This week we had the privilege of speaking with Michael Stanley, a professional community organizer with Manhattan Together and South Bronx Churches Sponsoring Committee (SBC), and Ray Lopez, the Director of Environmental Health Services of the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service (LSA), on the topic of pro bono lawyering for social justice in collaboration with community organizers. Manhattan Together, SBC, and LSA are nonprofit organizations and members of Metro IAF, a network of multi-faith organizations that draw on the power of person-to-person organizing to transform communities and build the local power necessary to create change on local and national levels.
How did you become a professional community organizer? What do you find most fulfilling about this career?
Michael: I’ve been a community organizer for more than 17 years. I wanted to help people change their communities for the better. As a student, I began organizing around issues of worker’s rights and neighborhood blight. After graduating from college, I became a professional organizer with Metro-IAF.
It is deeply fulfilling to work with a large group of talented people from all different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. These volunteer leaders enable Manhattan Together and SBC to come together to create concrete progress toward social justice goals that can otherwise seem impossible to achieve.
What is your philosophy in terms of community organizing? What challenges do you face?
Michael: Our philosophy is that power comes from two sources – organized money and organized people. “Organized” means acting together with a common purpose consistently and persistently. The fundamental challenge is not identifying a problem, but rather building the power to solve it. Many people do not have enough power to make their community the way they want it to be, often due to systemic injustices such as poverty and racism.
As a community organizer, I help people to identify the proper target – the person in a position of authority who can make the desired change – and then take “action” to influence that target. The action we take can come in a variety of forms. Sometimes it’s holding large demonstrations or engaging with potential allies like elected officials, or in the Baez case, our attorneys, and other times it is more effective to collaborate with people in power on shared goals or to use media coverage to apply pressure.
Ray: I first put this philosophy into practice when I was working with families in East Harlem whose children were suffering from asthma. At the time, I was helping dozens of public housing tenants living in hazardous housing conditions that were causing their health problems, but I couldn’t get anyone in power to listen. People at LSA encouraged me to talk to an organizer with Manhattan Together. This helped me and the tenants I was working with to build relationships and gain access to key decision-makers who could help these families get the repairs they needed. Through working with Manhattan Together over the years, I’ve learned how to advocate with public officials, identify and empower community leaders, and bring decision-makers to the table.
Manhattan Together and SBC are grassroots “power organizations” that empower people across a wide variety of institutions, including faith-based organizations and nonprofits, to improve the quality of life in their communities. What does it mean to be a “power organization”?
Michael: “Power” is to act and to cause an effect. As a “Power organization” we aim to not only help our members improve their own lives, but also to improve the lives of people across New York City as a whole. For example, for a long time when Manhattan Together and SBC were organizing public housing tenants living in unhealthy housing conditions, we found that their landlord, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was only prioritizing repairs for individual tenants who worked with our organizations. To improve conditions for all public housing residents, not just those who were organizing with us, our team worked to connect with thousands of other tenants through our member congregations and not-for-profits to help communicate their needs to NYCHA.
What are the key issues around which Manhattan Together and SBC empower their members to create positive change?
Ray: My work has focused on addressing environmental health problems in public housing, but Manhattan Together and SBC also advocate to increase access to mental health care, improve energy efficiency retrofitting in nonprofits and congregations, and expand Wi-Fi service in underserved communities, particularly those whose ability to participate in remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic depends on having internet access.
How does your community organizing work advance the cause of racial justice?
Ray: By striving to remedy the environmental health hazards in the largest public housing system in the United States, we are advancing the cause of racial justice. Public housing in New York City has sadly become a prime example of racial inequality. NYCHA public housing was first built in the 1930s for a select demographic of White middle class tenants – indeed, most lower-income tenants of color were excluded at that time. But by the late 1960s, when tenants of color began to outnumber White tenants, housing conditions began to deteriorate as NYCHA suffered financial divestment from all levels of government. Today, NYCHA tenants are predominantly people of color and are at higher risk for health problems such as asthma that are caused by mold and water damage in their apartments. With the support of Proskauer’s pro bono team, we have made great strides in improving living conditions for NYCHA tenants, but certainly many of these problems arose in the first place due to systemic racism.
Michael: The problems in public housing in New York City disparately impact low income people of color for the most part. However, when we are helping people to address an issue that affects people across lines of race and class, like access to mental health care, we need to identify strong leaders that represent all of these diverse groups to ensure that no single point of view is overrepresented. Especially when we are in the stages of planning our actions, it can be easier for people with relatively higher income backgrounds to attend and participate in the meetings. We must be inclusive of those who face greater barriers to participation such as people with disabilities, those who can’t take time off from work, and those with caregiving obligations.
What advice would you give pro bono lawyers who want to collaborate successfully with community organizers in representing underserved communities?
Michael: Be an active listener and make the effort to create meaningful relationships with your clients. Trust them to be the experts of their own experiences. Engage directly, not just with the community organizers but also with the volunteer leaders of the organizations. Make sure that you’re treating them as real partners in the work, not just as a means to an end to accomplish a goal that you’ve made, no matter how important that goal is. Instead, your work should focus on what is important to the community and how you can help them achieve what they’ve set out to do.
Ray: Proskauer’s pro bono team did this really well when collaborating with us and NYCHA tenants in litigation to reform unhealthy housing conditions. From the outset of the case, our organizers and top leaders introduced the pro bono lawyers to dozens of NYCHA tenants, and the lawyers met directly with tenants in their homes so they could observe and understand the living conditions first-hand. More recently, Proskauer’s pro bono lawyers set up on-site legal clinics in LSA’s offices and in other community spaces to help NYCHA tenants draft and mail public comment letters to the federal district court. The pro bono lawyers met individually with tenants, listened to their stories, and assisted them in putting their experiences and views into writing. This work ensured that the voices of the community members would be heard by the judge as he was considering whether to enter a consent decree that would require NYCHA to repair mold and moisture problems. This action was ultimately successful in persuading the court to hold NYCHA accountable for making these critical repairs.
How can people best support your work?
Michael: We welcome donations but also volunteers and new members. I am happy to speak with any nonprofit in New York City or Westchester County that wants to become a member of Metro-IAF and join us in our social justice mission.
Ray: LSA relies on the support of volunteers to offer a variety of community programs. Right now, we are seeking volunteers to help with our food pantry that distributes food to families living in poverty. Please visit our website to get involved!