Community organizers give a window into the city they want and the work they’re doing to get there.
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People Movers so far have been individuals deeply rooted in their neighborhoods, who tap into existing community power to meet longstanding local needs. Can organizers create a community where none has existed before? Can a constituency that exists everywhere and belongs nowhere successfully unite for change? There’s no better testing ground than the subway, where riders come and go and try to stay as neutral as possible — and where recent crises have made the need for action glaringly apparent.
In this city, on a good day, it’s no mean feat to start a meeting on time. In the last six months, it’s a miracle. But by 6:28, the sixth floor of the building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Broome Street is full, as people sign in and file into a small presentation room. A more timeliness-obsessed group of New Yorkers would be hard to find.
This meeting is hosted by the Riders Alliance, a five-and-a-half-year-old “grassroots movement for public transit.” But attendees at this event won’t hear stirring speeches, make protest signs, or stuff mailers. They’re here to learn. “The MTA Budget: Where does it come from and where does it go?”: a sheet handed out at the door details revenue and expenditures in pie charts and tables. Over the next hour and a half, two invited MTA board members break down the money and the politics of funding mass transit. Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin occasionally interjects, mainly to implore them to speak plainly, to joke with the audience — “Who takes the C train? Oh, so that’s why you’re here” gets a big laugh — or to add some rabble-rousing flourish of his own.
The meeting doesn’t feel like community organizing in the classic, clipboard-wielding sense. But for the Riders Alliance, which seeks to organize New York City subway and bus riders as a political constituency for the first time, an educated public is an empowered public.
For most New Yorkers, the special rage of a delayed and overcrowded subway commute is a familiar feeling. But that anger was not trickling up to the state legislators and agencies responsible for the legacy of underfunding that has produced the transit system’s chronic shambles, as Raskin noticed in his previous job on staff in the New York State Senate. Today, pressure from the Riders Alliance and other transit advocacy groups has forced Governor Cuomo to shift his rhetoric away from disowning the problem to seeking a solution. The MTA’s current annual capital budget covers less than one third of what it would cost to properly maintain the system if the system had been properly maintained until now; with subway delays increasing precipitously, and more than half of all commuters in New York City relying on public transportation, a reckoning may be imminent.
Raskin founded the Riders Alliance in 2012 with one paid staff member and a handful of interns. Since then, through a combination of petition drives, direct actions, research reports, pressure campaigns, and public education events, the organization has engaged a solid base and won ever more significant gains for quality, accessible public transit. Along the way, they’ve confronted a singular challenge: How do you get transit riders to put down their cellphones, take out their earbuds, and take action?
In the beginning, there was the general inertia of the subway and bus stop to overcome — eye contact, let alone political agitation, is verboten — to say nothing of the relative unsexiness of transit equity as a cause. Starting small was both a practical necessity and a strategic choice. “People are going to organize around the things that impact them in their daily lives,” says Rebecca Bailin, the group’s first hired organizer and now Campaign Manager. So the Riders Alliance cut its teeth on hyperlocal issues, like campaigns to improve G train service (the MTA responded with a full service review, and a 25 percent increase in evening trains, among other fixes) and bus and train stations in Astoria and Long Island City (yielding station repairs and increased bus service). But while these wins undoubtedly matter on their own merits — imagine the net psychic effect of 125,000 daily passengers’ alleviated G-train angst — Bailin says the intention of the local campaigns was also to build capacity to fight citywide battles. Transit advocacy has long been characterized by passionate individuals fighting for and winning small but important fixes to the lines they depend on most. The Riders Alliance seeks to harness and grow that energy, to bring those passionate individuals under an umbrella and help them begin to visualize the broader issues.
When it comes to pulling unengaged straphangers out of their reverie and into action, everyone has their own strategies, Bailin says. “When people are running past you, they don’t want to talk to you. When people are standing still, I have more success. People who are wearing earphones are more responsive than you would think. If you’re reading, you’re probably going to reject me.” Riders Alliance canvassers linger in subway stations and filter through bus stops, soliciting signatures for petitions and starting conversations about the current state of transit. They’ll hand out fliers and collect email addresses and phone numbers, following up later to invite people to strategy meetings, direct actions, and one-on-one conversations over coffee.
Down the line, the goal is to get ordinary people thinking of transit failures not only as annoyances but as political problems, and of themselves not only as passengers but as political actors. One of Raskin’s favorite refrains is that the Riders Alliance is “a democracy organization”: people can’t fight the good fight if they can’t get there. And as more New Yorkers come to see their elected officials as accountable for problems with the transit system, that sense of power and accountability should carry over into other struggles as well.
Initially, canvassers would gather input from passengers both about what riders thought needed attention and what the solutions should be. (The Riders Alliance and the Regional Plan Association used survey responses from thousands of L train riders, canvassed online and in subway stations by Riders Alliance volunteers, to generate a report about transit options that can offset the effects of its closure in 2019.) But since 2014, the Riders Alliance has taken on broader campaigns, beginning with a successful effort to mandate pre-tax transit benefits through employers. Now, the organization is shifting into a higher gear, with two simultaneous citywide efforts: the Fair Fares campaign, to establish a half-price Metro Card for low-income transit riders, and the Fix the Subway campaign, to demand state lawmakers create a sustainable revenue stream to fund MTA maintenance.
As the issues that the Riders Alliance tackles have grown in scale, their campaigns have become more coordinated. The organization has a more professionalized structure than a neighborhood-based, volunteer-run community organizing outfit. This has meant legitimacy in the eyes of elected officials and greater strategic capacity. It also means that staff, not members, make strategic decisions and set the agenda. Rather than crowd-source the organization’s message, the Alliance teaches members how to communicate it to elected officials. Bailin sees this as a tradeoff for effectiveness: “We can’t do everything, but we’re able to win campaigns,” she says, “We can play the inside-outside game a bit.” Further, the presence of a paid staff means that the organization can, in theory, reach larger and wider swaths of people than a less formalized group. “Our organizers try to engage people who are not your typical activists,” Bailin says, “A lot of organizations end up just working with each other and talking to each other. We’re bringing in people who sometimes have never done real political or organizing work before.”
Mark Murin, an attendee at the December MTA budget meeting, has watched his 45-minute commute from Rego Park to Midtown nearly double since the summer, and delays and cancelations on the R and F lines have become so predictable that he now leaves his house half an hour earlier than he used to. Murin was turned onto the Riders Alliance by a friend with a flyer, and more or less quivers with anger when asked about his transit-riding experiences. Throughout the talk of “dedicated revenue streams” and “reliability-centered maintenance,” he remains intently focused. This is his fourth meeting, and he seems likely to come back for more.
Transit is one of few issues that middle-class New Yorkers get personally agitated about. And white middle-class people, Bailin notes, are easier to organize and turn out to transit events than the low-income New Yorkers whom the Riders Alliance would most want to engage, especially when the organization operates out of an office building in SoHo. The bevy of highly educated wonks attracted by ubertechnical policy issues can be alienating for those whose experience is more daily and more personal. But low-income commuters are the most impacted by transit issues, and the Riders Alliance can speak directly to their experiences and needs. Subway and bus reliability can be the difference between holding down a job or not, and levied fares can be the difference between affording groceries and an arrest record.
If the Riders Alliance risks reflecting — at least in terms of race, class, and the optics of base-building — a political in-group, rather than a grassroots movement for social justice, the organization is strategic about these challenges, too. Location plays the biggest role: Since they don’t have offices in the neighborhoods where low-income New Yorkers may live, work, go to school, and volunteer, organizers cultivate street-level legitimacy by populating subway and bus stops with volunteers in recognizable, green Riders Alliance t-shirts. Strategy meetings for a campaign like Fair Fares will be held in the Bronx and Harlem, in central, accessible neighborhood venues. The Riders Alliance also works to make political engagement possible for everyone. Child-care and food are provided at every meeting, and attendees receive pre-paid Metrocards if they need one.
In every organizing campaign, Bailin says, the focus is on quality over quantity. The Riders Alliance seeks to find and cultivate leaders who are deeply rooted in their communities and can motivate others. Danna Dennis, a 34-year-old Crown Heights resident who worked as a home health aide and had shined as a volunteer with the Riders Alliance for several years, was hired as a community organizer on the Fair Fares campaign in 2017. “When I first was hired as a new organizer, I was told, ‘Your job is to organize yourself out of a job,’” says Bailin. From Dennis’s experience living with Type 2 diabetes and a low-wage, no-benefits job, she can speak frankly to poverty’s daily struggle — and its connection to transit equity — making her an invaluable mobilizer.
If Riders Alliance organizers are no longer flooding bus stops, clipboards in hand, to ask what to organize around, there’s good cause: MTA underfunding affects everyone (however unequally) and fare affordability is inarguably urgent. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the grassroots no longer have a say. Creative direct actions — like when Riders Alliance organizers carted a Cardboard Cuomo around the subway after he ignored their invitation to come see the dilapidation firsthand, or when they held a book launch for an anthology of subway horror stories outside his office — are developed out of member strategy meetings. In late November of last year, Riders Alliance organizers rolled out a Subway Delay Action Kit — essentially a flyer with steps for transit riders to learn more about how the state’s underfunding produces breakdowns and delays, and to let Governor Cuomo know how they feel about it. The idea for this tool came out of members’ feelings of powerlessness in the face of long waits and crawling trains. Now, when the train is late or stuck, members channel their frustration into organizing, and encourage delayed fellow travelers to turn their annoyance into action. And the strategists in the Sixth Avenue office remind the state government that every day, more and more New Yorkers know just who’s responsible.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
Community organizers give a window into the city they want and the work they’re doing to get there.