Monday, March 12, 2012

Planting Seeds of Empowerment -- New York City Coalition Against Hunger

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the
New York City Coalition Against Hunger
Facing Hunger in America had no trouble identifying the program we wanted to visit in New York. Joel Berg’s passionate and well-informed public policy book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? was published in 2008, about the time we were planning our project. We immediately knew that we wanted to meet Joel and to learn about his organization, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH).

We met Joel at NYCCAH's modest offices, located in Manhattan just down the street from the New York Stock Exchange.  Joel Berg has been a serious political activist since the age of 14.  He has run for public office, worked on political campaigns, and served in several high-level positions in the USDA during the Clinton Administration, including acting Director of Public Affairs and Press Secretary, Coordinator of Food Recovery and Gleaning, and Coordinator of Community Food Security.  It was at the USDA that Joel’s activism found its focus on hunger.

In 2001, Joel became the Executive Director of NYCCAH.  The mission of this non-profit organization is to assist and advocate for New York City’s non-profit food pantries and soup kitchens, and for the 1.5 million low-income residents of the City who struggle to feed themselves.  They do this through a number of important programs, including
  • Increasing access to food and benefits (e.g., helping people receive SNAP benefits or access to child nutrition programs, organizing CSAs to serve low-income folks in underserved parts of the city)
  • Helping food pantries and soup kitchens (e.g., providing additional skilled personnel by running AmeriCorps programs and a volunteer placement center)
  • Advocating for and researching anti-hunger policies (e.g., establishing Food Action Boards, in conjunction with food pantries and soup kitchens, to help increase the abilities of community members to advocate for improvements to their food security)
Joel believes that the most far-reaching of NYCCAH’s programs are those that involve advocacy, particularly organizing and equipping low income people to advocate on their own behalf.  Since he was speaking to two women, Joel explained it to us like this:
“If you were still waiting for men to give you the right to vote, forget about it, you still wouldn’t be voting.  If people didn’t demand this for themselves, it wouldn’t happen.  Yet the working assumption of the hunger movement over the last few decades has totally excluded hungry people.  I go to all these conferences where there are no current or former hungry people.  I can’t imagine going to a conference on teaching with no teachers, or a firefighting conference with no firefighters.  No political movement in history has been accomplished that way.  You’ve probably heard a zillion people say, ‘We want to put a face on hunger, if non–hungry people only knew that someone in their community was hungry and they visualized it with a face, then the problem would just go away.’  The idea that non-hungry people are just going to wake up and feel guilty and then magically the problem’s going to go away is preposterous.” 
NYCCAH works hard to help the voices of poor people be heard.  For example, New York is one of only two states in the nation that requires SNAP applicants to be finger printed in an attempt to reduce the already low rate of fraud.  Joel said,
“I can talk about finger imaging until I’m blue in the face, but when I bring someone into a meeting who’s breaking down into tears as they’re telling how humiliating it is to be treated like a criminal, it changes the conversation.”
Helping individuals be heard is one thing.  But organizing a whole community to help itself be heard is difficult, perhaps particularly so with folks who are hungry.  Why?  Joel pointed out some of the reasons:
  • Low income people tend to live in a cycle of disempowerment.  They don’t have money to give to political campaigns, they’re less likely to vote, and their elected officials are often less responsive to their needs.  This leads to a feeling that nothing they could do would matter, cynicism that is difficult to counteract.
  • The members of most successfully organized groups want to affiliate with that group – union members, people who are gay, environmentalists, etc.  But poor people don’t want to think of themselves as poor; hungry people don’t want to think of themselves as hungry.
  • Low-income people speak a variety of languages, so meetings and communications need to be in those languages.  It is even more challenging when people are not fully literate in their native language.
  • People who come to the meetings tend to be those with extra time on their hands, often those with spotty job histories or mental health issues.  Those who represent the bulk of hungry Americans – the working poor, families with children – find it difficult to make time to attend meetings.
  • It can be difficult for people to expand their perspective beyond their personal experiences with hunger and with particular agencies or services.  It takes time and education to consider other people’s experiences, to understand systemic reasons for a situation, and finally to see broader possible policy solutions.
  • It is difficult to find resources to support community advocacy work.  No government funding can be used for advocacy and many foundations won’t fund it either.
Filomena Acevedo, NYCCAH
Community Organizer
To see how NYCCAH works to help organize hungry people in spite of these difficulties, we sat in on a meeting of the East Harlem Food Action Board (FAB), which meets bi-weekly in a conference room at the Yorkville Common Pantry, New York City’s largest community food pantry. 

The meeting was facilitated by Filomena Acevedo, NYCCAH Community Organizer.  By the 11:00 start time, she had set out refreshments for the group and posted the group’s mission statement on the wall.  It read,
“We are one of 4 FABs that the NYC Coalition Against Hunger runs throughout the city, in partnership with pantries and kitchens that host these meetings, to mobilize low-income community members concerning food, hunger, and anti-poverty initiatives.” 

Lawrence Brizan and Elizabeth Washington,
East Harlem FAB Members
About 10 people attended the meeting.  Because some were fluent in Spanish only, Filomena translated everything between English and Spanish so all were included. 

Filomena began the meeting by describing that Lawrence Brizan and Elizabeth Washington were among 4 FAB members who, along with Filomena, Theresa Hassler, and Joel Berg, made up NYCCAH’s delegation to Washington, DC, February 26-28, for the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, Their goal was to represent other low-income people at the conference and to work to end hunger by 2015.

Elizabeth described how privileged she felt to go to Washington.  She described speaking there of her experiences as a low-income person needing to choose whether to pay rent or buy food.  She helped advocate for continuation of SNAP, WIC and other programs needed to end hunger in America.  She felt that the congressional staff people she met really seemed to listen and to want to help, but that low-income people need to keep pushing.  She said she would definitely go again and that she’d try to be an even better advocate next time.

Lawrence agreed that the conference experience was a good one, that they had been very busy with workshops and meetings, and that it was impressive to be with 700-800 people who were all speaking on the same issues and trying to prevent cuts to federal food programs. 

Other items on the FAB agenda this week were focused on team-building, education, and community organizing:
  • Discussion of what makes a community
  • Discussion of the importance of knowing and contacting your elected officials
  • Information about TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program)
  • A 14-question poverty quiz that provided a great context to discuss the state of poverty across the country, not just New York.  
  • Guidelines on how to organize and facilitate a community meeting (One attendee shared that steps like these were successfully used to organize a community to stop a jail from being built in the Bronx)
It was a lively and spirited meeting throughout, with no shortage of opinions on topics including how the pantry operates, the plight of seniors who live in poverty, and the extra difficulties of being an undocumented resident.  We were impressed by the dignity inherent in this form of community-building, where those who really know are the experts.  The meeting ended about 12:15, with lots of informal conversations among participants before they went their separate ways.

Planting the seeds of empowerment through communities such as the Food Action Boards is long and difficult, but we give NYCCAH enormous credit for undertaking this work.  As Joel wrote when he signed our copy of his book,
“Together we can end hunger in America!”

1 comment:

  1. He raises a very good point - without involving the people you are trying to help, how can you expect to understand their perspective, their real needs and desires as distinct from your assumptions about them. But it seems to me this only goes so far, as evidenced by the problematic analogies he uses: I'd think closer analogies would be a teaching conference without students, or a firefighting conference without fires. Both I imagine are quite common, as the firefighters and teachers devote their careers to understanding and best engaging their subjects.

    The political argument I find much stronger. The problem is certainly not going to vanish by itself just by bringing it more out in the open.