Interview with Lisa Cowan, Board President of the Red Hook Initiative
Interviewee: Lisa Cowan, Board President of the Red Hook Initiative, location of distribution hub in Red Hook
Interviewer: Max Liboiron
April 23, 2013
Q: So because you’ve signed the ability to use your real name and organizational affiliation, could you say your real name and the affiliation you had in the sort of—
Q: Sandy situation.
A: My name is Lisa Cowan and I’m the Board President of the Red Hook Initiative, which is a community-based organization in Red Hook.
Q: And what does the Red Hook Initiative do pre-storm?
A: We’re a youth development organization, so we work with young people who live in the Red Hook houses, which are the second largest public housing development in the state. And we do education, employment, health, and community development work.
Q: I heard about 80 percent of Red Hook people live in those projects. Is that—
A: You know, I don’t know the, the numbers, but yeah, I mean it’s 8,000 people who live in the projects.
Q: Okay. And what was your experience of Sandy vis a vis the, the Red Hook Initiative?
A: The—the sorry, the community center, the offices—we employ about—95% of our staff live in Red Hook. So the morning after the storm, some staff members went across the street to see how badly damaged our offices were, and they were not damaged at all, and in fact, we still had power and heat, which was a rarity in the neighborhood at that point.
Q: You must not have a basement.
A: We do not have a basement.
Q: Ah, there we go.
A: That was our brilliant [laughter], our brilliant storm-planning move. So they went in, they opened the doors, people immediately came in to start charging their phones and figure out what was going on, and both people who were living in the neighborhood and in the houses came in, and then volunteers, who were I think literally biking around the neighborhood looking for a place to help, found our doors being open, and so pretty quickly people started cooking, dropping off supplies, different kinds of providers showed up, and because we had this physical space, and because we had a staff that was local, and because we had a social media presence, we were pretty quickly at the—at the center of a lot of different supply and demand.
Q: Hmm. What—what’s the social media presence?
A: Well, I mean we have a website. We had Facebook. We had Twitter. I think we probably had maybe a hundred Twitter followers before the storm, and we probably had about four thousand now. So it just became a way that we started saying, “We need more lasagna. We need candles. We need volunteers. We don’t need volunteers. Come to Red Hook. No, go to the Rockaways!” You know?
A: And, and it just—everything changed so quickly, and—both in terms of what people needed and in terms of sort of who was saying what about when anything would— any services would come back, and in terms of who was showing up to provide what to the neighborhood.
Q: So how did you see— how did you see the need shift over time?
A: Well I think right away, you know there was just this sort of basic human needs, right, people couldn’t cook, they were cold, they couldn’t charge anything, and they didn’t know what was going on, and so right away, in terms of power, information, food, and—I’m trying to remember what somebody called warm things that you don’t have to plug in, you know [laughs]?
Q: Right, right.
A: So blankets [laughs].
Q: Right, right. Right. And leg warmers or something?
A: Right, yeah. Exactly.
Q: Right [laughs].
A: So, and then the only health clinic in the neighborhood never opened again—didn’t open again after the storm. They didn’t even come check the power in that clinic for a week, so there were a bunch of people who were not able to leave the building, cause there were no elevators, and there was no medical—there were no medical providers open in the community, so we had medical volunteers who came and started operating out of our offices pretty quickly. You know legal aid lawyers showed up very quickly to do FEMA applications, food stamp applications. So I, you know, I mean with the sort of food and warmth, that was the clear need. With the services, it was always a little hard to tell: was need driving supply or was supply pushing need. I mean you don’t need to file that paperwork the next day, but you’re going to need to get paid back, so.
Q: Right. And where were the lawyers from?
A: Legal aid? South Brooklyn Legal Services.
A: There’s another group that—NYLAG? They were all sort of around the neighborhood on different days.
Q: So you had quite a coalition.
A: Oh yeah. Yeah and I mean there were a ton of Occupy volunteers, and then a bunch of just individual volunteers, and because, you know what I would say about Red Hook is that it was the most conveniently located disaster—
Q: Right. So subway not inclusive of that?
A: Subway not included, right [laughter], but it was a very easy jaunt over from Brownstone, Brooklyn—
Q: Right. Right.
