Notes on Organizing: Make the Road NY

This week, our Community Organizing Theory and Practice class focused on the intersections between migration, labor, and social movements, and we read several of Jane McAlevey’s pieces in preparation for class. McAlevey is a longtime labor organizer and prolific writer whose work has largely centered around unions and environmental justice. We focused much of our class discussion on Make the Road New York, a community-based organization that empowers immigrant and low-income communities that McAlevey discusses in her book, No Shortcuts. We discussed the limitations of organizations using resources to advocate on behalf of other people rather than engaging people to use their own capacity to transform and disrupt oppressive systems.

One thing that McAlevey wrote about in No Shortcuts is Make the Road New York’s unique “high-touch model,” in which the organization’s thousands of members are more than just subscribers – they are highly involved in the organization and are given meaningful points of entry as well as leadership. McAlevey writes that this allows for large numbers of ordinary people to participate at levels high enough to hold institutions accountable. Make the Road NY not only provides direct services and advocates on behalf of immigrant communities, but also engages directly impacted communities to empower them to collectively take on power structures.

In the video below, McAlevey highlights Make the Road NY as an example of “what good organizing looks like in this country,” describing the organization as an amalgam of a worker center, a community-based organization, a policy shop, a citizenship school, a protest factory, and a church. She credits the organization’s culture – the way it engenders a level of excitement and sense of home – as why the level of participation by members in the organization is so high.

This last video concerns New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disappointment that Amazon had gone back on its plan to build a second headquarters in New York City in 2019 after significant opposition by community groups and members of the City Council.  Although Make the Road NY was very involved in protests against Amazon’s establishment of a HQ2, Cuomo was very dismissive of the organization, claiming he does not who they are, despite the fact that he has thanked the group’s leaders in speeches. Cuomo largely blamed State Senate Democrats for the company’s decision to leave, while Make the Road NY Co-Executive Director Deborah Axt criticizes Cuomo for his dismissal of organizations based in communities of color. Yet the fact that communities of color are both not visible in this video nor were they acknowledged for their central  role in pushing Amazon out of NYC highlights the issue of visibility in social movements that we discussed in class. Much of the labor in social movements and organizing tends to fall on BIPOC people, yet much of this labor ends up being invisible.