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by Janis Shen

OonaMake the Road by Walking (MRBW) is a membership-based organization founded in the Spring of 1997 by two NYU law students Oona Chatterjee and Andrew Friedman. The non-profit organization provides community services, including legal services, educational programs, emergency food provision and support for resident led community-organizing, to the communities of Northeast Brooklyn, including Bushwick and East-Williamsburg. Bushwick has about 130,000 residents and is afflicted with severe poverty and social neglect. More than 40% of the residents live below poverty level. Almost 40% rely on means-tested government benefits, and unemployment is at 20%. The area is primarily Latino and other people of color, and more than 1/3 legal permanent residents without citizenship and without the right to vote. By putting the control and management of the organization in the hands of community residents, MRBW seeks to build a sense of ownership within the community. Community residents play an active role in building the services, through developing programs, and empowering the community from the inside. Currently, MRBW's membership has grown to about 450 neighbors from Bushwick and surrounding communities.

I caught up with Oona Chaterjee in Williamsburg on a Wednesday night. On this rare occasion when she gets out on the town she is laid back and relaxed. She has an earthy quality about her, leaning on the wooden bar table speaking in a low smooth voice. Thick curly black hair frames her face and large thoughtful eyes. Her answers to questions are thorough and quick, the responses of someone who has dedicated herself to a cause and knows every inch of her field. Occasionally, she pauses to laugh about the random antics of the crowd around us.

How did you become involved with Bushwick and East-Williamsburg? Are you from Brooklyn or the New York area?
I'm from outside Philadelphia originally. I lived in Williamsburg in 1997 and then moved to Bushwick in 1998. I became involved with the community in Bushwick in March of 1997, while a second-year law student.

What was your motivation for starting MRBW?
During law school, I decided that I could best use my law degree to help communities build power. I'd met and worked with many legal aid lawyers whom I respected, but who were frustrated with the assistance available to communities. It seemed that we were putting band-aids on the same problems over and over again. The system was not efficient. Providing legal services for obtaining and retaining public assistance, fighting evictions, or establishing eligibility for social security, etc. all were needed services yet did not reach the root of the problem. Andrew and I decided that a better approach would be to organize the community to solve problems, by helping community residents to challenge and transform the system.

How has the community responded to you and how did you earn the trust of the neighbors?
A lot of our volunteers came to us as clients, seeking legal assistance with welfare-related problems. We grew by word of mouth, as clients told their friends and neighbors about us. When we first came to Bushwick, we were invited to share space in St. Barbara's Church by Father John Powis. He is well known in the community and the location was trusted by residents. We also did a lot of flyering and outreach, but in the beginning it was really word of mouth. Now, we have some incredible organizers who are out talking to people and informing them of our activities.

What services did you start out with and how have they evolved?
We began mostly by representing residents on welfare cases. Out of our work with these residents grew a campaign to put pressure on the City to provide translation services in the welfare centers. The City is required by law to ensure that people have language assistance when they come to the centers, but often does not do so. For Bushwick, a primarily immigrant and Latino community, those translation services are very important in order to get the assistance residents need.

Because of participation and interest from increasing numbers of community residents, we have added a number of projects to our welfare rights work. We currently host GLOBE (Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick, Empowered) the only safe space for Gays and Lesbians in Bushwick. We have also developed a workplace justice and environmental justice project. There are a number of sweatshops, garment factories and other types of manufacturing industry, in Bushwick that exploit their employees' immigration status and financial need to deny them fair treatment. In many cases, workers are undocumented and feel vulnerable or intimidated in their workplaces.

MRBW provides a safe environment and place for people to meet and organize. Although many immigrant workers who come to those meetings are initially frightened of standing up for their rights because they think they might lose their jobs or even be reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service by their employers, there are also some immigrant workers who have had experience organizing in their original countries. They have been able to help others overcome their fears and organize effectively. Also, because of support from skilled staff attorneys, workers have been able to force companies to follow provisions in employment contracts, obtain back wages owed, resolve minimum wage violations, and improve health and safety on the job. On June 22, members of Make the Road by Walking held a demonstration at the Manhattan showroom of the Cotton Emporium, a manufacturer that produces clothes in Bushwick. The protest was in support of Marcelo Moncayo, a member of Make the Road by Walking who worked at a garment factory which manufactures clothes for Cotton Emporium. Moncayo was beaten to the ground with a coffee thermos after filing a complaint with his employer because he earned less than minimum wage, and received no overtime pay or sick days.

