Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nicole Marwell Redux

Twelve years ago, Sociologist Nicole Marwell came to Brooklyn in search of an idea for her University of Chicago PhD thesis on how urban community-based organizations make decisions within the economic and political frameworks to improve the lives of individuals mired in poverty.
What she found while doing her research in Bushwick, as she said in a talk at the Bushwick Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Saturday, was a modernized version of a Democratic political machine, making use of a non-profit organizational model to sustain and expand political power.
That’s probably the most controversial aspect of Marwell’s surprisingly engrossing book,
Bargaining for Brooklyn, which analyzes the organizational relationships of eight community-based organizations (CBOs) in Williamsburg and Bushwick with the larger political and economic institutions outside these neighborhoods.
Many social scientists and journalists have written notably about poverty, from Tom Sugure’s Bancroft Prize-winning study of race and economic inequality in Detroit (
The Origins of the Urban Crisis) to Barbara Ehrenreich’s catalogues of the struggles of minimum wage workers (Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch) in Middle America.
Marwell is not as well-known, but she has a devoted local following (more than she may realize). When I first started reporting news in Bushwick two years ago, several of my sources suggested I check her book out at the library or read her scholarly articles.
New Kings Democrats members have even been swapping dog-eared copies of the book or faded photocopies of the infamous “Chapter 3,” which focuses on the political activities of St. Barbara’s Catholic Church and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC).
With the increased interest in the neighborhood surrounding two
competitive city council races, the rezoning and future development of the Broadway Triangle, and member items and campaign finance reform, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to invite Marwell back to Bushwick for a talk about non-profits and political engagement.
Over a decade ago, Marwell did field work (or in her words, “hanging around”) in two Catholic Churches (Transfiguration and St. Barbara’s), Beacon School programs (Williamsburg Beacon and Bushwick Beacon), day-care centers (Nuestros Niños and New Life), and community development organizations (Los Sures and RBSCC).
For our discussion at the library, we focused more on the community development organizations Ridgewood Bushwick and Los Sures and how they engage with the political system to help their members.
In her introduction, Marwell explained how CBOs became a place for African-Americans and Latinos to join together and organize, and how some elected officials realized they could reprise machine politics through these organizations.
“What was surprising or unexpected in my research was the way some organizations make a choice to build a community organization and the way some make a choice to do organizing,” said Marwell.
For non-profits, this difference in philosophy means everything and it is what separates organizing groups like
Make the Road New York and El Puente from organizations like Ridgewood Bushwick and St. Nicholas NPC (and Los Sures to some extent).
“An organizer is not a service provider and when you become a service provider it’s hard to stay an organizer,” said Marwell, in one of her more memorable lines.
With the high number of candidates, campaign staff, and volunteers in the audience, taking a few hours off from a busy campaign season to engage in a political-themed discussion, I did not expect a shy crowd. When I opened the floor, there were several government reform-related questions from members of the crowd, including
Doug Biviano, a candidate for City Council in the 33rd District, Morgan Pehme, a campaign advisor to Gerry Esposito (a City Council candidate in the 34th District who was also present), Rob Solano, head of Churches United for Fair Housing, Community Board 1 member and onetime Council candidate Esteban Duran, on a range of topics from banning City Council earmarks and member items to the Broadway Triangle.
Midway through the discussion, Congressmember Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn) and
Councilmember Diana Reyna (D-Bushwick, Williamsburg) also dropped by the book talk, taking a break from visiting a nearby Montrose Avenue block party, to pick up a copy of the book and say a few words, but the focus was clearly on Marwell’s research and conclusions. Marwell was hesitant to weigh in on public policy, saying that her purpose as a sociologist was analyzing or elucidating a problem, not making policy suggestions, though she did emphasize that banning member items would likely eliminate smaller non-profits that were entirely dependent on funding from government sources, which would reduce competition among service providers in low-income communities.
Lincoln Restler, one of the New Kings Democrats members who helped organize the event, had a specific interest in bringing Marwell to Bushwick.
“The chapter on Ridgewood Bushwick was particularly insightful and in my opinion demonstrates clearly the way in which (Kings County Democratic Chair)
Vito Lopez has transformed a senior services organization into a contemporary political machine where jobs and services are exchanged for votes and general political support,” said Restler. “Assemblymember Lopez is trying to take control of multiple council seats in this election cycle and we thought it was a particularly important juncture to shed light on his organization and activities.”
My purpose was a little different. I thought it would be an interesting and timely topic and I wanted to hear reactions from someone who has studied the communities in so much depth about how things have changed. We did not get to discuss the effect of the housing market on CBOs, as more wealth and newer residents have been moving into Bushwick over the past five years. We also missed an opportunity to discuss how the Catholic parishes in Bushwick and Williamsburg have changed substantially in that time, perhaps the most underreported political story in the neighborhood this year, and what effect this will have on the Council elections.
As for the future, Marwell is working on an analysis of the distribution of government contracts and funding to non-profits over the past ten years. According to Marwell, it has been difficult to obtain that information, as there is no centralized place to retrieve it. She hopes to pick out inequities by neighborhood and by organizations.
After the talk, a staff member for Maritza Dávila, a Ridgewood Bushwick organizer who is backed by Assemblymember Lopez for City Council in Bushwick said that he had read the book and enjoyed the talk.
“She was fair,” said the staffer. “The audience was political but she wasn’t.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Free books, YEAH!