Shakeup Artists

Print More

Look at any class of Union Square Awards or Open Society Institute fellowship winners, and you see the rising stars of New York City activism: young, fresh talent raging to get out and remake the world every day.

But New York also has midcareer reformers who’ve been around the block and are still going strong. Some are community organizers looking for new causes and challenges. Others are public servants who decided that they had to put themselves out there to make essential change happen. Some never thought of themselves as anything other than ordinary citizens until now. But all of them are committed to independent action to challenge and improve the institutions we count on to make the city work. And to be effective, they are quite willing to put their personal interests on the line–perhaps because life has taught them that risk is the way to get results.

Yes, a few of these activists collect decent paychecks. And their efforts hardly diminish the accomplishments of professionals working within the system–who’ve had to raise millions to rebuild an apartment complex, or squeeze a one-line amendment onto a bill, or forge a delicate alliance among far-flung interests.

But we need people like these 10–who take the heat themselves, when that’s what has to happen.


The Union Builder
Lavon Chambers, President, Local 279, Association of Professional & Specialty Workers

    Do-gooders, beware: Lavon Chambers has his eye on you. Or, more specifically, on your workers. The 39-year-old union organizer is setting out to conquer one of labor’s frontiers, nonprofit staff.

    But if you’re expecting traditional union gripes to drive this campaign–low pay, long hours, fix it or we walk–you’d better take a second look. “I have workers that say, ‘They can’t afford to pay me for 60, 70 hours, and that’s okay,” says Chambers, who entered the union movement after a stint as a community organizer challenging it. Many nonprofit workers are willing to deal with tough working conditions because of the social mission, says Chambers. And that social commitment is exactly what he hopes to gain by getting nonprofit workers to join the Laborers Union. His campaign to organize nonprofits aims to build bridges between grassroots groups and organized labor, heightening both groups’ political power.

    For Chambers, it’s a personal issue. The former construction worker found himself repeatedly working on union jobs, but–like many black men–never getting into the union. So he joined Harlem Fightback, a group demanding that neighborhood residents be given union membership and jobs on local projects–and ended up being recruited by the Laborers to work as an organizer.

    Branching out to nonprofit workers is new territory for the union movement, says Chambers, now president and director of organizing for Local 279. His predecessor had focused on organizing administrative staff at unions, a path Chambers could have followed. Instead, he saw an opportunity to build alliances between labor and community groups. In the past, says Chambers, community organizations haven’t been enthusiastic about organized labor. “They assume, ‘This is some union hack, and he’s going to come in and talk to us about his stuff. He has no idea–he just wants us to pay dues,” says Chambers. “And, historically, unfortunately, they’re right.”

    Challenging those assumptions is a skill Chambers honed in his last job, also for the Laborers, demanding that public housing projects employ local workers. When pro-labor community organizing group ACORN built a new high school in Bushwick, the group was embarrassed to find that the developer was using nonunion contractors. “The Carpenters said, ‘What the hell is this? Here’s a nonunion job.’ And they threatened to put a rat in front of the high school,” says Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s executive director. “So I call Lavon–who else?” With Chambers’ help, Lewis met with the unions and the developer and figured out a compromise. “That really could have been a horrible community-labor showdown,” says Lewis. “And it was avoided with the work of Lavon.”

    His most recent targets include For a Better Bronx, an environmental justice group and staff at the Citywide Harm Reduction Program. The mix sounds about right to Chambers. “Some people might accuse me of being dramatic, but if there’s not a direct link created in the near future between labor and the grassroots, you’re going to see a negative effect,” he says. “Both sides pretty much have the same enemies. I think it’s a perfect fit.”

    –Tracie McMillan


The Politician
Tom Suozzi, Nassau County Executive

    All summer, political rivals had cracked that the only people supporting Thomas Suozzi’s Fix Albany campaign were newspaper editorial writers. Then came the September 14 Democratic primary, when it turned out that 3,507 voters in the 13th Assembly District on Long Island chose Suozzi’s handpicked candidate over the six-term incumbent.

    That doesn’t sound like many votes, but it was enough for Charles Lavine to knock Assemblymember David Sidikman off the ticket. It was also enough to make reform fashionable. Within days, other incumbent Democrats introduced bills that would wrest the legislative process out of the hands of “three men in a room”–Governor Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Then Bruno created a task force to come up with some proposals. Everyone’s a reformer now.

