COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Journal of Community Power Building:
Reflections of Community Development Leaders and Practitioners

 Edited by Sam Yoon, Asian CDC; Bill Traynor, Lawrence CommunityWorks; Nancy Marks, MACDC

Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing

The RHICO program is a joint initiative of MACDC and LISC

May 2004


A Letter from the Editors

Walking the Fine Line. By Danny LeBlanc,Somerville Community Corporation

The Power of Patience. By Yordy Ureña and Bill Traynor, Lawrence CommunityWorks

Fear and Coaxing in Waltham. By Sarah Robbins, WalthamAlliance to Create Housing (WATCH)

A Seat at the Table. By Yvette Cooks and Marc Dohan, Twin Cities Community Development Corporation

¡Sí Se Puede! (Yes We Can!). By Jim Haskell, Salem Harbor Community Development Corporation

The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote. By James Dien Bui, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, and Peter Nien-chu Kiang, Viet-AID

Laying Down a Speed Bump on the Gentrification Superhighway--Anatomy of a Campaign. By Kalila Barnett and Harry Smith, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation

Jook Sing (“Hollow Bamboo”). By Lai Ying Yu, Asian Community Development Corporation


A Letter from the Editors

“To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control."

Saul Alinsky, Organizer

“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is 'look under foot.'  You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.  The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive.  The great opportunity is where you are.  Do not despise your own place and hour.  Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”

John Burroughs, Essayist and Poet

On behalf of the Editorial Committee, we would like to welcome you to the first edition of the Journal of Community Power Building, a publication of the Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing (RHICO).  RHICO is an initiative of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) and the Massachusetts Association for Community Development Corporations (MACDC) to provide resources, technical assistance and peer learning opportunities for CDCs engaged in power building.  MACDC is not only the oldest state association for CDCs in the United States, but also a national leader in building the capacity of CDCs to do effective community organizing.  MACDC’s recently-adopted strategic plan identifies “building community power” as one of our movement’s core values, and this volume seeks to put that core value into action. Over the past seven years, RHICO has helped to shape a new generation of CDC staff and resident leaders who believe that all community change paths lead back to our abilities, capacities and willingness to build and exercise power.

Our perspectives about power are shaped by circumstance, culture, tradition, perception, and real world conditions, as well as by human emotion, communication and behavior.   For community development practitioners, our view of power is further influenced by a) the place-based nature of our work; b) the broad set of community-change agendas that we represent; and c) our commitment to building forms of collective, rather than unilateral power.  In addition, as we struggle each day to build the power needed to build the things – the homes, playgrounds, businesses, job opportunities and other community assets – that are needed in distressed communities, we do so in a policy and resource environment that, by and large, does its best to starve and marginalize our efforts.

Those of us who work and live in distressed or changing communities know that this process of building power – especially community power and collective power – is not only complicated, but personally challenging as well.  Often, our sense of self-worth, our fears and our ambivalence about power can get in the way of our ability to master the community change process.  Yet, the mastery of anything requires that we embrace its complexity and contradictions.  The Power Journal was established in recognition of this to promote an honest exploration of how real people in real situations grapple with both strategic and tactical complexities, as well as the deep emotional contradictions of understanding, building and using power. 

This Journal is produced and written solely by practitioners – the staff members, board members and community leaders who are working in CDCs in Massachusetts.  It is meant to provide a forum for many of the voices in our movement that are not normally heard.  Our writers are not professional writers or academics.  They are people from our own ranks who have taken a moment from the demands of their communities and organizations to share a story or an idea so that we can learn and grow as a network of activists.

We are very fortunate to have, in this, the inaugural edition of the Journal, eight wonderful and rich submissions by some of the unique voices from amongst our ranks.

We start with four stories which represent some of the principal voices of our movement:

  • In “Walking the Fine Line” Danny LeBlanc, Executive Director of the Somerville Community Corporation writes a remarkably honest personal account of the complexities of leading an organization through the process of building power while needing to be responsive to the ‘powers that be.’
  • Next, in an interview with Lawrence Community Works Director Bill Traynor, fifteen year old youth activist Yordy Ureña talks about what he has learned about power from the street, from incarceration and from being a part of a CDC.
  • Third, we have a unique voice in Sarah Robbins, a resident leader from WATCH in Waltham, who in “Fear and Coaxing in Waltham” writes about the power of fear and her personal path to understanding her own power and the power of the group.
  • The last piece in this group, ”A Seat At the Table,” was written by Marc Dohan, Executive Director of Twin Cities CDC and Yvette Cooks, a Twin Cities’ Board Member.  It gives us two different perspectives of the same campaign, and a glimpse into how each moved toward the other in the course of trying to build the power of the group.

The middle section of the Journal features three campaign descriptions that illustrate the strategic and tactical issues that confront CDCs that are trying to mount local movements:

  • In Jamaica Plain, the Campaign of Conscience is a broad attempt to slow down gentrification and raise questions about ‘equity’ in a runaway real estate market.  Organizers Kalila Barnett and Harry Smith bring this campaign to light.
  • In Salem, Executive Director Jim Haskell shares how the CDC tries to find ways to, directly and indirectly, participate in and build a movement of Latino community and electoral power.
  • In Boston, authors James Dien Bui, Shirely Suet-ling Tang and Peter Nien-chu Kiang discuss the Viet-Vote campaign, which confronts cultural barriers here and from the homeland in an immigrant community struggling to increase community engagement and build political power.

Finally, in “Jook Sing” (“Hollow Bamboo”) we leave you with a beautifully written memoir-fiction piece by Lai Ying Yu of the Asian CDC, about a young organizer’s struggle to understand and move within the rich and complex community politics of Chinatown.

Like our movement, our writers are a diverse group of executive directors, board members, community organizers and residents.  They are Asian, Latino, African American and White.  They are male and female, young and old and from communities throughout the Commonwealth.  But as diverse a group as they are, they share a common pursuit – to better understand the currents, laws and attributes of power so that as agents of change, they can help lead their communities and our movement.

It is our sincere hope that this is just the first of many The Journal of Community Power Building volumes that help us explore this rich topic. We have so much to learn from each other and from the content of our work.  Thank you for taking the time to read these stories, and we hope you will share this volume with friends and colleagues.  

In unity,

Co-editors, The Journal of Community Power Building

Sam Yoon, Asian CDC

Bill Traynor, Lawrence CommunityWorks                               

Nancy Marks, MACDC

Walking the Fine Line.

By Danny LeBlanc,Somerville Community Corporation

It was March 16, 2004.  We had just finished our Tuesday morning staff meeting at 10:45 AM.  I checked my voice mail and had one message:  “Hi, Danny, this is Phil Ercolini.  Can you please call me as soon as you get this message?  The mayor would like to meet with you today and we’re hoping you can do it at 11:15 because we have that time slotted in.  Thanks.”  (Phil Ercolini is the current Housing Director for the City of Somerville.)

I was quite sure that the mayor wanted to meet about our organizing work to generate support for a proposal we had submitted to acquire the Conwell School, a former elementary school, from the city to develop affordable family housing.  There was a community meeting scheduled for that evening to present and discuss the bids for the school, and Somerville Community Corporation was one of the bidders.

I was thinking, Should I respond to the phone call?  Perhaps I could say that I had been tied up all day in meetings and didn’t get the message until late afternoon.  Should I try to put the meeting off until later in the day, saying I couldn’t come any sooner?  Should I insist on having some board members with me at the meeting?  Could I even get any board members to come with me on such short notice?

Executive Directors/CEOs are often placed in this position of responding to political pressure related to some aspect of carrying out the CDC’s mission.  When the CDC is committed to community organizing as part of its practice, the CEO usually ends up in an acutely sensitive position.  What kinds of demands will the mayor make?  How will those square with the CDC’s agenda, including its organizing agenda?  What are the potential costs to the CDC of different actions you take or commitments you make in response to the demands?  How do you gauge when to make which judgments?  To explore these issues I will relate two stories involving such demands, my own decisions as CEO and those of our CDC, and the ongoing ramifications of those decisions.

Like most CDCs we rely on a good working relationship with city government, both politically and financially.  We are the only CDC in our city so the importance of the relationship goes both ways.  We are also a small enough community that it is not unusual for the mayor, or the mayor’s staff, to call me directly on something that we are working on or on some issue the mayor wants to take up with the organization.  In my three years as CEO at SCC during the former mayor’s administration (our current mayor took office in January 2004) there were a number of instances when I had to respond in some way to the mayor’s call.  One such instance took place in November 2002.  

SCC had just held a first meeting of around twenty-five residents in the Union Square neighborhood to kick off our effort to form a new neighborhood action group.  The day after the meeting one of the mayor’s aides called asking for us to meet with the mayor and the ward alderman* to discuss Union Square.  Both the mayor and the alderman questioned why we were organizing in Union Square since they believed there was already a lot of activism in that neighborhood (and the alderman believed that she should be allowed to handle things herself).

Our board president and I went into the mayor’s office together.  We spent considerable time explaining what we were trying to accomplish by organizing a neighborhood group, that we were not intentionally working at cross purposes with city government, and that we expected to continue.  Our explanations did not change their opinions.  We left the meeting saying that we intended to continue, but that we would bring their concerns back to our board and staff for further discussion. 

I had my own concerns about our organizing work. In addition to the opposition from the mayor and ward alderman (1) we had not succeeded in getting participation from a range of ethnic groups at the first meeting, one of our key goals; (2) among the attendees at that first meeting were a couple of activists that I knew would be trying to use our new group for their own ends (one of the activists had been the current alderman’s opponent in the 2001 election); and (3) our organizing staff at that time was quite inexperienced.

I felt that we had taken on a very difficult challenge in particular, and in general that we were new at neighborhood organizing work and would gain experience over time.  My own conclusion – and the recommendation I made to our board of directors – was that we stop organizing in Union Square and start fresh with that type of organizing in East Somerville, a separate neighborhood in a different ward.  In my mind, I was more worried about the concerns identified above, and the opposition from the mayor and alderman only added to my concerns.  However, the overwhelming perception of our own board and staff members was that we backed off from our Union Square organizing because the mayor and alderman had pushed us to.  Even our board president felt that way, and the perception persists to this day. 

While I feel we made the right decision, and that to continue would have gotten us into a protracted battle that I don’t think our organizers at that time could have handled, the fact is that we made our decision after we were challenged by the mayor and alderman.  My own thinking and understanding about the neighborhood organizing we were trying to develop was significantly more developed than that of anyone else on our board and staff, not to mention the neighborhood residents we were working to engage.  It’s quite natural for folks to jump to the most easily identifiable explanation for our shift away from Union Square.  And once that perception is in the air, it takes on a life of its own and becomes part of the internal and external discussions regarding our CDC’s community organizing work and political challenges. 

That brings us back to March 16th and the ConwellSchool.  That evening there was to be a community meeting regarding the disposition of the Conwell.  There had been a public bid process for the property.  Four bids were submitted, including SCC’s, but the previous Thursday we had been informed that our bid had been eliminated, and that the three others would remain in contention.  While we did not expect to be reinserted into the process – and, in fact, had never expected to win the bid – we had decided to do some organizing to up the ante and to raise the profile of the affordable family housing crisis that our community faces.  Even after learning that the Reuse Committee had eliminated our bid, we decided to continue our organizing work up through the community meeting. 