A: So there were a lot of just individuals bringing over trays of ziti, and—
A: Cleaning out their closets, and ya know, calling and saying what do you need from Costco, and so—so it was pretty overwhelming. And, and for our staff and volunteers to try to figure out what was really needed, and then how to get those needs met, and then, ya know, along with the incredible volunteer outpouring, volunteers have a lot of needs too, so.
Q: Mhmm, mhmm. So how do you see those—how have those needs changed, sort of, you know, in the months after the storm, and even up until now?
A: Well there—I mean we’re not, we don’t—people don’t need food—I mean, you know, so the obvious thing to say about the storm in low income communities like Red Hook is that it was this very graphic sort of sped-up lens into the kind of grinding need that’s always there, so people in Red Hook always need jobs. There’s always income insecurity. There’s always crappy food supply, lousy schools, no good public transportation daily, right? All those things got really magnified during the storm, and there was a lot of attention on addressing them in the short-term. In the long-term there’s still no high school in the neighborhood. There’s still—people don’t have jobs. There’s still, ya know, a lot of people living in poverty in Red Hook, so—
Q: There’s no high school in Red Hook?
A: There’s a second chance high school in Red Hook, so if you leave the neighborhood, go to high school, get kicked out of high school, then you have a chance to go to school in the neighborhood.
Q: So to stay local you have to be bad.
A: Yeah [laughs].
A: And you can’t all do that, either, cause it’s just a small school, so—
Q: Right. Right. Okay.
A: Yeah. And you know, I mean, the F train has been— I think is reopening this week, but the local—closest train station has been closed for two years also, so.
Q: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah I live in Bay Ridge, I go past that. That sort of—
A: Yeah. Gets you home a little faster, but [laughs]
Q: Not. I mean, yeah—not worth it. So how did—so the fact that this sort of—and we’ve heard this actually from most, most activist groups and people on the ground and community organizers is that they’re like, “the crisis isn’t over, because the crisis started before the storm, and the storm is a punctuation mark in a much larger crisis.” So how does—how do discourses of recovery and stuff fit into what you see in Red Hook?
A: I mean I should say that there was a second—I think there were two pretty separate disasters happening in Red Hook at the same time—the one being these low-income, thousands of low-income people living without heat, or hot water, or power, and then there was also a bunch of businesses that were really badly damaged. And some of them are small business owners, a lot of small business owners who had very few resources, and then some bigger businesses, and so I think that we’re as—life is pretty much back to normal in the Red Hook houses. Some of those businesses have reopened, but those kind of—that—I think there’s a bigger difference in their lives from before the storm to now, than there is in the lives of people who were living in the houses. So—and that’s not my deal. I don’t know a lot about the business recovery stuff, but that’s— in terms of sort of the discourse of recovery, I feel there’s a, you know— people talk about Rebuild Red Hook, come back, go out to dinner here again, go back to Fairway, buy your wine, buy your key lime pie—that all needs to happen to support local businesses. And we and many other people have been trying over the years to sort of create some ties between people who’ve been living in the community forever, and the sort of new gentrification and money coming into the neighborhood. But that’s not an easy connection to make. That rising tide has not lifted all boats.
Q: Right. Right. A—A lot of the businesses are artisanal capitalists, sort of nostalgic capitalists, sort of enterprises right? [Laughter] The hand-made this, and the, yeah okay.
A: Yes. Yes. Yeah, yeah. There’re breweries, there’s a winery, there’s chocolatiers.
A: There’s bakeries, there’s—
Q: Okay, okay. Right yeah. Yeah. And they—they don’t serve the Red Hook residents. Do they serve more the Brownstone Brooklyn folks?
A: I mean there is, ya know there’s—it’s not only low-income people who live in the neighborhood, there’s a middle class population.
Q: That’s true.
A: So I think they’re—and ya know I think people who live in Red Hook consider themselves sort of homesteaders you know? I mean it’s a very tight community there, because it is so cut off from the rest. It’s not a monolithically tight community, but there are tight communities there.
A: But yes, those businesses are dependent on people coming from outside of the neighborhood to shop and eat.
Q: Okay. So if I’m going to paraphrase what I think you said about long-term disasters sort of needs of residents, particularly the—the population [inaudible 9:56] the initiative, is that—a lot of their needs have returned to the normal, everyday crisis needs as opposed to storm needs, right?