    Suozzi, the Nassau County executive for the past three years, is usually more about managing the books than about rocking the boat. The mayor of Glen Cove for four terms, he ran countywide at a time when Republicans had plunged Nassau into $3 billion of debt and near-junk-bond status. He has since managed to reverse both trends. But he knew he would soon have trouble balancing his budget as the county’s share of spending for Medicaid and preschool programs, mandated by the state, kept rising. “I’ve got problems with traffic,” he says. “I’ve got problems with gangs. I’ve got needs for affordable housing. But I can’t invest money because the programs that the state has determined to be most important are growing at 15 to 20 percent a year.”

    Suozzi’s narrow focus on Medicaid has left other reformers mystified. “I think in the end what will energize reform is a reform agenda that actually addresses problems,” argues Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat. “You’ve got to be able to say, ‘Here’s what I’d do differently.'” But from Suozzi’s perspective, unfunded mandates are perfect for a populist campaign, since they shift the burden to local governments, who must then pass them on to homeowners. “It’s not just about reforming the rules and passing budgets on time,” he explains. “It’s relating that dysfunction to people’s property taxes because that’s what people care about.”

    When Suozzi first mentioned challenging incumbents last year, lobbyist Patricia Lynch, a former top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, “fired” Nassau County, one of her clients. Later, Silver left Suozzi’s name off the list of delegates to the party convention in Boston. But taking a controversial tack is central to drawing attention to his cause. “Albany was always dysfunctional. People wrote about it for 10 years,” Suozzi notes. “When it comes to reform related to government, you have to put it into the political arena.” Taking a controversial tack has also drawn a lot of attention to Suozzi’s political ambitions. Big deal, he says: “You notice that most of the people proposing reforms right now are people who say they want to run for higher office.” The 42-year-old Suozzi wants to concentrate on his job and run for it again next year, but he won’t rule out a run for governor in 2006. After all, it might mean challenging an incumbent.

    –Matthew Schuerman


The Organizers
Lisa Ortega and Anthony Spratley, Rights of Incarcerated People With Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD)

    “Anyone know any success stories?” Lisa Ortega looks around the conference room. There’s only silence–unusual for this group of about a dozen ex-prisoners and family members of incarcerated people. They know there aren’t a lot of success stories out there.

    “I think it will be more successful if you show atrocities,” says Walter Jennings. Like others here, he used to be in prison–and has a mental illness. “We need to, like, show pictures of Muslims being raped and all that,” says Jennings. In other words, make mistreatment in New York prisons as visible as Abu Ghraib.

    Ortega is the organizer of this group, known as RIPPD (Rights for Incarcerated Prisoners With Psychiatric Disablilites), and they are trying to get New York State to end mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners and criminal defendants. Target number one: Solitary Housing Units (SHU), where prisoners are sent after getting into run-ins with correction officers or other prisoners. RIPPD is also pressing to expand alternatives to incarceration–treatment programs instead of prison. “Involvement at RIPPD is what keeps me motivated,” says member Anthony Spratley, who was in SHU for a year.

    Ortega has been a community organizer for almost a decade, but never like this. She worked with Mothers on the Move, a Bronx group, revving up her Hunts Point neighbors about everything from crappy schools to rats on the sidewalks. Then Heather Barr called. At the time Barr was a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center, best known for Brad H. v. Giuliani, which ensured that mentally ill people don’t just get dumped on the street after a stay at Rikers. Barr decided that she could only do so much in the courts–she also needed activists on the ground. She found Ortega, who was formerly incarcerated herself and is the daughter of a bipolar mother. She goes recruiting in places where mentally ill people get clinical services. Government-funded organizations don’t always cooperate; why risk confronting the Pataki administration, which they depend on for funds? Organizing people with psychiatric disabilities to make noise is also a challenge to the passive behavior mental health organizations tend to cultivate in clients. “Sit down, be quiet, your time will come,” is how Ortega describes it. “If you act out, it’s the mental illness.”