Our community organizers, along with a few board members, had worked hard to line up community support for our proposal, with hours of door knocking and dozens of follow-up phone calls.  It turned out that there was some strong support for the development of affordable family housing in general, and our proposal in particular.  Our staff and leaders had succeeded in lining up some residents to speak in favor of our proposal and to attend the community meeting in support.  One of our board members was going to request that our bid be placed back in among the top three.  Our board president and I had also written an Op-Ed piece on the affordable family housing crisis, and why our proposal for the ConwellSchool posed one way to address it.  (Ironically, the Op-Ed piece appeared in the local weekly Somerville Journal the morning we were informed that our proposal had been eliminated from consideration.)  

When I got to the mayor’s office, he immediately took issue with our organizing efforts around the Conwell bid, just as I had suspected he would.  He made it clear right away that he was treating our efforts as an indication that we did not want a good working relationship with his administration.  He said that SCC was treating Conwell as though we had a right to the school that other developers didn’t, and that we were wrong about that.  Our proposal just didn’t measure up, he said, and we had to live with that and not fight him on it.  There would be plenty of opportunities for development during his administration.  We’d get some of them if we worked with him, but we couldn’t expect to get all of them.  If we didn’t want to work with him, there would be other developers he’d be happy to work with.

The mayor’s overall message was clear: he didn’t want us picking a public fight with him over the ConwellSchool.  If we did, he would take it as an indication that we only wanted an adversarial relationship with his administration, and he would proceed accordingly.  As one indication of how he perceived our work, he had taken offense to the Op-Ed piece we had written the previous week, as though it was an attack on his administration.  In fact, the Op-Ed piece had never mentioned him or any members of his administration, or any other player in city government at all for that matter.  Our piece had focused solely on the crisis in family affordable housing, and the opportunity the ConwellSchool presented for responding to that crisis.

The mayor asked for my assurance that we would do the right thing that night at the community meeting.  He threatened to come and mount some sort of attack on our organization if he had to.  I told him that I would take the message back to our board of directors and staff, and that we would figure out our position in light of his concerns.  I also indicated that we couldn’t control all the people who were going to attend the community meeting, and the interest they had in our proposal and the crisis it addressed.

Following the meeting at city hall, I called our office and asked our organizing and development staff to gather so that we could meet as soon as I got back to the office.  It was 12:30 PM and I knew we would only have the afternoon to figure out our strategy for the meeting that evening.  I thought back to the Union Square situation sixteen months earlier.

Our staff met for well over an hour after I got back to the office.  I laid out the mayor’s concerns and the specific statements he had made to the best of my ability.  Our staff, although not surprised, was generally outraged at the mayor’s aggressive approach.  The SCC Board of Directors had spent an hour-and-a-half just the night before debating, developing and refining our approach for the community meeting.  With that backdrop, the staff spent over an hour discussing the board’s strategy, and whether and how to adjust it based on the recent pressure from the mayor.

We came to a few conclusions regarding our approach to the community meeting:  (1) we couldn’t – and shouldn’t – control all the comments that might be made about our proposal by community residents; (2) the two board members who had been determined to speak on behalf of the organization the night before would still make statements at the meeting on behalf of our proposal and on the broader issue of affordable family housing; (3) those board members, however, would stop short of pressing the Reuse Committee to reinstate SCC’s proposal; and (4) we would not seek to disrupt the meeting by attempting to speak before comments had been made on the three other proposals.

The stakes were pretty high.  What we were attempting to do was to walk a fine line between backing down completely from our original position regarding the community meeting and consequently be seen as weak, and moving so aggressively that we would be seen as picking a fight with the mayor. 

Since it was already 2:00 PM, we had very little time.  Nevertheless, we determined that we needed to call as many board members as possible about the new situation, especially those who were planning to come to the meeting.  In addition, our organizing director would call a few key residents who had been found through our outreach efforts, and who were planning to speak on behalf of our proposal at the meeting.

The community meeting unfolded in pretty much the way we had anticipated.  The Reuse Committee, led by the alderman, introduced the meeting and invited each of the three remaining bidders to make brief presentations regarding their proposals.  Community members were then allowed to ask questions of each of the bidders after each presentation. 

It was in the context of this portion of the meeting that our work played itself out.  One of the first community members speaking during this portion asked why they hadn’t seen SCC’s proposal as part of the meeting.  The ward alderman responded by explaining that our bid had already been eliminated by the Reuse Committee.  After two more residents expressed disappointment in not seeing SCC’s proposal to consider, and that they had come because they believe affordable family housing is a critical need in their neighborhood, the ward alderman responded by asking the third speaker whether she was affiliated with SCC.  The alderman, a strong ally of the mayor’s, was clearly looking for a fight at this point.  The resident responded that she had no affiliation whatsoever with SCC, but had simply heard about and read our proposal.

It was precisely at this point that I felt we had accomplished what we set out to do that evening.  We had been able to push our issue and gain substantial community support in the process, without crossing the line.  While the residents who had asked about SCC’s proposal were not affiliated with SCC we knew that, in fact, they had surfaced through the organizing outreach we had done in the neighborhood.  They knew about our proposal mainly because of our door knocking and follow-up conversations. 

Following that point of tension, virtually every other speaker that evening was compelled to address the absence of SCC’s proposal in the mix.  The mayor and ward alderman, in particular, felt that they had to assure the community folks that they agreed that affordable family housing was a critical need in Somerville, and that they would be working with SCC and others toward that end.

Sitting in the audience that night – not speaking publicly, but developing a nice tension headache – I felt that our work that day would allow me to feel that I had been part of our success in acting on three key lessons learned from our earlier experience with the former mayor.

First, it is always important to figure out your organizing strategy so that you engage as many people on as many levels as possible.  Then, when a potential battle looms, there are layers of folks – board, staff, and community residents – already engaged in what you’re doing.  The CEO’s challenge then becomes how and when to engage which actors in determining the strategy to respond to political conflict.

Second, when the mayor calls out your organizing and pressures it to stop, that dynamic by itself becomes the most important thing for the CEO to address.  I put much more time and energy into directly addressing the issue of the political pressure in the Conwell situation in a very compacted period of time (one day) than I had put into directly addressing the pressure around Union Square over a much more extended period of time (a couple of months).  The time spent in staff and board discussion and in one-on-one conversations to sort through the complexities of a political pressure situation is absolutely critical for organizational growth, and for feeling right and true about the decisions that get made.

The final lesson is that it is very important to find some way not to back down, at least not entirely, from the fight.  Our decision to ‘walk the fine line’ in the Conwell School disposition case was far more empowering to all constituents than the decision to rationalize walking away from our Union Square organizing, however well thought through on my part the latter decision had been. 

(As expected, SCC did not win the bid for the ConwellSchool.  However, at the time of this writing, we are planning to meet with the mayor to discuss opportunities for SCC to acquire other public buildings that are being disposed, following the lead he gave us at the Conwell community meeting.)

Danny LeBlanc is a lifelong Massachusetts resident with a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has worked in community organizing, community development, and nonprofit management in several organizations in Massachusetts over the past 26 years. Danny currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of Somerville Community Corporation and Board Chair of the Massachusetts Association of  Community Development Corporations.

The Power of Patience.

By Yordy Ureña and Bill Traynor, Lawrence CommunityWorks

Yordy Ureña was born and has lived his whole life in the Lawrence area.  Fifteen years old, he is currently attending night school at MethuenHigh School, and is a volunteer at Lawrence CommunityWorks during the day.  Before the age of fourteen, Yordy was arrested twice, for Assault and Battery and Assault with a Deadly Weapon, and served two stints in a high-security JuvenileDetentionCenter.  Over the past two years, Yordy has been a part of the LCW Young Professionals program.  (His older brother Juandoly was one of the first Young Architects at LCW and is now attending WoodburyCollege in Burbank, California on scholarship.)  Last fall, Yordy was one of three young people to be selected to participate, with twelve adult leaders, in a six-month leadership experience at LCW called Poder (“Power” in Spanish).  Here Yordy is interviewed by LCW Executive Director Bill Traynor on the topic of power.

Bill: Yordy, I remember the first time I met you.  It was at the MACDC Lobby Day at the State House when you were fourteen.  We were all leaving and you said, “I don’t know why they say they don’t have enough money for affordable housing; why don’t they scrape some of the gold off the roofs of their houses!”

Tell me what words come to mind when you hear the word POWER?

Yordy: Strength, knowledge, patience.

Bill: Patience. That’s an interesting one.

Yordy:Yeah well, my problem has been my temper, and expecting to get exactly what I wanted when I wanted it.  That’s the kind of situation on the street.  Everybody reacting and everything is about right now.

Bill: Do young people talk about power on the street?

Yordy: The power that some kids want is not the good power.  It’s not leadership really. The power you get off the street is bad power – getting what you want and getting it now and doing what you need to do to get it. It just brings problems and definitely doesn’t help to build patience.  Basically there’s too much drama…and that leads to lock up or death, and me and some of my friends have gone one way or the other. It takes a lot to turn that around.  For me it took people that I care about hitting me in the head with a broom. 

Bill: You spent some time in Juvenile Lock Up.  In retrospect, do you think you learned anything about power from that experience?

Yordy:People that lock you up – that is serious power.  People who can restrain you, tell you when to go to the bathroom, when to look outside of the window…that’s serious power.  You need permission for everything. It made me realize everything that I took for granted in my own house. I thought I had no power at home. But I lost the little power that I did have in my house...I lost it all.  My power at home was like 50 percent.  In lock up it was one percent.  So I lost 49 percent of the power I had.  That shook me up and woke me up.

Bill: Are you a powerful person now?

Yordy: In a way I am and in a way I am not. The little kids here look up to me in a way. I am a role model.  Plus I feel like I have power here at LCW, the power to convince people…to move stuff that I want to see happen.  In a way I’m not because I’m afraid of people who have more power than me.  I’m starting to see the difference between raw power and leadership. I’m not afraid of leadership.  Like, the courts still have power over me.  If I mess up in some little way they have the power to lock me up again.  That is a power that I am mostly afraid of. 

Bill: You have been a part of the Poder Leadership Experience group. What has that been like for you?

Yordy: It’s been the best experience I have ever had.  I learn a new thing every moment and I never thought I could have fun with the older people, but they are great.  I learned how to ‘facilitate’ a class.  How to take a big question and make it into a web so people can take on different parts of it.  I learned how to lead a brainstorm.  Plus, I learned to speak more Spanish.  The older people kept encouraging me to speak Spanish, which I was embarrassed about.  But they were very accepting and made it all a part of who I was…you know, practicing my Spanish in the class.

Bill: Has it been strange being in Poder and talking about power with adults?

Yordy: I was accepted.  That’s the main thing.  You see an older person’s point of view and then a young person’s point of view.  Sometimes they were close together and then sometimes they were way off, like one was on Saturn and the other was on Pluto.  And then we are two inches away from each other again.  Actually, it’s amazing how our points of view were so close together 99 percent of the time.  It surprised me.  I was shocked….people treated me and Richard and Ricky just like a part of the group.  We were all students there, all equally there to learn.

Bill: What kinds of things are you learning about power in Poder?

Yordy: One class that we had – it was our main retreat – I had an ‘aha’ moment.  For most of the retreat we were all together, a lot of agreement on everything.  But then we had to pick one issue to hold a community forum on – for real, we have to do it next month as part of the class – and at the end it didn’t all come together.  We had a lot of disagreement about what to focus on.  One thing I learned was that the majority can’t always win.  We had to persuade and work to get consensus.  It was hard work, but I realized how powerful patience can be, ’cause I couldn’t force anything to happen.  I had to make arguments to win people over.  It helped me realize how to work at persuasion, and how to use what I know to push for what I think is right.  But the ‘aha’ was that I had to really listen to people to figure out where they were coming from so I could come up with the right kind of persuasion.  I was noticing the reactions I got when I had an idea.  People would go hmm…like they didn’t really agree but they weren’t really buying.  Well, I wanted to get from “hmm” to “oh he has a good point!”  And I got a few of those before the retreat was over.

