Under the low ceilings of a former church in Williamsburg transformed through plasterboard into El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, high school junior Zahire Estrella runs a meeting with her friend Michelle Abreu, laughing and riffing on, of all things, a community re-zoning proposal.
Since last summer, these teenagers and a handful of others have been schooling themselves on the economic conditions in their neighborhood, learning about how money flows through Williamsburg and trying to find ways to keep both cash and work in the community. At this March meeting, the students were considering how to fight a zoning proposal that would, in their estimation, drive up rents and drive out manufacturing jobs.
The students are members of YO!, a year-old youth organizing project at El Puente that is co-sponsored by the corporate-backed Consensus Organizing Institute. It is a group that has done more than simple protest organizing. This summer, the students’ grassroots economic education work is expected to pay off in a new neighborhood outdoor market, offering fresh produce and locally made goods. The hope is that the market will provide much-needed income for local residents and woo new shoppers and money to Williamsburg. “The best way to learn about the world is to carry out a project,” says YO! founder Paula Rojas. “It’s very tangible, not just ‘Let’s fight for economic justice.”
Except for Estrella, all of the members of YO! go to El Puente Academy, a mostly African-American and Latino public high school of about 120 students. The small school was founded in 1993 by the Williamsburg youth group El Puente; its curriculum capitalizes on the cultural interests of teenagers–most notably hip-hop–to encourage young leaders and organize within the community.
Both the school and the youth group have a reputation for producing successful organizers who don’t just stick to kids’ stuff: El Puente made its mark a few years ago helping to stir up opposition to a proposed municipal incinerator expansion. That doomed project would have loaded yet another environmental hazard onto a community that is already home to 40 waste transfer stations and cheek by jowl with the polluted Brooklyn Navy Yard. Their organizing effort helped mobilize the neighborhood’s diverse factions, which include the Hasidim, Latinos and expatriate Manhattan artists who have flooded to the waterfront in recent years.
That’s typical of El Puente, whose festivals and other events are a rare opportunity for Williamsburg’s immigrant residents to mingle. “The Hispanic community doesn’t like to get together. They’re from different places: Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico,” says Gueita Genao, Estrella’s cousin. “That’s the main problem why people don’t get organized here, because of the racism among us. But they know when there’s an activity at El Puente, they all come.”
Now, Rojas and the members of YO! are tackling another problem endemic to this sliver of Brooklyn: poverty. Wedged between the East River’s industrial shore-line and the car-choked Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Williamsburg remains home to some of the city’s poorest residents. Some streets may be gentrifying fast, but median household income in the last cen-sus was only $14,300–and many residents are squeezed for jobs.
Grassroots economic education is about teaching neighborhood leaders how to recognize and fight injustice in the economic system. It is a “definite trend, like anti-racism work was ten years ago,” says Francis Colpotura, co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing, a group based in Oakland, California, that trains organiz-ers. Proponents say the movement offers an antidote to the fatalism often endemic in urban economies, providing tools to attack the misconception that big business and free markets are the only answer.
El Puente hired Rojas–a Chilean immigrant who had worked at the Greater Williamsburg Collaborative as a staff organizer–to design a youth project that would explore economic alternatives and eventually build a neighborhood organizing strategy.
“We started last summer with 14 young people, trying to educate the Peacemakers [El Puente’s summer youth group] on different economic models–bartering sys-tems, food co-ops and cooperative systems, alternative currencies,” Rojas as explains. YO! devised a currency with the school’s seal for revelers to use at an El Puente festival last August. Students tracked how much was spent and developed a sense of how money circulates in the neighborhood.
Economic organizers look askance at statistical measures like the official unemployment rate and census, both of which routinely undercount immigrants and overlook those working in the underground economy. YO! members devised their own questionnaire to build a more nuanced understanding of Williamsburg’s economy. The students surveyed hundreds of people standing in line at the post office and other public places “where they couldn’t get away from us,” says Michael Walker, Rojas’ assistant. More than one third of the 500 residents interviewed said they were looking for work.
When the students reconvened last fall, they started considering ways to change the economic conditions they had identified. “When we got all the results of the survey, we noticed a lot of people weren’t employed, but they had many skills,” Estrella says. The survey also revealed that most people leave the neighborhood to shop, so the money they earn isn’t invested back in the community.
The group decided the best option of the alternatives they explored over the summer would be to start a weekly open-air market in Continental Army Plaza, across the street from El Puente’s schoolhouse. “All the vendors who are going to be making money will be from the community,” explains YO! member Kathy Cabrera. “So the money will stay here.”
In January, the members of YO! announced their plans for the outdoor market, and since then more than 20 vendors have signed on, planning to sell everything from quilts and clothing to homemade herbal remedies and natural foods.
Gueita Genao says she’ll draw on her experience cooking for the 150 members of her church to sell homemade arroz con pollo every Saturday. “Most of the things people are going to do are things they can make at home. That’s the idea–to have the skills and do something that does not require a lot of money,” she says.
To teach the vendors business skills, YO! arranged for the Cornell University community outreach program to provide free classes on topics ranging from bookkeeping to running a home-based business. A core group of vendors was tapped to work on advertising, licensing and similar issues. And the students hit the streets to find the site.
It was during their market organizing drive that the students got word of a plan to rezone local manufacturing areas from a mix of factories and housing to entirely residential. They discussed the proposal and agreed that it would likely mean higher rents for their parents and neighbors as the area becomes more attractive to well-off Manhattanites. Remaining manufacturing firms would also find it harder to pay the higher rents. So the students put their market plans on hold and decided to fight.
While the Hasidic and Latino commu-nities had been allies in the incinerator fight and other issues, the two groups have rarely seen eye to eye on housing–and the zoning battle was no exception. YO! members distributed flyers, held community meetings and collected more than 700 signatures in opposition to the plan. But despite the students’ best efforts, the rezoning went ahead as planned.
It was yet another lesson in urban eco-nomics, this time about the dynamics of real estate, race and politics. But both sides downplay the conflict. “Disagreeing is part of any relationship,” Walker says. “It just means on this issue we see things from a different angle.” For his part, Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization, an umbrella group of Hasidic social service and development agencies, says positive things about the influence of El Puente’s young people on the community.
As City Limits went to press, YO! had received verbal approval for its market from the city’s Parks Department, but the students still needed to submit final paperwork. If all goes well, the bazaar will be ready to open by late June, Estrella says. Certainly, the last year has been a long lesson. “We learned how to be cooperative. We’ve learned to work with other people,” Estrella says proudly. “We’re community organizers.”
Abby Scher is co-editor of Dollars and Sense, a progressive economics magazine based in Massachusetts.