Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Public Advocating and Community Organizimg

We attended the Public Advocate's presser yesterday-and came away only partially impressed with the way that Bill de Blasio is framing the office's efforts to use community organizers in the office's efforts to help New Yorkers combat government intransigence. What did get our juices flowing in the right direction was de Blasio's statement that it is often government itself that is the problem.

On the flip side, however, was the one-sided nature of the groups that were invited to highlight the PA's new community organizing division. Here's the NY Post's take: "In the latest example of the growing influence of the labor-backed Working Families Party, five new City Council members backed by the group stood with the city's new public advocate yesterday in his first public appearance. It is rare for council members to align themselves with the public advocate, who is elected to be a watchdog over city government, but the new slate of WFP-supported members are showing early loyalty to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (pictured), who also is closely aligned with the party. De Blasio, a slew of community groups and the council members promised to use the public advocate's office to link New Yorkers with community groups that could help them with bureaucratic problems, such as landlord-tenant disputes."

And the paper's editorial goes further: "De Blasio yesterday announced the creation of a new "community-organizing" department within his office -- purportedly to "help neighborhood activists build grass-roots coalitions...Not that New Yorkers in search of, say, tax relief will get much help, of course: De Blasio's community "partners" are the same lefty grabbers who've been picking the city dry in the first place."

Now we don't agree completely with the Post's take on the groups in attendance yesterday-some of them-particularly Make the Road New York-have been very good allies in some of the Alliance's own battles. But we do agree that the PA needs to distance himself from the ideological one-sidedness that the panoply of groups at the presser represented. As the reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle asked de Blasio: "Where are the local civic groups?"

de Blasio, to his credit, didn't dismiss these neighborhood-based groups, but their absence yesterday was indeed unfortunate. As was the absence of, say, small business and environmental advocates who would have given the announcement of the PA's new direction better balance and a greater degree of policy heft.

It has been our experience-and, admittedly, close to thirty years of successful grass roots lobbying doesn't account for all that much in certain quarters-that the grass roots organizing is not exclusively a left or right wing phenomenon. And nothing symbolizes this as much as the recently concluded successful effort to defeat the Kingsbridge Armory.

And while we're on that subject, isn't it curious that de Blasio had no one from KARA at his press launch of a community organizing department? KARA's work-and the efforts of the NWBCCC and the RWDSU that led the coalition-is a quintessential example of what successful community organizing can do; and it's work is the one shining example over the past decade of how grass roots lobbying and organizing can not only speak truth to power, but smack that power down at the same time.

KARA should not only have been present, but its work should have keynoted the PA's presser. And it needs to be pointed out, that the work of KARA was an example of how grass roots coalitions can transcend rigid ideological barriers. The defeat of the Armory project was in no small measure the result of the active participation of the neighborhood merchants-something that the Alliance has done successfully for years.

The absence of these elements yesterday, demonstrates to us that the Advocate's focus needs to be broader and more inclusive if de Blasio is going to be able to become a serious city wide contender and not simply a cats paw for the WFP and its constituent elements. Let's see how this all-and he himself-evolves.