Bill: What kinds of things have you learned about how you personally build or use power?

Yordy: I learned that my biggest power is to build my patience. That is the number one thing that a person needs. You can’t get it all your way.  You have to bend it or come up with a new idea.  I used to feel like….you don’t want the other person to be right, ’cause then you feel wrong.  But now I can look at it and say, “Someone could be right, but that doesn’t make me wrong. We could be both right or both wrong.”  Plus I like the idea that I can change people’s minds if I work at it.  I have some power to convince.  That’s the kind of power that works here [at LCW].  I have power here because people listen and they take my feedback seriously.  And it’s real because if I have a bad idea people will say, “That’s a really bad idea.”  So I know that it’s real.

Bill: You’ve done a lot at school and at LCW over the past few years.  Do you worry about what’s ahead for you?

Yordy: I still worry.  Trouble looks for me in a way.  I have kids looking for me still who don’t get it and want to pull me back.  If I get in it with them and lose my temper it’s going to be bad for me.  It is my fault that I have my reputation, but a reputation is a hard thing to lose, and they don’t see or maybe care that I’m trying to do.  It takes little steps to take a big step, and I’m taking little steps now.  The court won’t see that I’m changing until I do that big thing…take that big step.  I don’t know what that big thing is but I hope it’s coming soon.

Fear and Coaxing in Waltham

By Sarah Robbins

He said he wouldn’t continue the discussion unless I acted like a “lady.” Without hesitation I stated simply that the practice of “acting like a lady” is the reason why hundreds of elderly women were willing to be silent in the face of being gentrified out of their homes!

 A “lady” doesn’t speak up.  A “lady” doesn’t talk back to those in power.  A “lady” just rolls over and lets the bad guys of the world run amok all over their lives.  That’s exactly what my neighbors, both men and women, were doing in the face of losing what was home for up to forty plus years.

It all comes down to misconceptions and fear – misconceptions about what power is; who has it and who doesn’t; how to use it; and what it all means.   There is fear of the unknown.  Fear of the future and for one’s future.  Just plain fear.

Back in 2001, I read in the local paper that Gardencrest, the apartment complex I had lived in for some seven years, was up for sale.  This was quite a shock after receiving a letter of assurance from the owners that despite the death of the family patriarch and Gardencrest founder, they had no plans to sell in the future.  For nearly fifty years, Gardencrest was not so much a steppingstone to the American dream of home ownership as it was Home for countless seniors and a place in which to raise children.  Not only was it Home, plain and simple, it was also affordable for regular folks.  For people who had lived here for many years, the real estate world outside the boundaries of our cozy community was much too expensive, let alone being an environment that felt nearly as safe.  Many of my neighbors had disabilities or were elderly and had found a safe haven here.  Those who found Gardencrest never left.  Most of the seniors had not kept up with prices of apartments in the world beyond, because they liked living at Gardencrest.  Why would they move?  Where would they go?

Most significantly, my neighbors were used to having a landlord who showed compassion for the needs of the tenants by keeping rents low.  Suddenly, the complex was up for sale, leaving tenants feeling stunned and betrayed by the family they had trusted for all those years.  Clearly the aging offspring of the founder were of a different breed from their father.  Still, they were DeVincents, and therefore tenants felt they owed some sort of loyalty to the landlords even if they were heeding the advice of real estate agents interested in maximum profit at any human cost.  At the price being asked, the new owner would have to immediately double the rents as had happened a few years before at a similar apartment complex across town.  Even so, the tenants felt obliged to let the second generation of DeVincents do as they pleased out of respect for their dead father.  They felt it would be unacceptable to appear to be “anti- DeVincent” by speaking up for their needs and were willing to be the collateral damage in the battle for affordable housing.  “It’s a private sale, there’s nothing we can do,” was the whimper of those convinced of their powerlessness in the face of disaster.

City officials were saying the same thing.  “It’s a private sale; they can sell it for whatever the market will offer.”  They were willing to let hundreds of long time Waltham residents get gentrified out of the homes where they had raised their children or had retired to, rather than try to interfere with the supposedly sacred right of a prominent family to sell a property for maximum profit.  The fact that there was no affordable place for these people to go had nothing to do with it.  The fact that the waiting list for senior housing was four years long was just too bad.  The fact that to move out of Gardencrest would undoubtedly be the end of many a frail elder could not be helped.  “Sorry, it’s a private sale.”  Group shrug.  After all, many of the city officials had moved up several notches in “class” from profits gained in selling a house.  It’s the American Way.  In the next two years I would encounter many a homeowner and city official who saw no distinction between a family’s selling the old homestead and the sale of a 696-unit commercial property that composed 7 percent of the entire city’s rental housing stock.

A few days after I read in the paper about the sale, I called the Waltham Alliance to Create Housing (WATCH) and went to their office to discuss the issue.  I had no particular notion at that time of embarking on a two-year, full-time campaign to save my neighbors but I also didn’t subscribe to the idea that nothing could be done, so I wanted to get some information about what might be possible.  Although realistic, never once did the folks at WATCH say the situation was hopeless.  Yes, it was a private sale but that doesn’t mean that resistance was futile.  These folks actually had experience with this sort of thing and could help my neighbors and myself at least try to have a say in the matter.

At the tenants’ meeting that the folks at WATCH suggested, the turnout was impressive.  Mostly elderly, the tenants were very afraid and felt as if they had been thrown into an unthinkable situation.  With fear as the order of the day, people were dying to hear what quick fix the meeting would bring to light.  They wanted either a quick fix or to forget it, one extreme or the other, most fearing that  “nothing could be done.”  I found the ignorance, naiveté and denial of reality (both good and bad) to be shocking.  My neighbors were either of the opinion that surely the DeVincents would take care of us like a father takes care of his children or that the world as we knew it had come to an end and we might as well lie down and take it.  Either way, in their mindset of fear, there was no action on our part that was called for or of use.  Either wait to be saved or wait to be devastated.  Completely passive.  Rare were the tenants who dared to take responsibility for their own future and tried to have a voice in the sale proceedings.   There was talk of spies at this meeting who would squeal on anyone who got uppity.  Surely to stand up for oneself would be to risk landlord retaliation.

Would the city officials save us?  Well, two city councilors were at the meeting and were doing a lot of shoulder shrugging.  If they had the power to do anything, they didn’t want to exercise it.  After all, to sell for maximum profit was legal.  The rising cost of a place to live was not a subject the city wanted anything to do with.  Too many of the city’s officials would not be happy to “interfere” with the sacred cow of real estate profitmaking.  Many tenants who had come to this first meeting looking for a quick fix or a “nice” solution would never come to future meetings.  They were not willing to let go of their misconceptions about their own power or the power of the real estate industry.  They were not able to let go of their fear.

It was only after the complex was sold to the sixth-largest Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in the country that people were freed from the burden of loyalty to the DeVincent clan.  Still, what to do?  A core group of tenants was forming who were willing to fight the injustice that was happening in our lives.  For these few, misconceptions were fading and their confidence was improving through group solidarity.  Eventually, through the persistence of this core group, we found a local lawyer who was not only knowledgeable about affordable housing issues but was willing to help us for free.  After months of education on the practicability and “rightness” of fighting corporate greed, when our new lawyer said that he “liked the possibilities of what’s going on here,” most of the tenants in the room were ready to listen and trust that there was something we could do.  Enter Civil Disobedience for beginners.

The Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute speaks about the concept of “unconscionability” in a situation and that the law will not tolerate something that is “outrageous, unjust or immoral.”  The second part of the statute speaks to the “lack of meaningful alternatives” available to consumers (tenants) for something as necessary as a place to live.  Thirdly, the “gross inequality of bargaining power” between tenants and this corporate giant of a landlord afforded us some leverage under the law.  If we could convince a judge that the proposed rent increases were outrageous and devastating, we might be able to get the judge to persuade the new landlord to play nice.

To make a very long story short, the fledgling Gardencrest Tenants Association was able to collect over 120 signatures from tenants pledging to collectively withhold their rent increases in order to persuade the landlord to negotiate a compromise with the tenants regarding these increases.  If this negotiation did not happen, then the tenants would bring the issue to the attention of the local judge.  Persuading tenants to sign was not easy but we designed the pledge campaign to minimize people’s fear of being the first to sign it.  Unless we got at least 100 signatures, we would not go through with it.  No one’s signature would be revealed to the landlord unless at least ninety-nine neighbors were also willing to risk going through eviction proceedings.  No one would be asked to go through with the withholding unless at least ninety-nine neighbors were also withholding.  Our lawyer assured us that we wouldn’t have to actually withhold the rent increases; the collective pledge to do so would bring the landlord to the negotiation table to work out a compromise regarding rent increases.  It worked.  By acting collectively, we avoided much of the fear of being singled out as individual troublemakers by the landlord.

Our commitment to this solidarity was shaky at best, but still strong enough to enable us to negotiate two significant and unprecedented victories for the cause of affordable housing in Waltham.  One of these victories consisted of a joint city/landlord program involving a two-year, seventy-dollar per month rental subsidy for 104 low-income families who were brave enough to disclose all of their financial information in the application.  The Tenants Association then went on to sign a contract with the landlord to further help these 104 households by limiting their rent increases to 5 percent per year for four years.

In the end, what was successful was to work as a group and put a collective pledge in writing to take our cause as far as we needed to.  Groups have a power that individuals do not.  We had to let go of the misconception that exercising power means acting like a “bad guy” out to annihilate the “enemy.”   A goal of compromise that respected the landlord’s right to make a profit while we pushed for people’s right to have a roof over their heads was hugely successful.  Stridently making aggressive demands in order to negotiate down to an acceptable level fell flat every time.

Fear was and still is the most difficult element to overcome.  It is the one thing that enables the bad guys of this world to do what they will while good people stand by and cower.  It’s the one thing that rears its ugly head even in people whose misconceptions have been corrected.

It’s been two-and-a-half years since this whole tenant empowerment exercise has started.  I’ve just gotten off the phone with one of the core group members.  She and at least two other core group members are afraid of landlord retaliation if they, along with several people, sign a letter that mentions the fact that the landlord is violating several laws/codes.  The landlord might get a hold of this letter, they say.  The landlord won’t like it, they say.  Do we have to come right out and say that they’re breaking the law?  Sigh.  During moments of weakness and burnout, fear still has such a stranglehold on people’s minds that it outweighs rational thought.  They know that retaliation is illegal.  They know that the Tenants Association will protect them from it.  They have heard me say many times that what keeps me feeling safe is that I know my rights and I have the confidence to resist anyone who violates my rights.  As long as I continue to be active in the Tenants Association (and for six months beyond that), I am protected by law from any landlord’s retaliation and I know that the burden of proof is on the landlord, should I cry foul.  I know that being afraid to speak up (read, “ladylike”) while the opposition is breaking the law is no way to promote change.

Fear can be very powerful.  But change can happen, if slowly.

A Horticulturalist by trade, Sarah had no prior experience in power building when the desperate need for a tenant leader at Gardencrest presented itself. She could not refuse. She did, however, have some experience in when not to be a Lady, which was valuable in the efforts at Gardencrest and led to her becoming a board member at WATCH where she tries to be a team player.

A Seat at the Table

By Yvette Cooks and Marc Dohan

The following is an exchange and reflection between Yvette Cooks, a resident activist in Fitchburg, and Marc Dohan, the Executive Director of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation.  The narrative in italics is by Ms. Cooks, while Mr. Dohan’s narrative is in regular text.