A: I think that’s right.
Q: Job security, etcetera.
A: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and ya know I—on my sort of optimistic days I think maybe the storm affords more of an opportunity to address those needs.
Q: Because they became so stark and public all of a sudden, right?
A: And because I think there’s more of an appetite for addressing a crisis in the moment—a sudden visible crisis that could hurt any of us, than there is for addressing the crisis of poverty.
Q: So, so where do you see these opportunities—what kind of opportunities?
A: Well they’re—I mean there’ve just literally been a lot more government agencies, foundations, philanthropists, individuals walking through the neighborhood of Red Hook than ever before. I mean, I think across the city if you look at what happened with volunteers showing up—one thing I think about sometimes is I just feel we have had more middle class bodies in low-income homes than ever before, and so what happens with that experience. Ya know is there a sort of way to turn that moment of compassion into some more ongoing quest for justice or commitment to justice? The mechanics of that are unclear to me, but again, in an optimistic moment I think that’s an opportunity that is probably slipping away and perhaps it’s too late, but [laughter]—
Q: So, wait, you said something at a conference that I was really interested in which is that compassion isn’t justice. Right? Could you talk a little bit more about that?
A: Well I mean I think it’s really easy to feel bad for someone without feeling that it’s your responsibility to address their circumstances. Right? I mean all of us do that hundreds of times a day. But where I think the opportunity is if you can begin to take on some of that rather than just feeling bad or sort of—I mean, to use sort of the obvious—you know, you can give someone change on the subway and that is some momentary good for them and some momentary easement of your own pain, right? There’s some positive value to that interaction, but probably better to figure out why that person is homeless and try to change housing policy and build more affordable housing and restructure the tax code and dismantle capitalism [laughter]—
Q: For instance.
Q: Yeah, it’s on the list.
A: Yeah. [Laughter] Takes a little more time than just handing over your quarter, but—
Q: So is the Red Hook Initiative—what—what are you guys doing at Red Hook Initiative to maybe try and address some of that?
A: Well you know it’s—I mean we had not been a—I mean we’ve really been focused on sort of program delivery and neighborhood change, but by working with the residents of the community, while we have—we have allies and we have funders from outside of the neighborhood, it is not in the past been a big focus to sort of bring other people into the community. People from outside the community into the community change. Partly because we think it is critical that the ways of the community needs to change be defined by the people who live there. So I would say it’s an ongoing question for us—is do we shift our work to do this thing that we don’t really know how to do and that is different from what we’ve already been doing? And I could say that about, ya know, ten different things that have come up during this storm remain on our agenda. Do we keep doing this? Do we give it to someone else? Do we just say, “not our job,” or what?
Q: Right. Right. And where are you on those discussions?
A: I mean there are definitely some things that we have—that we have—are taken on. We had begun to develop a neighborhood Wi-Fi network before the storm, and—
Q: A distributed Wi-Fi?
A: Yeah. Most—many people who live the houses do not have ya know Internet access. And so we’ll often find that when the center’s closed on Sundays, people will just come hangout outside to check their phones.
Q: And—and pretend to sit in the bushes outside the library [laughs]. I’ve done that.
A: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So we’re trying to spread the web across the whole neighborhood and we had started doing that work and then during the storm FEMA was somehow able to spot that we had been doing that and came and gave us a supercharged—I don’t know any of the right words for this, right, but it went further. [Laughs] And now we’re committed to act—to maintaining and growing this network, which we think will—is critical for sort of daily use and also turns out to be really useful in an emergency. And we hope this also is a way to connect people. Across the neighborhood there’s going to be this kind of splash page when you go on to it where there can be neighborhood announcements, and so we’re thinking that there’s sort of different ways to connect people through it all. So, but that’s a massive piece of work that has really come out of our—the seeds of it were there before, but it has really grown because of this storm. And then we have been doing a lot more job placement since the storm of sort of blowing out our young adult program to do much more intensive job training and placement in local businesses. And those are businesses that are either recovering or ya know, were not eligible for that kind of work because they’re sort of this post-fund, post-storm funding. There’s sort of ongoing social work and support services—and again, there was a huge need before the storm, but I think a lot of—you know there’s some PTSD stuff that comes out of it. And then this question, you know one—we feel one reason that sort of Red Hook emerged as well as it did is because of this, just the local connections in the community and what Klinenberg talks about in his article, and so we’re trying to figure out is that just an organic thing or is there some actual, more deliberate sort of training of local leaders that we could be doing that again, in well ya know, good times just have people checking on each other, sharing referrals, just maintaining a stronger—you know could you have, should you have floor captains or building captains or block captains, you know. So—so that’s— so that’s another sort of set of questions in front of us—is, is it good enough as it is, or is there something that we should be doing programmatically that should strengthen sort of local leadership.