    RIPPD members are more likely to sit down in protest, like they did when they occupied the hall outside the office of Dr. Lloyd Sederer, the city’s Executive Deputy Commissioner of Mental Hygiene, and refused to move until Sederer came out personally to take a letter from the group. The NYPD showed up and threatened arrest.

    Civil disobedience with people on parole? Absolutely, says Ortega. The group’s m.o. is to confront key officials–others include Corrections chief Martin Horn, populist Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Chief Judge Judith Kaye–and demand action. Vows Ortega, “We’ll antagonize you like we’re antagonized every day.”
    –Alyssa Katz


The Foundation Watchdog
Rick Cohen, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

    Rick Cohen spends his days trying to figure out how philanthropists can be effective at promoting a more just society. So why do some consider him a troublemaker? It’s not hard to figure out: “We’ll say things that many funders don’t want to be said,” observes Cohen.

    In the past, Cohen and his organization, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, have asked Congress to increase the portion of their assets foundations must spend on charitable work each year. This spring they published a study determining why conservative foundations have been more successful than liberal ones at shaping American politics and ideology. Both were controversial enough. Now his latest campaign challenges a sacred tenet of modern philanthropy: the project-based grant.

    Every nonprofit knows and dreads them. These grants fund a single project, typically a new intiative, for a limited time period. Meanwhile, the same organizations struggle to secure funds for their general operations. In 2000, the proportion of philanthropic dollars going to general support was 11.5 percent–down from 16 percent six years earlier. If one excludes universities and hospitals, the share of general support shrinks even further.

    Foundations, and their trustees, have good reasons for parceling out money according to their priorities of the moment. It’s hard to measure results, so they tend to want to set targets themselves. They also don’t want to see their money misused or wasted. It’s their version of tough love.

    Cohen argues that the efficiency of the nonprofit sector is hurt when organizations have to spend so much effort chasing down dollars and configuring their programs to ever-changing outside pressures. Fundamentally, he says, most progressive foundations are failing to make necessary long-term investments in nonprofits they help fund. “The restrictions of grants mean [organizations] are unable to respond in a timely and flexible way needed to promote social change,” says Cohen. In contrast, he points to conservative foundations, which his study found are much more likely to make grants for long-term operating support.

    Cohen decided that the best way to change foundations’ habits was to mount a lobbying effort–with nonprofit grant recipients themselves as the advocates. He has been on the road, holding meetings with organization leaders across the country and collecting stories to share with foundations. Their goal: to have 50 percent of foundation grants fund general support.

    The foundations that sympathize with Cohen don’t expect miracles. “It’s hard to change philanthropy, because philanthropy is made up of over 60,000 different foundations. It doesn’t work in lockstep,” says Maria Mottola, executive director of the New York Foundation, which distributes half of its grants as general operating support.

    And not everyone surveyed thinks general support should be a top priority. Some have commented that it’s much more important to increase funding for social advocacy work, period. And, as always, groups fear biting the hands that feed them.

    Cohen himself depends on charitable grants to support his work. That wasn’t always the case: He used to be chief planner for Jersey City, and later a vice president at the Enterprise Foundation, which is sustained by corporations seeking tax breaks. Now that he’s confronting philanthropy, he’s risking alienating the source of his own funding. It doesn’t faze him. “I’ve made enemies in many parts of my life,” Cohen reflects. What’s important, he says, is “sticking to your guns and holding true to your values. Your enemies are testament to your values.”

    –Xiaoqing Rong


The Residents
Alex Hedgepeth and Marc Hutchinson, Client Advisory Board, Camp LaGuardia

    Alex Hedgepeth vividly remembers his arrival at Camp LaGuardia, the city’s largest homeless shelter, home to roughly 1,000 men: a slow bus from Manhattan, driving in the wee hours of a cold March night. Destination: Chester, New York.

    When his case manager first mentioned the place, Hedgepeth thought it must be somewhere near La Guardia airport. But “Camp,” as it is known, is a 360-acre compound two hours north of the city and three miles from the nearest town. Though beautiful, he says, it can also feel bleak, like a “prison without bars.”

    But all that is starting to change. Hedgepeth, a smooth-talking Texan, has set out to transform the shelter with the help of Marc Hutchinson, a former office worker and fellow “displaced citizen.” (Hedgepeth prefers that term to “homeless.”) “If it can happen to me,” he says, “it can happen to anyone.”