Writing for the Power Journal has brought back many memories of my journey towards “a seat at the table.”  I remember walking in that negotiating room feeling so inadequate as a member of a nine-member team that was supposed to represent the community.  I was a "nobody" and this great responsibility had been placed upon me.  I had always thought that people who made those kinds of decisions were people with PhDs or some other kind of impressive degrees.

I decided to “play-act” and pretend I knew what was going on and what my role was.  I soon discovered that no one knew what their role was in the beginning and they knew just about as much as I did.

As time went on certain things frightened me and I thought we would not make it.  But I had come to depend on my team members, and they on me.  Together we were tough and unbeatable.  All my fears became overshadowed by the fact that I had a team working with me.

The experience of working with a CDC and the city gave me confidence and boosted my self-respect.

I don’t have to have a PhD to make a difference; I just need to be me.  This is one event that I will never forget.

Introduction and Background

In November of 2000, the Twin Cities CDC purchased the first of fifteen vacant lots and abandoned buildings in lower Cleghorn.  In preparation for that purchase, CDC community organizers had already begun canvassing the neighborhood to determine what the community wanted to build to replace the lots and buildings. 

We at the CDC thought that this was a neighborhood that was in great need of revitalization.  It was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the City of Fitchburg and suffered from a high crime rate.  In the several years that the project was underway the one block at the center of the neighborhood saw arson, attempted murder, innumerable drug deals and acts of prostitution, and regular burglaries and robberies.

We wrestled long and hard about how to revitalize the neighborhood.  How many units should we demolish in order to transform the neighborhood?  We believed that we could only justify the demolition of housing if we had the support of the people who lived in the community.  In addition to the new homes, sidewalks and water mains, we wanted to make sure that a new generation of leaders would be ready to reclaim their neighborhood and that the neighborhood would be rebuilt in a manner consistent with its vision of itself. 

Gaining Power

If you ever want to move mountains, get masses of people together who are passionate and convicted in what they believe in…you then have power, real power!  When the CDC came together with the community it initially gave the appearance of losing control, but ultimately the CDC became stronger because it merged with a second force.   Once the community and the CDC were side-by-side, the city was no longer in total control but was left having to deal with one conglomerate force of power.  I realized how much the community needed the CDC to be successful and at the same time how much the CDC needed the community to create power.

We were dependent upon the city for financial support and for political support to undertake any development projects, and we had very little power to negotiate the terms of our development agreements with the City of Fitchburg.  We knew that the city preferred the system in which they met with a few community residents and focused their discussions on the executive director of the CDC. 

As volunteers representing the neighborhood, we had standing and power that paid staff of the CDC could never have.  As voters and stakeholders in the community, we had a different relationship with city officials than a CDC dependent upon a city for financial and political support, because we were independent of the City.     

We gave the CDC real power in the negotiations, but we also demanded more from the CDC.  From now on, we wanted the CDC to have our “sign off” before proceeding with the Plymouth Street Initiative.  

Sharing Power  

It is necessary to discuss the leadership role at the negotiating table.  It was essential that each member of our group spoke and that it coincided with the points of view of the other members.  We had to stand strong, we had to stand united, and we had to stand unbeatable.  We had pre-meetings and post-meetings to disagree with one another and to come to some kind of compromise, but at the negotiating table we could not waver.

Had one person, just one, disagreed with the other eight, they could have become isolated and the entire team process could have been compromised.

We were nervous about the process, because we knew that the city had fixed ideas about how they wanted to redevelop the neighborhood and we did not think they would be receptive to other ideas from the neighborhood.  While we wanted a neighborhood project, we did not want this process to collapse because of one or two residents.

We thought the City of Fitchburg had always dealt with “token” community residents; the types who were directors of organizations, or well-known individuals within the community who would almost always side with them.  We knew that the CDC relied on the city for block grants to complete projects as well as future projects and were somewhat afraid to ruffle the city’s feathers.  The city opposed the kind of in-depth involvement the community wanted with these houses.  There were threats.  I remember hearing that the CDC was not going to get any more contracts from the city.

To involve the community and at the same time protect ourselves we undertook an elaborate process to make sure that the neighborhood representatives were in fact representative of the neighborhood.  First, CDC staff canvassed the neighborhood and developed a set of principles that it asked the community to adopt.  The principles served to unify the CDC staff, board, committees and neighborhood around ideas about how to redevelop the neighborhood. 

To bridge the gap between the city and the neighborhood, we invited nine members of the community: four stakeholders including the city’s ward councilor, a local business man, the head of a local non-profit organization and a local priest; four neighborhood residents; and one resident from another neighborhood in the city to sit down with the city’s director of planning to develop a plan for the neighborhood.

Our faith in the Committee grew during the negotiation process.  For example, when the city’s planning director failed to make a meeting, the Committee quickly learned that a meeting without the city present was unproductive.  While the Committee continued to be aggressive they worked very hard not to alienate representatives of the city and learned to be tough negotiators with a measure of flexibility so as to not force the process to breakdown entirely.

City officials were very leery about what they were hearing from the neighborhood.  They frowned on the two- and three- family homes that the neighborhood wanted, because they believed that the neighborhood had enough rental units and wanted to make the neighborhood less dense and create more homeownership. 

It’s important to note however, that we were on a different playing field than the CDC.  Although we were mindful to try not to alienate the city we had to put pressure where the CDC could not.  We had to demand more and the CDC had to allow us to do so.  We had to do our job independently from the CDC.  It worked.

The CDC demonstrated its dependence on us when late in the negotiating process the executive director of the CDC left the negotiating room and told the city to reach an agreement with us.  When the executive director made the decision to leave the decision making process it shook me like a thunderbolt.  I was petrified, feeling that maybe this Committee could not carry itself without her.  Although I understood why she left (the city kept putting the spotlight on her and she now felt that that the nine-member team was ready to stand on its own), I was still very scared.  This fear was quickly dispelled when I realized that we were being led by one of the best organizing directors.  She eliminated my doubts, helped with my confidence and was there to bring me through to the end.


In order for the community to have a place at the table the CDC had to first give up its power before it could ask the city to give up some of theirs.  From an activist/leadership point of view, I don’t think the CDC had ever done anything like this before.  There were high risks involved – one, the risk of not having the community truly invest itself to the point of doing whatever it took to succeed.  Two, the city becoming agitated with this new process and telling the powers-to-be that they would find another developer. 

While bringing the community to the table improved the project, it also made the project take longer and cost more.  To move the project to a conclusion we created deadlines.  We believed that the deadlines would push the parties, including ourselves, to reveal bottom lines, and that without a deadline there was little incentive for the community representatives or the city to push to resolution.  For both of these groups, delay, while not ideal, was preferable to a breakdown of the negotiations, and there was not a real downside to a delay of several months.  But for the CDC, delay meant losing control of the project and its finances, and we could not afford that result.

We had worked so hard for such a long period of time only to have the city to agree on ten of the twelve points the community demanded.  We weighed their decision and thought of the possibility of letting it go there.  Members raised the point that we were there to serve the community and they had asked for twelve points not ten.  The decision was made to bring it to the community at the annual meeting.  We prepared hard for this event, each person taking a role to speak to the community in order to inform them of all that had taken place and how we had done everything possible to get them to agree on all twelve points. 

We sent the city an ultimatum:  Reach agreement or we would go public about the impasse at our annual meeting scheduled for later that month. 

I think we all believed when we walked over to city hall for our meeting that we would settle the thing right there, or at worst we would receive a phone call a while later telling us that we had an agreement.  Just in case, we had two agendas planned for the annual meeting – a celebration agenda and a confrontational one.  As the hour approached though, it became clear we weren’t going to hear anything from the city.  We took a deep breath and headed off to the annual meeting at the church in Cleghorn.

We were brilliant at the annual meeting.  We told the city what we thought in front of more than one hundred people.  We told them that the money in question was not their personal money and that it belonged to the people.  We quoted Malcolm X in the context of “doing whatever it takes by any means necessary” (violence excluded, of course).  Towards the very end we asked all those who believed in the plan to please stand. Everyone stood, including city officials.  We knew we had won.

What We Learned

In short, the community has come to play a critical role in engaging the CDC to act (with the community in mind), and to have the city to respond (again including the community). 

Now that the Plymouth Street Initiative is nearly complete, we need to find a way to assure the community’s place at the table in other upcoming projects.  We have continued to learn and relearn the lesson that sharing power with the community increases the CDC’s power, but comes at a cost.  There is always a temptation to seek community input only when there are disagreements with the city, and to save time and money on projects by eliminating this process when the CDC doesn’t need the power that the community residents provide.  We must continue to plan and budget for longer projects to make sure that the community has the time to provide its input.

We earned a seat at the table.  We took the blows and didn’t fall.  A voice was out there, demanding to be heard and it didn’t stop until we got results.  Our Committee was proud to represent the Cleghorn neighborhood.

Yvette Cooks has been a community activist for 3 ½ years. Presently a Board Member of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation, she is also a Board Member of Human Rights Commission of the City of Fitchburg, Community Health Connections, Burbank Hospital, and a member of the Plymouth Street Initiative Committee (PSI) and the Cleghorn crime watch.  She has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice and a BA in Psychology.   She is very active in the "fight for justice" and often represents people of low- to moderate-income, as well as people of color.

Marc Dohan is currently the Executive Director of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation.

¡Sí Se Puede! (Yes We Can!)

By Jim Haskell

The atmosphere in the Neighbor-to-Neighbor (N2N) office that November evening in 2003 was electric.  The makeshift campaign headquarters read the results from Precinct One of Salem’s First Ward.  Lucy Corchado had come a bit short of her opponent, Kathy Driscoll-Gauthier.  But there was no reason to panic.  Precinct 1 covered the Derby Street and Willows areas of Salem, not Lucy’s base.  In Precinct Two, consisting of Salem’s Latino neighborhood known as the Point, Lucy beat Driscoll-Gauthier by an overwhelming margin.

Lucy Corchado, a Puerto Rican mother of three and President of the Point Neighborhood Association, was about to become Salem’s second Latina city councilor.

Less than ten years before, the very idea of a Latino city councilor in Salem was preposterous.  The Latino vote was so inconsequential that several white politicians privately commented that while they would really like to do things to help the Point, doing so cost them more votes from disgruntled white voters than they made up in Latino votes.

Since the early 1990s, a number of events have resulted in a turnaround of Latino influence in Salem politics.  They range from changes in the citizenship policies of the Dominican Republic to staging get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.  They involve partisan organizations and non-partisan ones – both of which rely on the same group of local activists. 

This article will look at how two organizations serving one immigrant neighborhood were able to capitalize upon several historical and demographic changes and significantly increase the clout that that neighborhood had over the local political process.

Historic background

In the early 1990s, Salem received a federal grant that provided funding to the Center for Addictive Behaviors (CAB) to create the Salem Community Alliance.  The grant program’s philosophy was that by organizing the community around like interests, the community would have greater strength to deal with drugs and other social ills.  Two of the groups that formed under the auspices of the Salem Community Alliance were the Point Neighborhood Action Group (PNAG) – a group largely made up of tenants – and the Point Neighborhood Improvement Association (PNIA), comprising of landlords and homeowners.

At the same time, Salem Harbor CDC had recently worked closely with the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO) to organize the residents of properties owned by a developer named Fred Small, and through this effort had been able to convert eleven of those buildings into the Salem Point Cooperative.  This development was a watershed for the Salem Harbor CDC.  From a nearly-bankrupt single person operation, the CDC was now financially healthy and was able to add a community outreach worker who worked closely with residents.  As the CDC became more engaged in the life of the community, its Board of Directors realized that any physical development in the Point would be hindered if the Point didn’t also have clout at City Hall.  Successive strategic plans in 1995 and 2000 placed an increasingly higher priority on neighborhood organizing towards exercising that clout.