Q: Right. Right. Did you, before the storm, have any sort of disaster preparedness, emergency preparedness—no?
A: [Laughter] No. I mean why would that possibly be anything we ever thought about? No. No we did not.
Q: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. And, but now do you sort of—?
A: I mean, so there are a bunch of neighborhood-wide initiatives that we’re a part of. Ya know I would say the place we have the most offer is around sort of the human element of it, rather than the infrastructure and environmental and so.
Q: Right. Do you guys look into social resiliency as an analytical tool to sort of figure out what you want to be or do?
A: Well, say more about what you—
Q: So, it actually means a whole bunch of different things.
Q: People are using it very loosey-goosey, but there’s sort of the, okay, infrastructure resiliency, but a storm means or its crisis means that that is given up, right?
A: Yeah. Right.
Q: Right, that’s what a crisis is. The lack of, of infrastructure. And so, what about social resiliency? Right? And part of, part of some of the theories of social resiliency is when you need a community.
Q: Right? People need to know each other. Hermits do not fare well in storms.
Q: Right, and emergencies. And then second, you need community space as actually used—unused, undifferentiated public space. A commons of some sort, which is, sounds like you’re building became in that instance. Right?
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: And, with those two things there, those communities fare so much better than, than, than neighborhoods, which are not communities that don’t—
A: Right. So I guess what I would say is that, I think that’s what we were already doing. I mean I think the reason that ya know, our staff came over and opened the building without anybody calling them and saying, “This is your boss. Go do this.” They went because it’s their place and it’s their neighborhood.
A: And they cared. They opened the doors and started doing things none of us had ever even ever thought about before.
Q: Right. Right.
A: The executive director of the organization had had surgery the week before and was out of the building for the three weeks following the storm.
Q: Do you want some water? I have some.
A: Yeah. [Laughter] Thanks. My allergies are—
Q: Oh! Mine too. It’s this kind of water.
A: Yeah, so—so I think sort of our whole, our whole program model, ya know the intent is to really hire people from within the community to design the change and implement it. And so—so I think that is what we were doing before the storm, and it is this thing we’re now trying to be more deliberate about, in thinking about how do you—how do we increase that and—and I would say sort of my personal question about it is, by sort of introducing a structure and a training, are you sapping some of the sort of natural connection and joy, which is what kind of makes real communities, and ‘stipending’ it in some way that will weaken it.
Q: Right. Right. Systematizing communities.
Q: From the top down.
Q: Right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting—did you use—did you have thoughts either way based on what you were saying?
A: I think I have thoughts both ways. [Laughs] You know, if I think about my own life and I think of somebody like—I’m an extremely good networker among my neighbors, right? I just know where is everybody’s kids in school, what do they like, what do they do, and so when I’m with them and I’m in the elevator with them I say, “Oh, did you know this person’s doing that?” Now if somebody came and said to me, “I’m going to give you 50 dollars a month to keep telling your neighbors that that school sucks, and they should buy a different kind of cereal—you know is that going to make me any better at it?
Q: Yeah. Yeah.
A: I don’t know.
Q: Yeah. Yeah. Or make you actually even back against it. [Laughs]
A: Yeah. Or make me even worse at it, because if my 50 dollars doesn’t come next month, am I going to stop doing it, you know?
Q: Right. Right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting because I feel one of the best—you know one of the lessons that will come out of this is about social resiliency. And the government may start mandating efforts of social resilience—
A: Community right?
Q: Which is a very strange mandate, right?
A: I mean what—so one thing—so, sort of what—where we are now is really trying to look at are there some different models from around the country or internationally, even where people are—you know I don’t know. I read about the Time Dollar Institute—you know it’s this. Maybe it’s in Chicago or something? But it’s within—I think it’s within a housing development and you can put in a certain amount of work, which they have these time dollars. So if I—
Q: Oh they check. Okay yeah.
