CORE Summer Fellows 2017

Each summer, two Tufts UEP graduate students work with community partners for a 10-week fellowship through the CoRE (Co-learning/Co-education) partnership.  Funded by Tisch College, fellows get hands-on experience in community planning, organizing and development.  And the fellows help to extend the collaborative work between the Tufts and the community partner. Below, Minnie McMahon reflects on her summer 2017 experience with Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, and Sharon Cho writes about her summer with Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

Neighbor to Neighbor – Minnie McMahon

I spent the summer as a Co-RE intern with Neighbor to Neighbor in Lynn, MA. Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts is a membership organization that fights for racial, economic and environmental justice. Operating out of four offices across the state, N2N works on justice campaigns that are central to the experiences of their local membership, and they organize their community through door-knocking and political education. In Holyoke and Springfield, organizers are focusing on CORI (criminal records) reform and environmental justice, while in Lynn, housing and immigration justice are current priorities.

Minnie door knocking with Neighbor to Neighbor organizers in Lynn

On my first day at N2N Lynn, the Lynn lead organizer, Estrella Diaz, and Executive Director, Maria Elena Letona, greeted me with a work plan with three projects aimed at supporting N2N’s campaign against displacement. Having a work plan with clear goals and measures put my mind at ease. My fears about being an outsider temporarily placed in a community, and therefore unlikely to do any work of substance, were allayed. Estrella and Maria Elena welcomed me into N2N, and made it clear that, while I had a lot expected of me, I wouldn’t be doing it alone.

During my internship, I organized 30 door-knocking shifts, co-organized a community forum on development and displacement, and conducted research on other communities’ efforts to prevent gentrification-fueled displacement. By the end of the summer, we had knocked on many doors, generating a long list of contacts with which to build up long-term campaign work; held an informational community forum with decent (but not high) turnout; and gathered information on other groups’ anti-displacement struggles.

As I focused on research and door-knocking with members, others worked on electoral politics for the upcoming City Council and Mayoral elections. (As an organization with 501 (c)3 and 501 (c)4 status, N2N can engage in community and in political work.) As a result, I was able to observe the endorsement process. I learned not only how it works and why it’s done, but was privy to the strategizing and process around who to endorse and why.

Lessons Learned

This summer, I was exposed to a lot of ideas, and to the actions tied to those ideas. Some key takeaways for me have to do with the role and the power of the nonprofit; of door-knocking as a method of organizing; and engaging in local electoral politics.

Role of the non-profit

I entered the summer excited about the unequivocal radical message and mission of N2N, but also with a critical eye toward the role of the non-profit in transforming society. At N2N, I experienced the challenge of organizing the broader public, but also N2N membership, itself.

This is because our target constituents in Lynn, and most current members, are highly impacted by the increasing cost of living and lack of good jobs. As a result, some people are already stretched thin, and while their hearts and minds may be behind N2N’s work, they are limited in their ability to show up for certain tasks. For example, many people work nights and weekends, have childcare needs, and/or are working to keep their homes.

In this context, the non-profit is able to provide leadership, to help set an agenda, to prioritize goals, and to set and organize the tasks associated with meeting those goals. N2N requires deep training and political education of its staff, and only hires organizers who are from the community where they organize. This ensures that leadership is very skilled, and is attuned to the needs of the wider community.

Role and power of door-knocking

In order to base-build and raise awareness around the issue of development-fueled displacement, I found myself knocking doors or making phone calls (on rainy days) two or three times a week. This is an energizing and exhausting experience! I learned that it’s typical to have a response rate of 10-20% in the wards we canvassed. Often times, people are not home, have moved, or simply didn’t show much interest in showing up to our community forum. Still, as the weeks marched on and turfs were knocked, we collected many names and phones numbers of people eager to be engaged with the housing issue. Step-by-step, we built up a robust list of Lynn residents with a stake in the issue.

Talking to people on their own stoop or in their living room about their experience, how they think about their experience, and then tying it to the larger political issue is the most basic and essential form of political participation I know.

Role and power of local electoral politics

While electoral politics in America have always been deeply problematic (and nominally democratic), I learned at N2N that getting local political representation inside City Hall is one important tool in a larger toolbox to craft political and material change. During my first week at N2N, the organization held a statewide member assembly where I met, among N2N’s membership, 2 elected officials and a handful of others running for local office. When pushing for CORI reform or inclusionary zoning, it’s necessary to have advocates with voting power to tip the scales in favor of more progressive politics. While this approach feels like a bitter pill to swallow, I am inspired by the candidates and the successfully elected N2N members who are courageously entering the mainstream political arena.

I am now staying on at N2N, one day a week. My work includes wrapping up the summer research into a useable package that includes a narrative about our ongoing campaign. We’d like anyone from inside or outside the community to look at our packet and be able to learn something about political strategies and policy tools to fight displacement. We also think our narrative can serve others as they consider their own strategies to defend their communities against political and economic disenfranchisement.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative – Sharon Cho

I had the opportunity to spend this summer as a Tisch fellow at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a community-based nonprofit organization located in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.  I primarily worked with the Dudley Neighbors Inc. (DNI) team, which stewards the neighborhood’s community land trust (CLT).

ben and sharon
Ben Baldwin (UEP 2016) and Sharon Cho tabling in Dorchester

At UEP, I have focused on community-controlled development and my work with community land trusts had been somewhat limited to the world of academia.  For justice-minded academics and activists, CLTs are often lifted up as the most virtuous model of housing affordability and tool to fight displacement.

Yet we seldom hear about what it takes to run a land trust.  How does a land trusts balance efforts to ensure organizational and financial sustainability with its mission to empower the community and support neighborhood stabilization?  What happens when the homeowner you are reaching out to about a community event is also behind in their ground lease payments?  How does a land trust navigate the tensions that arise when acting as both a place-based planning organization and a “landlord”?

With DSNI and DNI, I had the opportunity to see first-hand how to operate a CLT project. My main summer work — finalizing the DNI Policy and Procedures Manual — was built on the work of my two predecessors (Ben Baldwin 2015 and Gabo Sub 2016).  The manual documents and formalizes DNI’s operating procedures, to ensure that organizational practices become institutionalized over the years even with staff changes.  It covers a breadth of topics including how to determine eligibility for CLT homeownership, addressing violations of the ground lease, managing resales, and board governance.  Moreover, DNI’s manual may serve as an operations template for emergent land trusts seeking resources and guidance from more established land trusts.

In addition to completing the operations manual, I supported DNI’s Project Manager, Ben Baldwin (UEP ‘16), in a variety of day-to-day operations tasks such as preparing and mailing monthly ground lease invoices and addressing DNI homeowners’ requests to remedy structural issues on DNI land.  I additionally provided as-need support to DSNI in its community outreach efforts for its two of its major annual events.

Working at DNI brought to reality the many challenges and contradictions that community land trusts must learn to negotiate.  However, my greatest takeaway from DNI was not the realization that the community land trust is an imperfect model: what became clear is that despite the obstacles and shortcomings, CLTs are a profoundly powerful tool to empower communities and stabilize neighborhoods because they are founded on the principle to value people over profit.

I feel deeply grateful to have had the privilege to work alongside DSNI’s talented and dedicated staff, and to have contributed to and learned from an organization with such an extraordinary history of grassroots planning and organizing.  Working for DNI gave me a glimpse into the messy yet important work of running a land trust and I leave feeling inspired by the many people who are committed to growing the land trust movement.

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Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

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