The 1990s saw continuing changes in the Point’s demographics that foreshadowed the neighborhood’s new political ascendancy.  Historically, the Point area had been developed in the 1800s to provide housing for the Naumkeag Steam Mills – a large bed linen factory that sat on a point of land sticking out into SalemHarbor.  At the time of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, it was home predominantly to French-Canadians who had come from Quebec to work in the mills.  Although the neighborhood was leveled in the fire, the area was quickly rebuilt to meet war production needs.

In 1953 the mills shut down and moved to South Carolina, and virtually overnight an entire neighborhood was thrown into unemployment.  Some families found work in places like the two GTE Sylvania plants or Parker Brothers (making Monopoly games), but many others left the area.  The French-Canadian families were largely replaced by Puerto Ricans – often coming to Salem from New York.  Many were employed at Parker Brothers or in one of the many tanneries in operation at the time.

In the late 1970s, a trickle of Dominican immigrants began settling in the Point – finding a community where they could speak Spanish and also find employment in tanneries, at Parker Brothers and at warehouses springing up along the Route 128 corridor.  By the 1980s that trickle had become a flood, and by 2000 Salem had the fourth-largest Dominican population in the state.

This particular demographic shift had a devastating impact on the Point’s electoral clout.  While Puerto Ricans could vote by right, Dominicans needed to become naturalized citizens to vote.  This required at least five years of legal residency and passing a test in English.  Compounding the situation, the Dominican government would not allow a Dominican émigré to become a citizen of another country without first renouncing their Dominican citizenship.  As a result, very few Dominicans became U.S. citizens.

In 1993, the Dominican government reversed this prohibition. At the same time, adult English classes were being taught by Salem Harbor CDC, SalemPublic Schools and Massachusetts Job Training; and citizenship classes were led by North Shore Community Action Programs and VOCES.  The number of citizens and registered voters increased significantly.

After the 1997 municipal election, the CDC’s community organizer, Jorge Benitez, analyzed the voting list from Ward One, Precinct Two – the Point’s precinct.  Although there were relatively few voters with Hispanic surnames, all of them had voted in the election.  This level of political activism was also seen in the fervor with which Dominican political issues were debated by a large cross-section of the community.

The potential was there. The only hurdle left was somehow energizing the Latino vote in Salem so that it would make its presence felt.  Although not necessarily part of any one group’s strategic plan, what resulted was a three-part strategy that bore fruit in the 2003 election.

Form a Strong Neighborhood Association

The first strategy was to disband both PNAG and PNIA, and organize a single Point Neighborhood Association so that the neighborhood had a single voice – especially at City Hall.

After funding for the Salem Community Alliance ended in the mid-1990s, the task of supporting the PNAG and PNIA fell entirely on the shoulders of the CDC’s community organizer.  It soon became apparent that the two neighborhood associations were heading in very different directions, effectively dividing the neighborhood.  This dichotomy became abundantly clear one night when, by a series of coincidences, both groups met in the CDC’s office at the same time.  The tenants’ group, PNAG, was meeting in one room, while the landlords’ group, PNIA, was meeting in another.  One meeting was populated by all Latinos and held in Spanish, the other all Anglo and held in English.  Each group was complaining about the constituency represented by the other.  On that night, CDC staff understood that what they were supporting was not helping the neighborhood – if anything, they were aiding in its polarization.  For the next couple of years, there was no formal neighborhood association, even though groups from time to time would form around particular issues. 

However, at this time N2N decided to open a Salem office in order to get low-income people involved in the political process in general, and statewide policy issues in particular.  Seeing common goals, N2N’s organizer, Tony Mack, and the CDC’s new lead community organizer, Juan Carlos Canales, worked closely together to form a new Point Neighborhood Association in 2000.  As one of its first official acts, the PNA elected Lucy Corchado, a Salem native of Puerto Rican descent, to be its first President.

The PNA focused on both short-term and long-term issues.  The first short-term campaign focused on getting a mailbox placed in the Point in order to serve a neighborhood of 3,000.  This was successfully accomplished after a couple of months.  The long-term issue was influencing how the city allocated its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding.  The PNA spent its first months educating itself about how CDBG funds had been allocated in the past, and how they could be used to address the neighborhood’s infrastructural and urban planning concerns.

Members of the PNA became experts in the CDBG public input process, and held the city accountable during the annual public review – a process that had previously been notable for its lack of public involvement. Fortunately the PNA’s increased involvement coincided with the city’s requirement for developing a five-year Consolidated Plan, and resulted in the city increasing its level of support for housing – in particular direct support to renters and the production of rental housing.

The Process of Registering Voters

When N2N opened its Salem office in 1998, its first order of business was to systematically knock on every door in the Point and attempt to register every eligible adult resident to vote.  The door-to-door strategy allowed N2N to gather the most comprehensive address and phone list of Point residents to date, including unauthorized apartments and occupants, and to understand the citizenship status of the entire community.  It also significantly expanded the number of people who might be tapped to become leaders in the community, because N2N didn’t limit its leadership pool to those who came out to meetings.

In the days leading up to the election, volunteers knocked on doors and made phone calls to remind people to vote,and on the night before the election, door hangers were placed on the doors of registered voters.  On the day of the election, poll watchers kept track of the people in the neighborhood who had voted, and volunteers make phone calls and knock on the doors ofthose who hadn't voted by a certain hour.  Voters needing rides to the polls were provided transportation.

Between 1997 and 2001, the turnout of Latino voters in the Point increased by 350 percent.

Fielding Candidates – The Battle for Salem’s Ward One

Salem’s Ward One is evenly split between the low-income Point and the middle and upper-income Derby Street and Willows areas; however, due to the many immigrants living in the Point there are relatively few registered voters there. 

In 1999, Scott LaCava, a young political newcomer, became the first Salem candidate who was endorsed and supported by N2N.  In a three-way primary race LaCava received over 50 percent of the total votes cast, and LaCava easily beat Paskowski in the general election.  In 2001, LaCava chose not to run for re-election.  Instead, four candidates ran in the primary for the seat – including Domingo Dominguez and Claudia Chuber.

Dominguez is a Dominican native who is a former Salem school teacher and owner of DJD’s CallingCenter on Lafayette Street.  At the time of the election, he was a resident of the Point and Vice President of Salem Harbor CDC.

Chuber is a Colombian native who lives in the Derby Street area and also serves on Salem Harbor CDC’s board.  Chuber was elected to the Salem School Committee in 1997 – making her the first person of color ever elected to office in Salem.  During the election for three seats, Chuber received more votes than any other five School Committee candidates.

To the surprise of most political observers in Salem, on the night of the 2001 primary election, Dominguez and Chuber were the two highest vote getters – Dominguez carrying most of the vote in the Point and Chuber gaining enough of the vote throughout the ward to come in ahead of the other two candidates, both Anglos.  For the first time ever, Salem would elect a Latino to the city council.  In the general election, Chuber won the seat by less than fifty votes – a close election that many observers felt had been one of the more positive campaigns in Salem’s recent history. 

At the beginning of the 2003 election, Chuber decided to not run for re-election.  In the meantime, Dominguez had moved away from Ward One and decided to run for an at-large council seat.  This left the seat wide open, and PNA President Lucy Corchado (at the time six months pregnant) decided to make her first bid for public office.  Both Corchado and Dominguez were endorsed by N2N.  Corchado campaigned hard prior to the primary election in September – spending most of her time knocking on doors in the Willows and Derby Street areas where she was less known.  N2N volunteers door knocked in the Point to make sure her base knew of her candidacy and would come out to vote.  Corchado easily won the primary election, with second place going to Kathleen Driscoll-Gauthier, an aide to state representative J. Michael Ruane.

Despite giving birth to a son in October, Corchado won the Ward One seat in the general election – coming in thirty-three votes behind Driscoll-Gauthier in Precinct One, but trouncing her opponent seven-to-one in Precinct Two. 

For his part, Dominguez came in a close fifth for one of the four at-large council seats – posting the most votes of any non-city councilor (three of the at-large councilors ran for re-election, and a sitting ward councilor also ran for an at-large seat).  Dominguez was able to get support from a wide cross-section of the city with “Dominguez” signs sprouting up in neighborhoods throughout the city.


While there are several conclusions that can be drawn from this experience, we are going to focus on how this electoral effort was made possible through a collaboration of a non-partisan organization (Salem Harbor CDC) and another organization that can choose a partisan role (N2N).  While N2N is able to endorse candidates through its 501(c)(4) status, the CDC is prohibited from doing so as a 501(c)(3).  Thus, N2N staff and volunteers actively promote a N2N-endorsed candidate during this phase, while CDC staff focus more on referendum questions and other issue-related topics.  Registration outreach now also includes at least one other neighborhood along with the Point.

Although this strategy has been effective, it is not without its pitfalls.  Once N2N has endorsed a candidate, the normally close working relationship between the two organizations is affected.  For instance, the CDC then refrains from coordinating voter registration drives with N2N and limits itself to providing prospective voters with information about issues or ballot referenda.  CDC staff even avoid spending time at the N2N office (located in one of the CDC’s buildings) when that office becomes a campaign headquarters.  For organizers, in particular, this process of distancing oneself from a process when it is just beginning to heat up is difficult.  It is fun to be part of a political campaign, and CDC organizers can not participate unless they are clearly off duty.  For some in the neighborhood, the distinction between a non-partisan and a partisan effort is also difficult to understand.  Our experience has been that that message is actually better understood by the candidates themselves, but is often not as well regarded by their supporters.

Despite these issues, the result has been a profound increase in the level of political power in the Point neighborhood.  Both organizations' efforts have contributed to a dramatic increase in Latino voter turnout.  In Salem, where less than a decade ago there was no hope that Latino candidates could get elected, Councilor Corchado answers the roll call at City Council meetings.

Jim Haskell has been the Executive Director of Salem Harbor CDC since 1994. Jim obtained his Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University in 1987.  He is a past Chairperson of MACDC, the Clerk of the North Shore Housing Trust, the Treasurer of the Salem Theatre Company, and a member of various other civic and business organizations. Jim lives in Ipswich with his wife, Donna Randall, and son Jason.

The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote

By James Dien Bui, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, and Peter Nien-chu Kiang

Editor's Note:

A version of this article was prepared simultaneously for submission to an academic journal (AAPI Nexus, published by UCLA).  Footnotes and bibliography were omitted for this journal; for a version with complete notes and references, send an e-mail to Nancy Marks at

Pivotal Events

After moving past Boston’s growing Vietnamese business district during an annual spring parade along Dorchester Avenue in 1992, City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, the neighborhood parade’s honorary grand marshal, shared his keen, caustic commentary about local demographic change with another city official on the street:  

I just passed up there, I thought I was in Saigon, for Chrissakes...  It makes you sick, for Chrissakes!

A bystander captured O’Neil’s remarks on home video and the revealing footage was broadcast on local network television news that night.  In outrage over such blatant and official disrespect, 200 people from Dorchester’s Vietnamese community along with allies from throughout the city rallied at BostonCity Hall one week later to call for racial equality and demand a public apology from O’Neil.

But, with fewer than 100 Vietnamese Americans registered to vote in Boston at that time, and with most Vietnamese residents still struggling in poverty amidst refugee realities, their capacity to exert local political pressure directly through votes or campaign contributions was minimal.  Indeed, O’Neil attended the rally and defiantly refused to apologize.  Having held office since 1971, O’Neil consistently received the highest vote totals in Boston’s at-large city council elections throughout the 1980s, and continued to do so throughout the next decade until dying in office at age 78 in 1999.