A: So if I rake the lawn, I get a certain amount of time dollars, which then I can cash in for tutoring for my daughter. You know?
Q: Right. Time banking—
Q: is another word for that. Yeah, yeah.
A: So that seems really interesting to me, and maybe as less—I don’t know maybe a more, a way that recognizes what’s already happening, or the family initiative? I don’t know, I just—I’ve heard of a few different programs that I’m really curious of learning more about. Because I think I want to—you know, to me is to think about what’s the extra value you could bring to this, so you’re not just quantifying what’s already happened because you’re a brilliant program developer and can now call what people thought was being a neighbor social resiliency and issue an RFP. But [laughs] what more can you bring to it, you know?
Q: Right. Yeah, interesting. Yeah. Okay.
A: But you know, here’s where it’s sort of what’s going on in my head is not necessarily speaking for what our programmatic agenda is.
Q: Right. Right. I’m interviewing about the—the building. Yeah. And the people in it. So do you have more staff and resources now than you did before the storm?
Q: And where is some of that aid coming from?
A: There were a lot of individuals who gave to us during the storm for hurricane relief, which was great. We were able to buy space heaters, food, medical supplies, blankets, pay our staff. Everybody was working way—tons of overtime. Our—we had an overhead garage door that got trashed during the storm, so we were able—and our bathrooms were all broken, and our printer was shot, and we could repaint so—that was all great. And then, and then there’ve been a bunch of foundations that have issued sort of funding sources since the storm for recovery, and so our jobs program—we’ve gotten both some city and some private funding for—and this Wi-Fi network people are really interested in. So, yeah.
Q: That, that’s great.
A: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: I mean at the very least.
A: Yeah. No it’s good. I think it’s really been a tremendous benefit to the community. I mean the other nice thing about what we do is because most of our staff lives in the neighborhood, we think of it as sort of you get two times your investment, because you get the services, but then the money also stays in the neighborhood, so it’s good for sort of professional development and—but I mean the organizational challenges that we’re not hoping to have a hurricane every year, so what do we—what can we build that’ll be sustainable?
Q: Right. Right. That isn’t based on the binge and purge economy sort of storm—
Q: or philanthropy. Right.
Q: Yeah, that is tricky.
A: Yeah. And then the other thing that happens is that when there’s money, people are much—ya know, there’s competition, and there’s suspicion, and there’s—I mean, I don’t know. There was an article in the Occupy—
A: Title? Yeah.
Q: About disaster gentrification.
A: And specifically the author talks about how pissed off he was that the Red Hook Initiative Board of Directors did not employ a transparent budgeting process. So, you know, I think that one half—one thing that happens is that everybody showed up and working incredibly hard during that storm, but because there was not really an understanding amongst some people that this was an institution that had existed for a decade before the storm and would continue to exist and was an ongoing service organization, and so while transparent budgeting is a fantastic concept if you can pull it off, I don’t think you get to sort of retroactively demand that an institution that you have nothing to do with does that, and I would say it’s not something to be suspicious of, it’s something to understand that this is how a nonprofit organizations work. But that’s just sort of one example of how everybody was doing their best job and wound up being suspicious of each other.
Q: So how are you guys dealing with some of that?
A: You know you can’t deal with all of it, I mean we’re trying to do our best work as well as we can, and be responsible primarily to the people who use our services, but certainly to our donors also reporting on what we’re doing with their money.
Q: Would you consider yourself—so because of this—so this tension between we’re an NGO and we’ve been here for a long time and we’ll continue versus I know a lot of the criticism are coming from places like Occupy and other sort of grassroots, more activist organizations. Would you consider yourself—so, so I guess there’s the Red Hook Initiative and then there’s the Red Hook Initiative during the storm being two slightly different things, perhaps. But would you consider either one of those initiatives to be a grassroots situation or more of a NGO institutional sort of organization?
A: I guess that distinction isn’t so meaningful to me.
A: I mean we are staffed and our program is designed, by, and for people who live in the neighborhood. We have a board of directors. We grew out of a program out of a hospital. We have a community-organizing arm, but we also have service delivery programs.