    The camp, run by Volunteers of America under contract with the city, is in bad shape, according to Hedgepeth and Hutchinson. Windows lack screens, they say, elevators are broken, and bathrooms are moldy. (A surprise inspection by the Coalition for the Homeless verified several of their concerns.) Even more important, the remote location makes it especially difficult for residents to find jobs and homes in the city.

    Increasingly frustrated, Hedgepeth and Hutchinson took over the camp’s Client Advisory Board in September. Since then, they’ve scored several meetings with high-ranking shelter staff and drafted a petition demanding better care. “We see great strength in their ability to advocate, organize and take action for themselves and others,” says Sandra Jimenez, director of client advocacy for the Department of Homeless Services.

    Social activism is a new pursuit for both men. Unmarried and adventurous, Hedgepeth bounced through different jobs and cities before landing in New York two years ago. Then his luck ran out. He was fired from his job and got evicted from his Hell’s Kitchen apartment when his roommate, an IV-drug user, stopped paying rent. Hutchinson’s path started in the suburbs: Laid-off shortly after 9/11, he fell behind on mortgage payments and lost his New Jersey home. Too proud to keep imposing on friends, he found himself sleeping in Port Authority, and then in a city shelter. Because he is over 35, he was automatically transferred to Camp.

    For men like Hedgepeth and Hutchinson who are simply down on their luck, the isolation can be brutal. “The problem is, we don’t have problems,” says Hutchinson. Case managers assess residents and try to find them permanent housing, a process that can take months. In the meantime, residents can work in the camp’s on-site job readiness program (for a maximum of $72 per week) or take a bus to the city and pound the pavement. Hedgepeth and Hutchinson are lucky enough to own suits and ties, but poor phone and internet access coupled with a temporary address present a challenge.

    Fighting to improve Camp has become something of a job in itself, but Hutchinson and Hedgepeth have bigger plans. They hope to be placed in a midtown SRO so they can find new jobs and then start a nonprofit to serve other “displaced citizens.” “We’re not the first two intelligent people to come through,” says Hutchinson. “A lot of people just gave up or didn’t give a damn. We happen to be the ones to say, ‘This is it.'”

    –Cassi Feldman


The School Parents
Carmen Jerez and Ocynthia Williams, Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 Schools

    On a Monday afternoon last fall, three dozen Bronx elementary school teachers took a tour of Highbridge, the neighborhood just north of Yankee Stadium. Eydie Holloway, a parent volunteer, led the teachers down Walton Avenue as children walking with their parents shouted hellos. The teachers were there to envision their pupils’ homes, connect with parents and understand the community resources available to kids who might be falling behind in class.

    Holloway showed the teachers photos of the area in the 1980s, when it was burned out–“spooky, looked like a ghost town.” Then she pointed out the tidy brick apartment buildings with green fire escapes, a community garden, and an after-school center filled with dioramas and pottery projects and tables full of kids chattering. All are the work of the nonprofit New Settlement Apartments, which helped reclaim and manage the buildings.

    The tour was part of New Settlement’s latest venture: a parent group that is shaping how 10 South Bronx schools are run. Their success defies the experience of parents elsewhere who have found themselves relegated to subordinate roles as part of the Bloomberg administration’s school reforms.

    Four years ago, parents involved with New Settlement expressed frustration that while the ‘hood had improved, the schools hadn’t–75 percent of kids read below their grade level. Jack Doyle, New Settlement’s director, asked Eric Zachary, a professor at the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy, to lead a workshop about the system and parents’ rights. “They understood it’s not their own fault, but systemic,” says Doyle. “I remember parents saying, ‘We’ve learned all this–let’s take action.'”

    Early actions “were crazy,” Doyle says. Parents went to one community school board meeting dressed as Martians and another dressed in striped prison uniforms. Then the group convinced five other Bronx community organizations to create a bigger, more powerful entity called CC9.

    In 2002, CC9 crafted a four-point plan to improve instruction in District 9 classrooms, then brought hundreds of parents out to rallies where they publicly pressured local politicians and education officials, like superintendent Irma Zardoya and teacher’s union leader Herb Katz, to back their platform. “The higher-ups, they’re willing to sit around the table month after month to implement our plans because we can mobilize several hundred parents,” says Ocynthia Williams, a parent leader. “I didn’t realize before that, in the schools, there’s a definite power in numbers.”

