grain. They have a much tougher audience, and as a result they are clear-eyed and strategic. (They’re also funny–no coincidence that two of the 12 are also comedians.)

When we brought a group of these progressives together to talk, I naïvely asked them whether they thought the upcoming changes in city government–new mayor, new City Council–would give them a chance to go from outsiders to insiders. They all rolled their eyes.

Most of them did think things would probably be getting better. They were just realistic about the possibilities. “I don’t expect the next administration to be great friend of progressives, but they will be less interested in demonizing progressives,” is how community development star Brad Lander put it.

In keeping with that, they talked tactics a lot, explaining how to maintain progressive influence in a reactionary era. Don’t throw out the old tools, like marches and protests, but use them creatively: set crickets loose during a garden auction, or send teenagers on bikes out to police law-breaking truckers. Target the politicians who actually have power–even if they are Republicans–and keep the heat on them, even between elections. Use identity politics as a way to mobilize people, not as an end in itself. Figure out ways to make big splashy protests like the one in Seattle last year connect to local issues, like why there are no jobs in Bushwick.

No more faith that one politician will change it all. Instead, I’d rather pin my idealistic hopes on these pragmatists. They sustain and encourage the New York City that most of us would rather live in, where justice and vitality are as important as order. When times change, and if these progressives find themselves in the majority, we will all benefit from their tenacity. New York is lucky to have them. — Kathleen McGowan

Frances Miller
Legislative Aide, Manhattan

By Kathleen McGowan

She calls herself a realist, impatient with ideologues. But perhaps she protests too much. Miller, 29, is the legislative aide and right-hand woman for one of the most idealistic politicians to hit Albany in a generation: the openly gay, unabashedly left State Senator Tom Duane. Like Duane, the blunt and funny Miller knows how it feels to be an outsider. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, going to yeshiva, Miller was raised in a culture that was supportive but ultimately suffocating.

“I learned a lot from [that world]–how I organize, and the benefits of community,” she says now. But when she entered Brooklyn College, she moved out–to the dismay of her family and neighbors. “I was expected to get married at age 18, live a certain life, have the kids, the house,” Miller says. “I won’t say I understand the experience of homophobia. But I do know what it feels like to potentially lose your family” over life choices.

After doing homeless outreach for three years, Miller welcomes the power that working for an elected official can bring, and the opportunity to be involved in forging effective political compromises–getting Senate Republicans to see the value of work-study for welfare recipients, for example, or backing a centrist like Hillary Clinton. “Hillary has her faults. But that’s not the point–I’ll do whatever I can to get her elected. We get so self-righteous, we hurt ourselves.”

Q: What do you think you missed coming into the game when you did?

Being an activist in 1990s is a test. It’s really weird to hear 25-year-olds on MTV talking about downsizing government, hearing them spew the rhetoric of the right.

Q: Would you ever run for office?

I’m going to run for something. But you have to have a base. I’m working toward that. And I’ll back out of it if I feel that it gets to my brain, like it does with a lot of electeds. A lot of people go into politics bright-eyed, and the power gets to them.

Majora Carter
Environmental Justice, Hunts Point

By Jill Priluck

As a film major at Wesleyan College, Majora Carter never imagined that her life’s work would bring her back to Hunts Point, the poor Bronx neighborhood where she grew up. “I turned 17 and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going back,'” she says now. What drew her back home was simple economics–a cheap place to live while she went to school for creative writing at NYU. But it changed her life completely.

While teaching writing in the Bronx in 1997, Carter volunteered for the Point, originally a youth development program with a cultural bent. That evolved into a mission: helping Hunts Point residents see the neighborhood’s possibilities, a mission buoyed by the threat of a monster waste transfer station that could bring 5,200 tons of garbage a day. After getting together a 500-strong community meeting in March, says Carter, “I felt a huge victory, that people finally feel they have a right to be counted.”

One of Carter’s innovative projects at The Point was recruiting neighborhood kids, armed with bikes and walkie-talkies, to confront truckers driving illegally on residential streets. As part of a community regeneration plan, Carter identified an abandoned city street with access to the Bronx River. Thanks to a Partnership for Parks grant, it’s the future site of the peninsular neighborhood’s first waterfront park in 60 years, complete with community boathouse.

Carter, now 33, says that at one time she was rather apolitical. “I finally got my hands on Pedagogy of the Oppressed and I thought–maybe I should be reading this.” While Carter’s work is pretty all-encompassing, it hasn’t overwhelmed her artistic side. In the midst of planning the fourth annual South Bronx Film and Video Festival, she’s now learning how to play guitar.

Q: What makes you angry?

When organizations come to us as if they are our great white hope. If you want to work with us on our projects, that’s fine. But having a white man who runs a big green organization fabricate our vision makes me angry.

Q: What have you learned from your parents that you bring into your work?

My father, who died last year, was quiet in his way of protesting. It had to do with dignity. For example, the word “nigger.” We never used that word. My black friends and white friends, the way he was the same with everyone. I realized that what he was trying to show us is the way you show yourself and the way you treat others.

Lavita McMath
Education Policy Analyst, Citywide

By Carl Vogel

Don’t assume that because her job is to analyze budgets and public policy, McMath is a wonk sequestered in front of her computer. Since moving to New York in 1993 to study urban policy at the New School, McMath has done more hands-on work to fortify neighborhoods than a city block of average folks.

Before signing on with the Citizens’ Committee for Children as staff assistant for education and child care in 1998, McMath had spent time as a consultant at the Fund for the City of New York, where she coordinated a conference on family preservation, and helped found Assemblyman Roger Green’s Benjamin Banneker Community Development Corp. She is also a lay leader at Brooklyn’s Emmanuel Baptist Church, a mentor for young students and member of Community Board 2.

All this is no slight on her day job, which she loves. “My studies provide the actual, tangible information that supports our group’s budget advocacy,” she says. “You have to know what’s there to make recommendations that make sense for what needs to change.”

McMath grew up in public housing in Chicago, in a household with roots in Mississippi and a strong sense of church and family. She says that the lessons she learned there about giving back to the community are the hidden link between her diverse interests. As for the future, she leaves that open, be it community development, advocacy, policy or some new endeavor. “Running for office? I wouldn’t rule it out,” she says. “But I’m not interested in thinking about that now.”

Q: What makes you angry?

Apathy. People not taking a stand or not sticking up for something they believe in.

Q: What would you tell a 21-year-old going into your field?

Find an organization or a job that allows you to learn all you can and to grow. Take advantage of those opportunities, and don’t be discouraged with being the youngest at a meeting. See it as an opportunity to grow. One day you’ll be the one that people rely on; you’ll be the expert.

Sofia Quintero
Polymath, Bronx

By Kathleen McGowan

Ex-chief-of-staff for a City Councilwoman, ex-policy analyst, now editor of a Latino web site and a stand-up comic, there’s one job title Quintero prefers best: generalist. Only 30, this Bronx native has already tried her hand at everything from studying statistics at Columbia’s school of international affairs to budget analysis at the city’s Independent Budget Office, grassroots grant-making at the North Star Fund and teaching a class on hip-hop at the Brecht Forum.

At the newly formed IBO, she and her colleagues valiantly wrested important social services data out of a reticent administration, turning the numbers into sharp analysis of city policy. With the New York Philanthropy Initiative, she helped survey how foundations fund the city’s grassroots groups, a project still underway.

Eventually, she says, “I decided what I needed to do is concentrate in an area where I can be useful no matter what issue I’m working on. That’s when I realized I was a generalist, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”

She says she learned her biggest political lesson at the age of 25, while working at the City Council: Identity politics has its limits. “Descriptive representation doesn’t mean anything. A person may look like you, be of your race and gender, but not be the best person to represent you.” Quintero instead now thinks of identity politics as a starting point, a foundation for challenging oppression.

Quick-talking and expansive, Quintero is optimistic about the left. One big hope: the Internet. “One brother said to me recently: ‘I don’t need to be online, because the revolution’s gonna be on the streets,'” she laughs. “I said, yeah–but you’ll miss it because you didn’t get the email.”

Q: Do you feel like you missed out, getting into this when you did?

Things have changed, economically, politically, culturally. Some folks are very nostalgic for a time they didn’t live in. They all want to be a Young Lord or a Black Panther. I think you can’t trash everything [the older generation] has done, but street actions and rallies alone are not going to change everything.

Q: What do you see as the political future for our generation?

Our trump card is that we’re going to blow up out of nowhere. They say we don’t stand for anything; meanwhile, our generation has highest level of entrepreneurship this country has ever seen. The more visible type is for-profit, but a lot is civic-oriented, nonprofit. They’ve underestimated us.

Brad Lander
Community Developer, Park Slope

By Kathleen McGowan

Raised and educated in Midwestern cities, Lander has only been a New Yorker for a little more than seven years. He’s spent almost all of them as head of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a neighborhood nonprofit that he turned into a community development powerhouse. At only 23, he took over the organization, building it from a staff of about a half-dozen into a veritable empire with more than 50 employees and several spin-off subsidiaries, including an ecologically sound dry cleaning franchise and a nonprofit temp agency.

Although he’s become an expert at the practical, Lander also has a scholar’s background, with a master’s degree in anthropology that he got in London on a Marshall scholarship. He’s good at connecting the specific to the general–he may know all the Park Slope gossip and understand the specifics of low-income housing development, but he also follows the socialist politics of inner London. This more critical academic perspective also shows in his demeanor: Lander may be progressive, but he’s no ideologue. He thinks–and speaks–deliberately, prone to answering questions with “on the one hand” responses.

But Lander doesn’t hesitate to glow over Brooklyn. “Not to romanticize it, but what’s suggested by this kind of commitment to diverse urban life is fabulous,” he says. “It’s the hint of a possibility of what society could be like.”

Q: Ever consider academia?

Not anymore. But I wish that there were ways to be engaged in more thoughtful collective reflection on the work we do while still doing it–that you didn’t have to make choice between toiling in the trenches or pondering things.

Q: Did the protests in Seattle inspire you?

Progressive politics now are not speaking to people in a way they need to–they don’t engage people on a cultural level. Seattle touched on connecting some people in those ways, but it didn’t translate into ways that made sense for people of color in disenfranchised communities in New York City.

Betty Yu
Garment-Worker Organizer, Sunset Park and Chinatown

By Carl Vogel

Yu became an activist on June 4, 1995, the day she found herself on the wrong side of a barricade at a Chinatown protest. On hand to photograph her sister and others in a hunger strike to protest a restaurant’s labor practices, Yu decided that taking pictures wasn’t enough. “I joined the hunger strike the next day,” she says.

She has continued on the path she began that day–passionate, focused on her community and committed to her family. Today, Yu, project director for the Chinese Staff and Workers Association and cofounder of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, pushes for better worker’s compensation services for injured garment workers and for equal pay and treatment for low-income women. Her family is still a major source of inspiration–both her parents have worked long days in the garment industry since they came to this country from China 27 years ago, and her mother has become an important leader in their Sunset Park community.

A graduate of New York University’s prestigious film school, the 22-year-old Yu says her visual skills are now largely devoted to helping Chinatown youth learn how to document the world they live in. “I view the camera as a weapon to tell one’s story and to expose injustice,” she says. “There was no way I could play both roles of being a documentary filmmaker and an organizer. So right now, I’m organizing.”

Q: Do you feel like you missed out?

Yes and no. But I’m not regretful that I didn’t grow up in the 1960s because I feel that people need to go back to their own communities to organize. And for the Chinese community, the 21st century is the most important time to organize–in many ways, things are just getting worse.

Q: How do you prepare for a big public speech?

I always rely a lot on our members. I confer with them [before] I do a speech to try to represent the needs of our group, which is member-based. I confer with the leaders and with my mom about what should I put out there. They’ll guide me.

Jimmy Van Bramer
Civic Activist, Queens

By Carl Vogel

Van Bramer has been on the losing side of more than a few battles. But he says that the issues he has fought for–notably gay rights, universal health care and campaign finance reform–are too important to let the setbacks affect him. “Obviously, progressives want to win and want to be in power,” he says. “But change is incremental, and I’m certain that we’re doing good things and moving forward.”

A committed outer-borough booster, van Bramer, 30, has done most of his work in his native Queens. As a student at St. John’s University, he tried to force that Catholic school to officially recognize a gay and lesbian club (the effort ultimately failed), and he now serves as executive vice president of the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens. He also was involved in electoral issues citywide as the deputy field director of the 1998 Clean Money/Clean Elections campaign.

Today, van Bramer organizes support for Queens’ 63 libraries as the system’s community relations specialist. “Libraries are critical to every community,” he says, emphasizing that access is particularly important in Queens, with its large immigrant population.

Bramer is still fighting difficult battles. Most recently, he ran as a delegate for Bill Bradley in the 7th Congressional District, a missed opportunity to be Queens’ first openly gay elected official. As is his style, he is not discouraged. “[Bradley] spoke the truth to power,” Bramer says. “And we need to keep pushing that along.”

Q: What do you feel like you missed out on?

On a more personal note, as a gay man, the 1970s and 1980s were about revolution and about AIDS. I’m not sorry that I didn’t experience that loss, as a lot of people did, but something happened there, and I wasn’t there for it.

Q: Do you feel like you’re standing on the shoulders of giants?

I have great respect and admiration for the people that came before me who made it possible for us to be doing what we are today. I don’t know the names and the faces of most of them, they were the people who would show up at a protest in D.C. when that was a dangerous thing to do. Many we don’t know; they’re regular people but they were incredibly courageous.

Dushaw Hockett
Public Housing Tenant Organizer, Citywide

By Sajan P. Kuriakos

At 16, Hockett was already marching on City Hall to protest education budget cuts. Now 25, this eloquent defender of housing for the poor chairs the New York City Public Housing Resident Alliance. Hockett is also on the staff of the Center for Community Change, a national social welfare group–even while he finishes his sociology degree at Hunter College.

Hockett grew up in Bushwick Houses in Brooklyn, where he still lives. His political life began the summer after he graduated high school, when he volunteered as Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez’ neighborhood point person during her maiden campaign. After she won the primary, he joined her staff, where his work included helping public housing tenants mired in bureaucratic quicksand. Housing rights for the poor soon became his life’s work.

But his decision to become an activist was severely tested. “My grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness and believed that it wasn’t man’s place to seek change–it was God’s will,” says Hockett. The two were exceptionally close, but even as he defended his beliefs she clung to hers. “My grandmother forced me to take a deeper look and put a lot more energy and thought into what I do,” he says. “But I felt that on this one issue of affordable housing for the poor, I could make an impact.”

Last fall, he unquestionably did, as thousands of tenants packed the city Housing Authority’s public hearings on policy changes. Hockett was front and center in that organizing effort. His determination seems to be family trait–last year, Hockett saw just how much her faith meant to his grandmother. After a triple bypass, she needed a blood transfusion but refused because it went against her faith. “She made the choice consciously without fear and doubt,” Hockett says. “She died for what she believed in.” He pauses. “That is a powerful thing–to believe in what you do.”

Q: Will you run for political office?

Not right now. I believe I’ll be ready to run for political office when the community I represent is politically sophisticated enough to hold me accountable. One needs to be beholden to the community.

Q: What are you reading?

All Too Human, by George Stephanopoulos. I am always interested in how young people get into politics.

Monifa Akinwole-Bandele
Housing Organizer, Brooklyn

By Jill Priluck

For Monifa Akinwole-Bandele, reading science fiction isn’t only an escape–it’s a model for organizing. “I don’t like boundaries,” says the Brooklyn-born activist. “People who see themselves as revolutionaries almost have to believe the impossible.”

As Brooklyn project director for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, Akinwole-Bandele helps tenant associations of some 250 buildings navigate through a city program that gives low-income residents a chance to own their co-ops. That’s just her day job. An alum of Spelman College and Lincoln University, Akinwole-Bandele started the New York chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Project, a black liberation group that ties young African-Americans to their Southern heritage and works to free political prisoners. Recently, she coordinated a police brutality speakout for 300 Bronx high schoolers. “UHAB is fulfilling work,” she says, “but it’s still working within the system.”

Akinwole-Bandele, 29, always had strong community roots. After all, her father, a Queens social worker, joined the Black Panthers, and her mother, a Dallas-based school administrator, is a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member. The propaganda machine is now stronger, she says, but thinking about that era refuels her vision, one that will be passed along to her year-old daughter Naima.

Q. Do you feel like you have a community?

All these people of African descent. Caribbean, West Africa. I kind of consider them my community. Then there are neighborhoods: I have a strong connection to Brooklyn. If I’m in Texas and run into someone who’s white and from Brooklyn, I’m probably going to hang out with them all night.

Q. Do you feel like you are standing on the shoulders of giants?

Geronimo Pratt. Sekou Odinga. Talking to people who are incarcerated keeps you going. If I had been in prison for three decades, I would be a real bitch. For them to be these beautiful, loving people who still believe what they believe in, it really blows you away.

Omar Freilla
Clean Air Activist, Citywide

By Jill Priluck

“Environmental Justice is involved with issues that people deal with on a day-to-day basis,” says Freilla, transportation coordinator for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, a network of 15 community-based sustainable development groups. “It’s bread-and-butter things, like being safe from toxins, and getting to jobs.”

From Sunset Park to Melrose, Freilla works to stop pols from cutting off waterfront access or building smelly bus depots with no input from the people living nearby. One of Freilla’s biggest goals: getting the MTA to run natural-gas buses in the city.

“I’ve always felt like organizing was in my blood,” says Bronx-born Freilla, 26, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic and settled in Mount Eden. As a master’s student in environmental science at Miami University of Ohio, Freilla heard about a Florida agricultural community confronting environmental racism and resolved to connect that kind of activism back to his city roots.

As with many of his counterparts, Freilla’s work dominates his life, though he also manages to bike and catch an occasional drum and bass or hip-hop show. For now he’s content ensuring that a city agency doesn’t screw over a community, even if that means reading page after page of regional transportation studies–“voluminous documents which can break your back.”

Q. How are the younger activists different from the older ones?

Now, there’s much more of a tendency to think of problems we’re dealing with to be interconnected: race, gender and sexuality, for example. Another big difference is that we don’t have such big egos. We don’t have so many notches under our belt to make us think that we’re above criticism.

Q. Did the protests in Seattle move you?

I was turned off because of the lack of involvement by people of color. I don’t really feel like being a pioneer to deal with other people’s entrenched racism when I can be a lot more successful and sane working here.

Oona Chatterjee and Andrew Friedman
Local Agitators Bushwick

By Sajan P. Kuriakos

Chatterjee and Friedman, co-founders of Make The Road by Walking, ended up finding their calling–and launching their feisty Bushwick community activist group–through starkly different paths.

Friedman, 29, was a punk rocker during his high school days in Washington, D.C. He gravitated from that culture of protest to global activism, demonstrating outside the Nicaraguan embassy in his teens, and against Columbia University’s South African investments while a student there.

Chatterjee, 28, grew up near Philadelphia and went to Yale to study English; once she got there, she was inspired into political involvement. “A couple of my activist friends at Yale were very articulate about their work,” she recalls. After moving to New York, Chatterjee worked as a campus organizer.

But both Chatterjee and Friedman have political activism in their blood. Chatterjee’s maternal grandparents were freedom fighters against the British Raj in India. Friedman’s were members of the American Communist Party.

Today, both have become part of the immigrant mosaic of Bushwick, running this three-year-old organization with the aim of “showing the community how to determine its own future.” What that means, in part, is setting up seminars and study groups showing young people how to organize for the causes they care about most, like after-school programs and safe streets, and mobilizing welfare recipients to push for their rights. Chatterjee’s home is literally an extension of her work: She lives above the organization’s office on Grove Street. Friedman lives only a few blocks away. “We wanted to live in the community where we work,” Friedman says.

Q: How have people responded to your efforts?

Chatterjee: There are immigrants here who’ve come from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Ecuador…from countries already struggling for social justice. This is not new to them.

Q: How do you feel about the generation before you?

Friedman: I feel there’s a gap in understanding the structure of an activist group. Older activists tend to organize their groups along strictly hierarchical lines. We make decisions by committee.