That city hall rally, though, made history as the first public, mass demonstration by Boston’s Vietnamese community focusing on local politics and issues of racial justice.  Well-organized political rallies, lobbying efforts, and public ceremonies coinciding with April 30th commemorations to mark the fall of Sai Gon or to protest local visits by groups from the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam had taken place regularly at Boston City Hall, the Massachusetts State House, and other sites since the mid-1980s.  The Vietnamese refugee/immigrant community’s capacity for political organizing was already highly engaged, but such demonstrations were – both then and now – primarily symbolic in appealing to the public’s moral conscience externally while sustaining anti-communist ideological discipline internally within the community itself.

Developing Civic Engagement

Acknowledging a critical shift in civic engagement one decade later in the immediate wake of the 1992 city hall rally, the director of Boston’s largest Vietnamese community agency admitted in terms of his own political participation, “I only vote [in the past] for president or US senator, and I wasn’t too serious with the city councilor or treasurer or small positions.  Now I should pay more attention myself to every single one of them.”  More to the point, the president of the Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts, the umbrella coordinating body of thirty-seven Vietnamese organizations across the state, asserted following the rally, “We will work harder to push the people to register to vote… if we want the political system in Boston area or everywhere in America to pay attention to our role, we have to get involved with our right to vote.”

The establishment of Viet-AID in 1994 marked a significant upgrade in the community’s organizational capacity.  Envisioned initially by 1.5-generation Vietnamese Americans who had helped to organize the 1992 city hall rally, the founders of Viet-AID sought an organizational model that would not be overly constrained by either the ideological commitments enforced by the older generation in the community or the dominant client/deficit-centered paradigm that characterized human service agencies and mutual assistance associations locally and nationally. Viet-AID’s explicit identity as a community development corporation opened new conceptual and programmatic possibilities for capacity building, particularly in relation to affordable housing development and home ownership, self-sufficient economic development, child care and native language education, neighborhood safety, and, by necessity, communication and organizing within the diverse neighborhood across culture, language, and race. 

Following the later-1990s period of immigration and welfare “reform,” a further shift in the focus of local civic engagement efforts turned to stress the urgency for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to gain citizenship in order to be protected against the drastic elimination of rights and benefits for non-U.S. citizens mandated by Congress.  Contrasting the ease with which community leaders asserted the necessity to vote, a former Asian American Studies student who volunteered as a citizenship instructor recalled at that time how difficult the process was, especially for the elders, simply to gain naturalization:

… One woman who did not know how to read and write… was very ashamed.  [She said]  “Teacher, I'm so embarrassed.  I sit in the back of the room because I'm afraid to look at you and the other students.  I feel like I'm letting you down because you spent so much time to teach me.  I'm so stupid.  Why do I have to have this despair.  I stayed up all night last night and cried because I failed the test again.  I'm so embarrassed.  Teacher, if I don't pass the next test, I don't know what I will do.”

Further public policy attacks against immigrants have continued locally – most recently through a 2002 statewide ballot initiative financed by California businessman, Ron Unz, that successfully eliminated bilingual education in Massachusetts, just as he had previously accomplished in California.  The Unz initiative compelled bilingual education advocates and organizers in Boston’s Vietnamese community to re-engage with the need for issues-based voter registration, education, and mobilization.  This set the stage for the most recent efforts in 2003 and beyond, known as Viet-Vote.

The 2003 Viet-Vote Campaign

The Viet-Vote Campaign is led by a coalition established initially in 2002 by Viet-AID, the Vietnamese American Civic Association (VACA), and the Massachusetts Vietnamese-American Women’s League.  In 2003, the coalition added four more groups: the Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee (VPAC), the Vietnamese Professional Society (Massachusetts chapter), the Intercollegiate Vietnamese Student Association of New England (IVSA) and the Vietnamese-American Voters League of Massachusetts which had pioneered the use of the phrase, “Viet-Vote” in their previous statewide voter registration and education efforts in the 1990s.

The goals of the Viet-Vote Campaign are to:

  1. Build a permanent coalition of Vietnamese-founded and operated groups whose mission is to build power in the Vietnamese community through civic engagement;
  2. Use a three-prong approach of voter registration, education, and mobilization to increase Vietnamese civic participation, particularly in terms of voting in Boston Wards 13, 15, and 16 with increases by 33 percent in 2003 (local elections), 50 percent in 2004 (national elections), and an additional 20 percent in 2005 (compared with 2003); and
  3. Build the capacity of coalition members to sustain voter participation efforts.

Activities in 2003 included:

  • Voter education and registration at community events, businesses, churches, and door-to-door;
  • Producing a civic participation curriculum as well as bilingual voter information materials for newsletters, newspapers, leaflets, and Vietnamese ethnic media (press, radio, television, internet);
  • GOTV bilingual phone-calling to roughly 1,500 Vietnamese registered voters before election day;
  • Providing bilingual support and transportation, particularly for elders, at polling stations on election day; and
  • Creating a database of almost 3,000 Vietnamese registered voters in Boston.

Efforts in the Fall 2003 elections yielded a direct increase of 172 new Vietnamese registered voters.  More importantly, on Election Day in the targeted Wards 13, 15, and 16, Vietnamese voters increased from 14 percent, 14 percent, and 37 percent in the 1999 elections to 200 percent, 133 percent, and 279 percent respectively in 2003 -- a combined increase of 941 percent.

A follow-up survey conducted immediately after the elections showed that the average age of the Vietnamese voter in these wards was fifty-five.  As it turns out, the “senior” population within the Vietnamese community was the politically active group of the community.  Immediately, then, the question was raised about the younger generation, namely the “youth population.”  What role do youth play in all this?  Indeed, Viet-Vote was mostly carried out by college students and young professionals, but somehow did not impact young voters.  As a result, attracting young voters, especially through the registration component of the campaign, became a new goal for the future planning and development of Viet-Vote.

Diasporic Local/Global Political Strategies 

Beyond simply being another good example of grassroots, electoral ward/precinct machine-building with working class immigrants, the Viet-Vote Campaign is also – like the community itself – a story of civic engagement with both local and transnational meanings in a diasporic context.  While Viet-Vote’s voter education efforts worked to connect desires for Vietnamese voice, power, and representation with critical local issues ranging from crime and jobs to affordable housing and bilingual education, a complementary strategy focused on gaining recognition of the flag from the former Republic of South Viet Nam as the “official” flag of the Vietnamese community in the City of Boston.  The yellow flag with three red stripes embraced by Vietnamese refugees and their families often flies with U.S. flags outside Vietnamese-owned houses and businesses in Dorchester and has always been present at major community events for the past 25 years.  But in this effort, community advocates used it in mobilizing to impact public policy symbolically in the city.

This strategy culminated in August 2003 when – with roughly 100 Vietnamese Americans cheering from the gallery – the Boston City Council voted unanimously to recognize “the Heritage and Freedom Flag as the official symbol of the Boston Vietnamese-American community.”  The approved city resolution had been submitted by Councilor Maureen Feeney who represents the Dorchester-Fields Corner area.  In response, the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC quickly issued a formal statement of protest, asserting: “A small minority of Vietnamese-Americans who claim themselves representatives of the Vietnamese-American community living in Boston aim at sowing division, rekindling the past hatred and painful pages of the history between our two nations and among the Vietnamese themselves.”  Embassy officials then visited BostonCity Hall to insist in person that the only proper flag to fly was that of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam which is recognized by the U.S. government.  Disregarding such claims while acknowledging the growing clout of the local Vietnamese community, one city councilor explained at a formal meeting with the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, “What you feel in Washington, that is in Washington, and we here in Boston support our community here.”

Interestingly, although the 1992 racial justice rally marked the first time that Boston’s Vietnamese American community demonstrated at city hall about a local issue unrelated to Viet Nam politics, the official response from City Councilor Dapper O’Neil at that time was, “Apologize to who? For what?  I didn’t say anything to any of them.”  In a show of both his own power and the marginal political influence of the Vietnamese community, O’Neil went on that same year to be voted as the city council’s president.  In contrast, a decade later, when government officials from Viet Nam came to BostonCity Hall to protest, city councilors voted unanimously to support what they believed were the wishes of their local Vietnamese constituency. 

These two historical moments at BostonCity Hall are linked closely – though in non-linear and seemingly contradictory ways – through the complex process of street-level Vietnamese community capacity-building and development.  Issues of racial justice and homeland political passions are both implicated in and essential to Vietnamese community civic engagement.  Yet, if the next historic rallying moment at Boston City Hall in the future can be imagined as the inauguration of the city's first Vietnamese American elected official, then we suggest that dedicated day-to-day campaigns such as Viet-Vote and the foundational long-term capacity-building commitments of its sponsoring community organizations are concretely and conceptually necessary to continue building on the 941 percent gain in Vietnamese voter participation in Fields Corner that the community so dramatically produced in 2003.

Specifically regarding the Viet-Vote campaign, adding a “youth leadership development” component to the civic engagement initiative has become a top priority.  Clearly realizing that youth are the “do-ers” of the campaign as well as the ones most familiar with the U.S. political system, capacity-building for the next generation of community leaders who can organize while being intimately in touch with the issues of the community is essential for the survival, if not growth of the Vietnamese community within Boston’s ethnic, racial, and geographic realpolitik.


Through the title of his oft-quoted autobiography, former Massachusetts Congressman and long-time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (unrelated to Boston City Councilor “Dapper” O’Neil) observed, “All politics is local” (1994).  For organizers in Boston’s Vietnamese community, such sage advice, when put into practice, has needed to account for the local meanings and consequences of intense transnational sensibilities as well as multiracial/multicultural neighborhood realities and racialized quid pro quo relationships with city officials. 

The experiences of the last decades have taught us valuable lessons.  Increasing voter participation requires basic legwork – particularly by staff and volunteers from the younger generation.  The local mission and operation must be tied intimately to much longer-term organizing and capacity-building efforts; to intergenerational, bilingual sharing of stories through cultural/community development projects; and to hard-earned street solidarity with other minority groups.

James Dien Bui is Director of Community Organizing and Programs at Viet-AID, a community development corporation in Boston’s Fields Corner-Dorchester neighborhood.  He oversees Viet-AID’s Civic Engagement Initiative to increase Vietnamese voter registration, education, and mobilization.  He is also adjunct faculty in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Asian American Studies Program where he teaches the course, “Resources for Vietnamese American Studies.”  Born and raised in Chicago, he holds an MSW from the University of Michigan. 

Shirley Suet-ling Tang, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the American Studies and Asian American Studies Programs at University of Massachusetts Boston. Her teaching and research interests include: comparative race/ethnicity/culture, Southeast Asian American community studies, transnational feminism and activist/community art.  Several of her students participated in the Fall 2003 Viet-Vote campaign.

Peter Nien-chu Kiang, EdD, is Professor of Education and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he has taught since 1987.  He currently serves as Chair of the Massachusetts Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and is Co-President of the Chinese Historical Society of New England. 

Laying Down a Speed Bump on the Gentrification Superhighway: Anatomy of a Campaign

By Kalila Barnett and Harry Smith


The Campaign of Conscience for Housing Justice is a multi-faceted campaign to fight gentrification and displacement in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.  Over the past six years, this campaign, a collaboration with City Life/Vida Urbana, has been the major organizing focus of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), helping to shift the power balance within our neighborhood by broadening the base of community residents and groups who are working to solve the affordable housing crisis.

We believe looking at the Campaign's strategies and accomplishments will offer important lessons for CDCs addressing displacement and gentrification in their neighborhoods.

Origins of the Campaign: Building a Collective Sense of Power

Jamaica Plain (JP) is a neighborhood of about 40,000 people located in Boston.  It has a large Latino community and is well-known for its racial and ethnic diversity, open space, artists, and progressive politics.  Over the past several years, it has also become one of the most desirable places to live in the Boston area. 

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation was formed in 1977 by residents who had successfully helped block the expansion of I-95 through the neighborhood.  The spirit of community organizing and coalition building has always been strong within the JPNDC, as evidenced by its more than 500 dues-paying members.  Another sign of this commitment to coalition building is the JPNDC’s strong ties to City Life, a thirty-year old tenants’ rights and social justice organization based in Jamaica Plain. 

The Campaign of Conscience was launched in 1998 in response to escalating rents and home prices that threatened to displace hundreds of families from the community.  Jamaica Plain’s real estate market had undergone a boom-and-bust cycle in the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, which had resulted in the displacement of many low-income families and the conversion of more than 10 percent of JP’s housing stock into condominiums.  In the mid-1990s, with the elimination of rent control throughout Boston, and the “discovery” of Jamaica Plain by young professionals, real estate prices began to climb once again.  This created a crisis for many families and individuals who had been working with the JPNDC in previous years to improve and clean up the neighborhood.

The Campaign was a natural outgrowth of the organizing work the JPNDC and City Life had engaged in together for many years.  The two organizations have had a long history of collaboration around development issues in the neighborhood, specifically the preservation and creation of affordable housing.  Many of the JPNDC’s successful housing development projects have had their roots in neighborhood organizing campaigns led by City Life.  For example, the Nate Smith House, forty-five units of low-income elderly housing, was built on the site of one of the most notoriously dilapidated apartment complexes in the city.  City Life’s organizing work with tenants and neighbors had forced the past owner into housing court, and eventually allowed the JPNDC to acquire the property.

Before launching the campaign, JPNDC and City Life undertook a nine-month planning process to ask residents and key community groups in the Hyde-Jackson Square neighborhood what they considered to be the most important housing issues facing the neighborhood.  Through door knocking and a series of focus groups, the two organizations talked with more than 250 community residents about their housing issues.  The results were not surprising: rising rents and escalating home prices were threatening to drive long-time residents out of the area. 

“We probably could have guessed what people would say were the biggest housing problems,” says Joe Vallely, a JPNDC board member who was involved in the planning process.  “But the process of asking people their opinions led them to get involved in the planning of the campaign as a way of finding solutions to the issues they were raising.”

The results of the planning process led leaders of the JPNDC and City Life to several conclusions.

First, we realized that the changing market environment was undermining the basic mission of the JPNDC and that we needed to do something to fight that underlying dynamic.  We would need to create a neighborhood discussion around the necessity of affordable housing and figure out how to win concrete victories that allowed families to stay in their homes.  Finally, we had to acknowledge that, if we wanted to ensure that affordable housing was accepted as a top priority in the community, the focus of this campaign had to be no less than trying to change the balance of power in neighborhood.

“Given how fast the real estate market was changing in JP, we realized that housing production alone would not solve the problem,” says Richard Thal, Executive Director of JPNDC.  “This meant broadening the focus of our organizing beyond housing development and into a campaign that addressed the housing crisis on many different levels.” 

Shaping the Issue and the Debate

In the beginning the Campaign was less focused on specific demands than on raising awareness about the impact of the housing crisis and dampening the enthusiasm of speculators coming into the neighborhood.  We tried to shape the issue and make sure that there were neighborhood discussions focused on the crisis.  We released research reports tracking rising rents and home prices, organized creative protests against abusive landlords and generated numerous media stories documenting the human cost of the booming housing market. 

“Our original goal was simply to do something public every month to get people’s attention and highlight what was happening to our neighborhood,” says Joe Vallely.  “But we soon realized that we had to reach out and create a more comprehensive strategy if we wanted to have a chance at success.”

While keeping a focus on raising public awareness, the Campaign began to develop organizing campaigns on three other fronts: organizing tenants to fight evictions; advocating for affordable housing on public land; and pushing for increased government housing funding and protections.  The Campaign developedspecific goals to organize strong tenant unions in large absentee-owned buildings; mobilize residents to push for specific numbers of housing units on public land; and advance legislation around funding and tenant protections to help our local organizing and housing development goals.   

Holding the Base and Targeting the Middle

One of the most important lessons we have learned from the Campaign of Conscience is the importance of engaging a broad cross-section of the community.  It became clear early on in the campaign that our traditional base of activists and the leadership pool of City Life and JPNDC would not be sufficient to advance an affordable housing agenda in the community.  To achieve this goal, we needed to reach out to tenants, homeowners and merchants.  By expanding the definition of who constituted our base, the JPNDC has been able to build relationships and cement alliances that have been key in moving forward an affordable housing agenda in the community.  

Merchant and resident organizations in Hyde/Jackson Square have had a long history of collaboration, organizing neighborhood cleanups and community festivals, and creating new programs to serve the community.  Because of this history, as well as the planning process that preceded the launching of the Campaign, JPNDC and City Life had already built relationships with merchant and resident groups who became key allies in the fight for affordable housing. 

For example, through the process, we found that local merchants were very concerned about the lack of affordable housing.  Merchant leaders emerged as strong allies, coming out in support of many of the Campaign’s housing initiatives and speaking at rallies and forums on the subject. 

“Our business district is made up of small businesses that depend on support from local residents,” says Fernando Mercedes, president of the Hyde/Jackson Square Business Association.  “Many of these people live paycheck to paycheck and right now they can’t afford to live here.  That’s why we need to keep fighting together for affordable housing in the neighborhood.” 

Likewise, organizations such as the Hyde Square Task Force, which serves hundreds of youth and families in the area, have supported the Campaign’s goals, due to the fact that many of their families were facing displacement from the neighborhood they helped to build. 

In addition to reaching out to merchants and resident groups, we sought relationships with the large artist community in JP and provided support to artists in particular buildings who were facing displacement.  We also recruited more than fifty small landlords to sign a Landlord Pledge promising to charge below-market rents and created an Affordable Housing Fund that has raised $60,000 for the Campaign through donations from people selling their homes.

“The Campaign has tried to get as many people as possible engaged in the cause of affordable housing,” says Joe Vallely.  “We have tried to get buy-in from residents and groups by offering something for everyone who wants to help.”

A New Generation of Leaders

One dynamic in Jamaica Plain is that, despite the racial and economic diversity of the community, low-income residents and people of color have not fully participated in many of the local institutions and planning processes that have shaped development in the neighborhood.  One of the goals of the campaign was to increase the ability of low-income residents and people of color to take leadership roles, both in the campaign and in the neighborhood’s institutions, including and starting with the JPNDC.  For example, since the beginning of the campaign, the JPNDC has elected five new board members who had actively participated in the campaign and now boasts an Organizing Committee of 15-20 active leaders, many of whom got involved through Campaign activities.

From the beginning, the Campaign placed a strong emphasis on educating community residents on different aspects of housing and development.  City Life incorporated education and analysis of the housing market into its monthly meetings of tenant leaders.  JPNDC has led a series of “Development 101” workshops for youth leaders, merchants, and residents to build knowledge and understanding of development issues.

“For me, it’s been worth it to be involved because I’ve learned how to defend my rights and help other people defend theirs,” says Ramona Gonzalez, a City Life board member and member of JPNDC’s Organizing Committee.  “We have to support each other and give each other hope.” 

These educational initiatives and the residents’ experiences in organizing campaigns have led to the emergence of a new group of leaders who understand the significance of exercising community control over development in the area.  The Campaign’s structure has always been decentralized, with various committees planning the bulk of the campaigns and bringing them to monthly planning meetings to report back and coordinate efforts.  This structure has allowed a significant number of new leaders to emerge. 

Another example of this changing leadership dynamic is the recent elections of the JP Neighborhood Council, a body of elected volunteers that serves as the neighborhood advisory body on issues of zoning and land use.  In 2003, Hyde Square Task Force, City Life, and JPNDC worked to increase awareness and voter turnout in the JP Neighborhood Council election, the result of which was that twelve new candidates were able to win election to the Council, many of whom described affordable housing as a top priority.  It also resulted in a dramatic increase in Latino and African-American residents being elected and sent a strong signal to developers and city agencies about the neighborhood’s desire for affordable housing.

Concrete Victories, New Challenges

A clear sign of the Campaign of Conscience’s success is that it has spun off several campaigns that have taken on lives of their own and developed into full-fledged organizing efforts.  City Life's tenant organizing work has become firmly established in several neighborhoods, leading to the creation of a citywide Tenant Organizing Committee (TOC) in early 2001.  In 2003, City Life and the TOC launched an Anti-Displacement Zone in sections of JP, Roxbury, and Dorchester.  This anti-displacement theme has spawned successful organizing drives in dozens of buildings. 

"Through this strategy, City Life has helped more than 500 families negotiate multi-year collective bargaining agreements with landlords," says Steve Meacham, a tenant organizer with City Life.  "These victories have brought forward new strong leaders, who are spreading the struggle to still more buildings and actively pushing for new tenant protections."

The Campaign has also mobilized hundreds of residents who have made affordable housing a top priority for public land and helped the JPNDC take nearly 100 units of private housing out of the market and create another 100 new units in the past five years. 

Recognizing the need to work beyond Jamaica Plain, the JPNDC and City Life have played leadership roles within the Boston Tenant Coalition, Massachusetts Association of CDCs, and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in various city and state-wide campaigns.

“We understood that the housing crisis did not start in JP and would not be solved there, so we’ve put organizing resources toward supporting city and state-wide initiatives calling for more money and more regulations on the housing market,” says Richard Thal.

The legislative work of the Campaign led to the creation of the Coalition to Educate, Mobilize, and Vote, a joint effort of JPNDC, City Life, and Hyde Square Task Force to increase voter participation and hold legislators accountable on affordable housing and education issues.  This project, which includes candidate forums, mass mailings, and targeted phone banking to inactive voters, has been responsible for doubling voter turnout in the nine precincts that make up the Hyde-Jackson-Egleston Square area in the last two elections. 

Lessons Learned

The biggest success of the Campaign of Conscience has been in creating broad-based support among key community groups and institutions for affordable housing.  At the same time, organizing against displacement in a rapidly gentrifying community has brought many challenges and losses.  Despite our successes at preserving and creating affordable housing, rents and home prices continue to climb, more than doubling in the past five years and forcing many families out of the neighborhood.  Private developers, who once shunned the area, are building luxury condominiums at an alarming rate and realtors are promoting Hyde Square as the “in” place to be in Jamaica Plain.  As new residents who don’t necessarily share a commitment to affordable housing move in, we are continually challenged to find new ways to maintain a solid base of support for the housing agenda.

Our experience with the Campaign of Conscience has led us to the conclusion that the key to long-term success is to move beyond the idea of building power for the CDC to envision a broader form of community power among the constituencies who share our concerns about the housing crisis.  While it is clear that the power that has been built through our organizing has benefited the JPNDC through increased support for affordable housing development, a key principle has been that power is not reserved for the benefit of the JPNDC but rather dispersed throughout the neighborhood. 

We have learned that, in order to effectively broaden the base of support for affordable housing, CDCs must change their definition of power  – not just power to get zoning approval or funding for a particular project – but power for community residents to have a strong voice in the development of their community.  The essence of our organizing work has been to try to build the capacity and strength of our partners and to build a collective sense of power in the community.  While the fight against displacement and gentrification continues on many fronts in Jamaica Plain, the accomplishments of the Campaign of Conscience – high-profile victories, strengthened alliances, and a new generation of leaders – have had a major impact on both the neighborhood and the JPNDC.

“Many people in this neighborhood fought to make Jamaica Plain such a nice place to live and now we can’t afford to live here,” says Ramona Gonzalez.  “Now the rents have gone up and they want us to leave. But we’ve learned that if we stick together, it’s not so easy to push us out.”

Harry Smith is the Community Organizing Director at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, a community-based organization that works to revitalize communities throughcommunity organizing, economic development, and affordable housing.  He has worked in the organizing field for fifteen years. 

Kalila Barnett is a Community Organizer with the JPNDC.  Kalila grew up in Roxbury and has experience organizing in youth, environmental justice, and community development fields.

Jook Sing (“Hollow Bamboo”) A Memoir-Fiction Piece

By Lai Ying Yu

Author's note: This piece is part of a larger work and has been adapted for the RHICO Journal.  Because it has elements of reality and fiction closely interweaved, it may most closely be termed a 'memoir-fiction,' for those interested in genres.

“Tell me, where do you see Chinatown CDC’s organizing work five years from now, and what are you working to achieve?”  She paused and sat back in her chair. “I guess what I am asking is, does CCDC have a strategic plan for the organizing work, for this new resident safety group, and is CCDC trying to build this resident group in opposition to the Chinatown Organized Residents Association?” 

I was stopped short.  Having just shared thoughts for celebrating International Women’s Day, I was jarred by the straight-shot line of questioning.   We were finally having the lunch we had mentioned in passing after community meetings, emailed about, and agreed “we should have” for the last four months.  I was sitting with Stella Tong, Board Member of Chinese American Movement. 

The substance of the questions themselves was less jarring, as they reflected a recent spate of emails between CAM and CCDC.

CAM, or Chinese American Movement, is Boston Chinatown’s twenty-year old worker- and immigrant- rights grassroots organization.  Stella had recently stepped down from the executive directorship of CAM to take a less prominent role as Honorary Board Member, a role created soon after her leaving the position.  Stella had established her place in Chinatown in the mid-eighties, when the garment industry was moving out of Boston.  She led Chinatown’s first major successful immigrant rights campaign for Chinese women garment workers.  Known in political circles as an astute and unrelenting leader, Stella was recently identified in the Sampan newspaper as “the vanguard” for leading residents and community allies in protest against the last decade of city-backed luxury and high-rise developments in Chinatown.  Just before leaving her position six months ago, Stella had helped found the Chinatown Organized Residents Association (CORA).

I was hired at Chinatown Community Development Corporation as their first community organizer a little over a year ago, just as CORA was beginning to establish itself and CCDC was celebrating its largest development to date, the Sun Yi Da Ha.

CCDC had just celebrated its five-year anniversary in conjunction with the opening of the Sun Yi Da Ha.  Sun Yi Da Ha is the largest housing development in Chinatown since the 1970s; it would double the current home-ownership in the community.  It was received with a mixture of elation and community reserve. 

The development offered nearly 50 percent affordable housing and one building dedicated to community space, both of which have been widely recognized as “crucial” to sustain Chinatown as a neighborhood.  The community’s reserve symbolized the distrust that had grown between the community and CCDC, its community developer.  Groups of residents questioned the height and scale of the development, as it surpassed the community height guidelines by more than twelve stories.  When the plans were unveiled, resident input was considered only as an afterfact by CCDC. 

Partly in reaction to this and partly due to the growing development pressures in and around Chinatown, CAM helped found the community’s first resident group, CORA.  

Stella was the driving force behind the creation of CORA.  CAM announced its presence as the “firm base toward long-term resident empowerment and self-agency for Chinatown.”  That month, Stella was featured in the Globe Magazine profiles as one of the top ten women who were leading a new “tenacious political force” in Boston.  When asked how she saw her personal role in Chinatown, she demurred, “We are growing the voice of Chinatown.”  The article was entitled, somewhat expansively though not too far off the mark, “An Important Woman You Don’t Know.”  It was a reference to the way in which Stella worked.  She avoided the limelight.

At CCDC’s five-year anniversary celebration, newly elected board members pledged to build stronger relationships within the community as CCDC “moved forward in future development projects.”  Within three months of this celebration, Parcel 24 was approved by the board of CCDC as a “community advocacy project to support,” in a 12-9 vote.  I was hired soon after to help launch the resident-based organizing campaign for Parcel 24.

In the year I have been working in Chinatown, I am beginning to understand that each community member has a personal Chinatown history that needs to be learned, and that I am a jook sing here.  I learn from those who came before me, and patience will provide the shortest path to my goals.

I seemed to have forgotten these points when I sat with Stella that afternoon, or perhaps more simply, I did not think they applied.

We were sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant by lower Washington Street, waiting for our bowls of pho.  The waitress had seated us by the window, from where we sat I had a clear view of the long, blue signboard with fat, green lettering: “Pitz Garage” that hung off the side of the 3-story concrete; in-between each level of concrete were neat lines of small square-holes the size of bottle corks.  

I watched for a moment as Stella skillfully twirled the pale noodles into a round ball at the end of her chopsticks.  Stella’s oval face is what my mother would describe as “bo-ying,” like a ball, giving her a youthful, girlish appearance.  Her black hair was cut close to her face and she wore brown rectangular plastic frames that tended to give her a more serious if sometimes stern look.  As I thought out how to answer her questions, I was suddenly reminded of a time when I was six and was caught using the oven to bake my e-Z Bake cupcakes instead of the e-Z Bake Oven, the one I was allowed to use.  I felt like I was once more being asked to confess a misdeed. 

I placed my chopsticks down and sat up straighter.  Clearing my throat I stated,

“CCDC has not made a formal five-year plan for the resident safety group. “But…” I paused, searching for the right way to phrase what CCDC had committed to, “it has considered it in light of its mission statement, which is ‘to grow and develop resident leadership capacity’ in the neighborhood and is therefore supportive of the resident safety group.”

I looked Stella in the eye, consciously trying to make up for the lack of substance in that statement.

“Oh.  So you don’t have a five-year plan.”

I continued to look at Stella as I picked up my chopsticks and stirred the thin layers of meat into the broth.  My own questions about organizing began to surface.  Aren’t we supposed to be working together to build resident empowerment?  Why would there be opposition?  If we are organizing to build the leadership and empowerment of residents, what difference did it make what organization it came from?  Aren’t they supposed to be empowered at the very end? Wasn’t that the point? They would be empowered to make their own choices un-beholden to organizations or political matrices.  Knowledge is power is freedom?  I suddenly felt like I was on the other side of a divide I did not clearly see. 

Stella continued, “You see, I wasn’t sure what CCDC was trying to do.” Her tone took on a colloquial lilt as she smiled slightly and said, “We were wondering why if there is the Chinatown Organized Residents Association, CORA, why CCDC seemed to want to create an al-new residents organization.  And besides, there is the Safety Resident meeting that happens monthly for residents to attend.  If you are not building another resident organization, have you thought about joining CORA’s resident safety group?”

There was no plan detailing the development processes of the loosely organized resident safety group which had been begun four months ago.  It was, however, firmly identified as fitting into a specific portion of CCDC’s four-sentence mission statement:

“…To uphold high standards of service within and for the community and to grow and develop community leadership capacity...”

It is that last part, to “develop community leadership,” that thinly validated the safety organizing work I did. 

When CCDC’s Executive Director began to inquire into the work and staff-resource time “given over for community safety,” the Director of Community Affairs, the supervisor I reported to, had pointed out: “The mission statement clearly reinforces the work that O. is doing.”  He had proceeded to cite the short line and continued, “O. is carrying out leadership development in the context of resident safety organizing.  The way to understand what O. is doing is this she is not organizing residents around safety issues, she is building the leadership of residents who are organizing around safety issues.  She is not organizing organizing.”   And so the potential complication from my new work was skirted by this explanation, as well as with padded reassurances that this work would not interfere with my primary responsibility as community organizer for the Parcel 24 development campaign.

The resident safety group had begun as an outcry and reaction against what appeared to be the community’s tacit acceptance of the beating to death of an elderly Chinatown resident returning from his morning Tai Chi exercise.

The Director of Community Affairs had nudged me into owning the project. He talked with me about the incident, asked me how I felt about it, encouraged me with a feeling of self-agency, and pointed out a few simple next steps for what could be done to prevent the issue from dying, and I took the line.  I connected with several residents and we organized over thirty Cantonese-speaking residents to go to the monthly Safety Meetings to speak their concerns.  The Safety Meetings are notorious for their English-only discussions.  As we expected, we hit an initial wall from committee members when a first step suggestion was made: Could we make this Safety Committee meeting bilingual?   Limited resources were cited and that was the final response from the committee.  Since then, a group of residents had begun to meet independently. 

Not too long after, I had received an email, with the Director of Community Affairs and Executive Director carbon-copied, from a staff member of CAM asking the same questions with which Stella had begun this conversation: Why is CCDC trying to form a new group of residents to work on safety?  Why aren’t you working in tune with CORA about this?  Aren’t there the monthly Safety Meetings you can go to?

Numbed by this unexpected attack, and unclear as to how I had stepped on the political toes of CAM or CORA, I thought I had been doing the right thing by inviting a member from both CAM and CORA to come to the meetings.  Because some of the residents in the resident safety group were already members of CORA, they suddenly felt unsure and their loyalties divided when they learned of the sudden dissension.  Discussions within the safety group began to turn to what place the resident safety group held in the community; if were they affiliated with any particular organization; and should they even be?  Could they be just “residents”?

Back to the present conversation, across the street, loud shouts caught our attention.  We watched as Beat Officer Eddie Lee scattered a small group of homeless men from the corner of the garage.  In a resident safety group meeting, the Pitz Garage had been identified as one of the least safe spots to be by night and day, because of the witnessed drug activity and loitering from men leaving the liquor store down the street. 

Samantha Mo, a resident who lives across the garage, had likened her second-story window view to staring out into a maximum-security prison.  Samantha, a recent college graduate, was the youngest of the residents who had attended, and she was also the most outspoken and angry of the mainly older group.

I felt a slight heat rise in my cheeks as I remembered the frustrated voices. An elderly resident speaking in soft Cantonese had asked, “What can you do? All the police say they can only move them along, and we are supposed to call 911.  It is just too difficult when you are old and don’t know English.”

I bit my lower lip to keep from laughing and screaming and from asking what was too simple and naïve a question: Why should this be so difficult, why can’t residents come together and work on safety without worrying about organizational affiliation?  I tacitly understood that that was not going to get me anywhere.  I tried to encapsulate my thoughts into two questions:

“Don’t you think that we could work together in this organizing work?  Is there a way to both build CORA as well as support the work that the resident safety group is doing?”

Stella cleared her throat and replied, “I know it is difficult for you as an organizer.  It is that you are new and do not know the history of Sun Yi Da Ha, the fuller history of Sun Yi Da Ha.  I think” Stella disclosed her words one by one “that maybe it is better that CCDC does not organize.  It would be better for the community as a whole.”

“Oh.  Where does that lead us right now?  Given that CCDC does have an organizer?”

“Well, then maybe we could begin to consider...  It might be the necessary next step, to consider what could be changed on the board level.”

Suddenly, I felt like I was in over my head.  The discussions that CCDC had had internally about board organizing and board “restructuring” came back in a flood.  I was wondering if this was all something I was just playing at.

Lai Ying Yu is a community organizer in Chinatown, Boston.  She graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and this was her first full-time job after graduating.  But for better or worse, she has “not yet discerned the full significance of what 'job' means” in what she does.   She is interested in learning about models for community empowerment urban development processes in immigrant-based neighborhoods, and also likes breaking the mold.

* In the City of Somerville, the correct term is ‘alderman,’ regardless of gender.