    CC9 won the support of reformers’ usual opponents by proving that they shared common goals. Rather than attack teachers and administrators, CC9 proposed to help raise private money to provide mentoring and training to principals, and to recruit “lead teachers.” These mentors–paid $10,000 a year above union scale–are charged with supporting fledgling educators, in an effort to reduce the sky-high teacher turnover rates in South Bronx schools.

    Things looked shaky for CC9 when new chancellor Joel Klein reconfigured the school system, changing leadership of the district’s 10 schools and reducing parents to “coordinators” with no role in management. But Zardoya, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leaders and 10,000 petition signatures helped CC9 convince Klein to keep the schools under their existing leadership.

    Just how deeply have CC9 parents inserted themselves into the power structure? Last spring, the UFT threw them a 300-person gala. Then, after CC9 secured $400,000 from the Booth Ferris Foundation to help hire lead teachers, Klein announced in June that the school system would contribute $1.6 million of its own.

    It was a powerful signal to parents that their voices do count. “We have sat at the table with all the principals,” says Annamaria Garcia, a parent leader. “For the first time, we feel respected.”

    –Nora McCarthy


The Clean Air Crusader
John Culpepper, Lower Washington Heights Neighborhood Association

    “See that truck? See that smoke? That’s what we’re after!”

    John Culpepper has declared war on dirty air. His weapon: an E-Sampler Particulate Monitor, a portable device that measures PM 2.5–the tiny particles emitted by cars, trucks, buses, factories, power plants and construction sites. PM 2.5 works its way deep into the lungs, aggravating asthma and other respiratory problems. When neighborhood groups want to cut down on the sea of dust, they call John Culpepper.

    Culpepper, a retired sea merchant and executive director of the Lower Washington Heights Neighborhood Association, started looking into air quality in the mid-1990s, after he learned of the alarmingly high child asthma rates in his community. When the state and federal environmental agencies teamed up to install two dozen air monitoring devices around the city, Culpepper helped get one set up on West 182nd Street. But the EPA rejected Culpepper’s request for a second monitor at a school on 155th Street, near a heavily trafficked truck route. “So we came up with the idea to get our own machine,” says Culpepper. Local elected officials obliged with contributions.

    Culpepper and Edgar Freud, a retired electrical engineer, look for hot spots where PM 2.5 levels average higher than 15–the threshold above which air can be harmful to health, according to the EPA–and supply the data to community organizations.

    The Federation of Civic Associations in Southeast Queens recently called to get air readings at two waste-transfer stations. Since the closest monitor is in North Queens, residents are wondering how accurately the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s regional readings measure the air in their own neigborhood. Once they obtain it, they plan to take the data to DEC, which controls the permit for the trash sites, as well as the Department of City Planning, which regulates their zoning.

    “His organization provides an essential service,” says Gerry Bogacz, planning group director of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC), a regional association of transit agencies that has worked with Culpepper to address the problem of idling buses in Washington Heights. Though NYMTC relies only on regional data, Bogacz says Culpepper’s localized information is important because it enables communities to determine sources of pollution and mobilize to lower their impact. Says Bogacz, “In his role as a community representative, he’s supplementing the information DEC provides.”

    But Ray Warner, chief of the air-programs branch at the EPA, says Culpepper’s monitor isn’t providing a whole lot of new information. “We have monitors in the area and we already believe the air quality in Washington Heights, the Bronx, and Queens is unhealthful,” says Warner. Still, he thinks Culpepper is successfully prompting needed local action. “You have trucks going down streets they shouldn’t be going down. Figuring out routes, cracking down on idling trucks–this is done at the local level.”

    Culpepper and Freud would like to purchase a second monitor and hire additional staff. But another monitor would cost around $8,000, and the work is time-consuming–the EPA will only honor data taken in a single spot over the course of six continuous hours.

    “We know it’s bad; we just want to know how bad,” says Culpepper. “I want the agencies to know there’s another set of eyes out here.”

    –Abby Aguirre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *