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CVH’s Efforts Organizing and Building Power During a Pandemic

For Community Voices Heard (CVH), like many organizations, 2020 was marred by the Coronavirus pandemic which was and continues to be unlike anything our community and members have ever experienced. For many that we serve, their ongoing challenges such as housing disrepair and instability have been heightened by the lack of employment opportunities or loss of income sources due to the crisis; those who remained employed were in jobs that presented a high risk for exposure to COVID-19. At once, the pandemic illuminated the immense need for our support of vulnerable populations while simultaneously presenting barriers to the ways in which we traditionally reached our members.

Early in the COVID-19 crisis, CVH sprang into action to provide mutual aid to public housing tenants in East Harlem as people were coping with the sudden loss of wages and inability to access food due to potential virus exposure. A group of CVH members distributed over 1,500 meals to residents of East Harlem NYCHA developments, including the Carver Houses and the UPACA 6 senior apartments & and distributed 200 meals in the City of Yonkers. When CVH became aware of the lack of cleaning taking place in common areas in East Harlem NYCHA developments, we arranged for the distribution of a pallet of cleaning supplies for residents to take cleaning into their own hands. As the rate of virus cases increased, the in-person door-knocking techniques, one-to-one’s, and house meetings were no longer viable due to the quarantining and social distancing mandates necessary for the prevention of the Coronavirus. CVH shifted from our in-person base building approach to a virtual strategy; by adjusting our relational model of one-to-one personal contact, collective action, and leadership development to the virtual environment, we were able to successfully continue our work.

And while this was new to us, we knew the importance of remaining in contact. CVH organizers continued their deep canvassing, outreach, base building, and leadership development activities by phone, text, and video conferencing with our members. In response to the organizational shift to virtual meetings, CVH invested in tablets to provide to our members. In addition to providing tablets, we also provided wifi hotspots and technical support to those members who needed these tools to continue their participation. Our members remained integral during that time, still introducing their neighbors to CVH’s work and with our organizers conducting follow-up work to get those individuals more involved. As a result of these investments, we’ve been able to withstand the pandemic’s challenges and continue organizing and leadership development in partnership with our members, conducting regular monthly chapter meetings and organizing campaign meetings, as well as meeting with officials to facilitate change.

CVH members lead in meetings with NYC Deputy Mayor, Vicki Been, and incoming U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, regarding public housing issues and the need for increased funding to address the subpar conditions. Although progress towards these specific demands remains elusive, Senator Schumer has committed to coordinate a meeting between CVH members and HUD Secretary nominee Marcia Fudge within the first 100 days of the new administration. CVH also conducted a social media campaign spotlighting the new challenges public housing residents faced as the result of the pandemic. The campaign helped CVH obtain a major win on behalf of public housing residents against NYCHA. The campaign led to the elimination of a required employer certification of income loss, successfully pushing NYCHA to accept self-certifications about income loss so that residents can more easily obtain rent reductions due to pandemic-related income reductions.

In August, CVH and the Regional Plan Association released the report, "The Impacts of Living in NYCHA", which is based on surveys that our Rockaway members collected from six developments in 2019. The report documents the pervasive state of disrepair of NYCHA developments, including mold, lead, and other environmental factors that contribute to persistent health problems among residents. We also focused on developing new hubs of members living in public housing in the Bronx and Brooklyn. While base building among public housing residents, we also conducted Census outreach and in-person voter engagement tabling during the elections. CVH’s partnership with Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant in our public housing work also continues.

In addition to the aforementioned work, CVH drove progress forward with several other campaigns in 2020: Follow Black Women, East Harlem Tenant Organizing, and Housing Justice for All. In 2019, CVH launched Follow Black Women as an initiative to move from the mere acknowledgment of Black women as the wheels for political movements to recognizing them as the drivers for public policy and governance. In conjunction with the initiative, we’ve rolled out a survey and intend to survey 5,000 Black women across all corners of NY State about the issues they care about. To date, we’ve collected over 3,000 surveys. In addition to the surveys, CVH has been engaging Black women in sister circles (in-person pre-pandemic, and virtual since the pandemic began), where participants can further share experiences, issues, and coping strategies with each other. Recent sessions via Zoom have attracted from 80 to 330 Black women. Thus, the project has created spaces where Black women can actively engage and shape the conversation around what values and policies will truly lift up Black women and other working-class communities in this critical election year and beyond.

CVH continues to focus on East Harlem Tenant Organizing. Working in partnership with Tenants and Neighbors, we’re organizing tenants in tenement buildings throughout East Harlem. We also collaborated with the City’s Partners in Preservation Program to identify buildings in East Harlem whose tenants are most at risk of being harassed and/or displaced. Together, we have been organizing and educating tenants living in these buildings to form and strengthen tenant associations in a united effort to curb speculation, harassment, and displacement. In conjunction with this work, we supported tenants from one building on East 117th Street with their rent strike and working with tenants in Emerald Equities buildings in exploring the possibility of non-profit and/or tenant ownership takeovers.

CVH members continue to play a major role in the Housing Justice for All coalition as part of the Steering Committee and Peoples Action’s Homes Guarantee campaign in Hudson Valley. We’ve been active in the movement for rent forgiveness and to suspend evictions during the COVID-19 crisis and have worked for the repeal of laws that prohibit the construction of new public housing, and to get new capital funds for public housing. CVH also created a joint committee of CVH Members living in NYCHA and those in public housing in the Hudson Valley. The committee continues to conduct a fact-finding participatory research action around the Rental Assistance Demonstration program to assess the program and its organizational strategy for improving NYCHA and/or other public housing in the state.

This past year, communities of color in New York and nationwide were hit hard across the board -- whether through rates of COVID-19 infection, general Healthcare access, and treatment, xenophobia, housing security, unemployment, or police brutality. As the effects of and restrictions surrounding the pandemic linger, CVH continues to evaluate and enhance the COVID-safe systems that allow us to continue to check in with our members and constituency as well as ensure that the immediate and long-term needs of low-income New Yorkers are addressed. We are visioning new strategies now to build a non-exploitative economy and push back against the implementation of budget austerity on the backs of low-income communities. With our adaptive approaches, strong base of members across New York state, we are well-positioned to continue moving forward with virtual and in-person strategies for the remainder of 2021 and as long as the circumstances require.

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