How do you go about creating an effective protest?
We organize protests when it is important for a campaign. We find out who is affected by a particular problem, whether it's a vacant lot on a street corner which is filled with trash, or the failure of a particular welfare center to put up signs advising people about their right to receive translation services. Then we support these community residents in thinking about who is in a position to make the necessary change. We then protest and build media pressure on a particular person. For example, the youth recently targeted a local politician for increased funding in schools. On July 6, we will have a press conference targeting a landlord who has allowed her building to fall into serious neglect.

Tell me about Make the Road by Walking's youth work.
I spend most of my time working with our Youth Power Project. This project provides a space for Bushwick youth to organize for change in our community. The young people are currently working on two campaigns. First, we are seeking more funding for after school programs in Bushwick. We did a survey that revealed that for about 20,000 11-19 year old youth in Bushwick, only 2,000 slots are available for after school activities. That's a real lack of support for young people, the majority of whom are being failed educationally by the schools in our neighborhood.

The other project is working with the NYPD truancy patrols to get them to conduct their patrolling in a lawful fashion. Right now, kids who are picked up are sent to a processing center instead of being taken back to school. So the method of punishing truancy is to force them to miss school. Even more ironic is that some of those kids are just running late and get picked up on their way to school. So kids with no intention of skipping school are forced to miss a day of classes. Also, youth get picked up who aren't even supposed to be in school. There was one case where a college student was picked up and taken to the truancy processing center by officers, screaming her head off the whole time to be let out so she could go to class. She made so much noise that the officers decided to send her to a psych ward. It was outrageous. The Urban Justice Center worked on that case. We're currently trying to get the NYPD to move truancy processing on site at the local schools. And we're working on having young people train truancy officers.

You also have youth education projects, have the youth responded well?
The Youth Power Project combines youth-led organizing, one-on-one mentoring, and academic enrichment opportunities to teach and encourage youth leadership and activism.

As part of the Youth Power Project, we hosted a weekly poetry workshop called Poetic Justice, and published a book of poetry written by the youth called Our Voices: Poetic Justice 2001. We also hosted Radio Rookies, a project of WNYC, which trained some of our youth members in radio documentary production. It was amazing for our young people to hear themselves on the radio and to be recognized for the hard work that they put into that project. It also helped a lot of people all over New York City to learn about the work of our youth members.

How is MRBW funded?
We are primarily funded by small and medium-sized, progressive, private foundations. Unfortunately, seeking funding for community-controlled projects which have real potential to create innovative solutions is sometimes difficult. This is why we are increasingly dependent upon individual donors for support. We often hold benefits and house parties to spread the word about our work to new supporters.

Please tell us about MRBW's upcoming benefit on Friday July 27, 2001.
We are having a benefit at North 6 Bar in Williamsburg at 66 North 6th Street, between Kent and Wythe featuring artists from the Williamsburg area and other supporters. The line up includes avante jazz performers Gold Sparkle Band with Charles Waters, Andrew Barker, and Adam Robert, with spoken word featuring the jazz poet Steve Dalachinsky, and readers from MRBW Amir Tafari Youth Power Project Organizer and myself reading poems from and inspired by the Youth Power Project, writer and musician Hugh Gallagher cabaret performance as Von Von Von, and Jinga Pura (the Brazilian Samba percussion group). The event begins at 9 pm, cover $15.

Jump Arts has generously offered to support Make the Road by Walking by donating a portion of proceeds from their upcoming show at Galapagos WEDNESDAY, JULY 25, 2001.

JUMP AT GALAPAGOS
Wednesday July 25, 2001
9pm door $5
Galapagos 68 N. 6th Street
Williasmburg Brooklyn

 

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