A: So, you know I know that—I mean although I don’t totally—I—we consider ourselves to be a social justice organization, the sort of critique of community-based organizations is new to me. I didn’t really understand, perhaps in my naïve middle age [laughs] that—I, I mean one thing that was fascinating just personally during the storm was how quick—I was there everyday, right. And Jill, the Executive Director was out, and so in terms of kind of—there were many questions that came to me. It was really interesting to me how quickly I became the man. You know, I had never been—we had never been in the, you know, institution of power before, and so people would come and you know, in their panic and in their desire to help would say, “I need 2,000 dollars to go repair this daycare center.” Or “I need to go do this.” And I, I couldn’t just hand out 20 dollar bills to people I’d never seen before to do things that they, I had no idea what they were doing and they had no—nobody knew what was happening. But in those moments of panic, I think that some of the Occupy people in particular, but I’m sure individual donors also, felt we were being obstructionist and slow and bureaucratic. Whereas at any other point in our history, you know I would say we’ve basically no hierarchy, no bureaucracy. We were the fastest moving CBO I’ve ever seen in my life. But it’s kind of all relative [laughs].
Q: That’s, that’s what’s really interesting about, about your case is that there’s a lot of analysis being like okay community-based, grassroots groups, government groups, institutions, okay go. And you’re like there’s so much muddy water between those two things. And so when you’re talking about community organizing, can you do community-organizing in an institution? Of course, but it—does it look different than on a street corner? Of course. Okay, so how do you then go meaningfully forward with that sort of non-dichotomist sort of thing?
A: Mhmm. And when the people who work for the organization are actually people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and the community organizers have been there for two weeks—
A: Ya know I would say that there’s something there to look at also. [Laughs].
Q: Yup. Yeah. Yeah that’s the, that’s the other thing that we’re finding is that community sort of aid folks who come in if they’ve had long standing relationships with the area, then they’re still there. And if not, then not. And there’s different kind of [inaudible 28:45] I mean, that’s sort of the process.
A: Yeah, and there’s certainly a role. I mean there’s a utility to all of it and I certainly don’t mean to say that people who didn’t live in the neighborhood shouldn’t come help the neighborhood. But I just think that the problem is that everybody wants to make it better, right? And there are lots of different prescriptions, and there are lots of different ways people prescribe—
Q: Lots of different betters, yeah.
Q: Yeah. Yeah. It’s true. Yeah, and then the—yeah. The ethics of bettering and some other stuff.
A: [Laughs] Yeah.
Q: It is—it’s still very soupy. [Laughs] Even though the confusion of the storm is over.
Q: So do you think that Red Hook—so I don’t know if you know that much about Coney Island or Staten Island or what happened in the Rockaways, but do you think that Red Hook—the Red Hook experience or even just your experience was fundamentally different than other storm experiences?
A: My understanding is that there was so much less physical damage, at least to poor people’s homes in Red Hook. I mean the, the, the Red Hook houses were without power, but if you walked through the housing projects in bright daylight you wouldn’t necessarily have known anything was wrong, so I think, I think that is really huge. I also think it was so much easier for volunteers to get to Red Hook. And then I also think that because Red Hook has this kind of hipster thing going too it was just a more appealing place for people to come tour through and bring their resources, and it’s nice if you can go do your good deed and then go to IKEA all in the same trip.
Q: [Laughs] That’s true. Red Hook does have that going for it.
A: [Laughs] Yeah.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: And also because of the way, you know, we’re in a congressional district in higher income neighborhoods, you know I think there’s sort of—so you know I didn’t spend time in any of those other communities. I think it was a huge advantage to have our physical space open to all these different people as opposed to in some neighborhoods where they’re just weren’t places with power or any Internet or phones.
Q: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s funny because it sounds like the Red Hook Initiative did what a lot of other communities had to do in churches, right? The other commons that are, that are available.
A: Yeah. And we did definitely work with churches, but—but we had, yeah.
Q: But you were the hub, the physical hub.
Q: Let’s see here. I just want to make sure I don’t miss anything if I keep riffing off my brain. Oh! So here’s a—here’s a question we are—an issue we always talk about, and that’s inequity.
A: I’m just going to shut the door.
A: Go ahead.
Q: So I think we’ve already covered fairly implicitly that there was inequity to begin in the storm [inaudible 31:25] real quick. And, I think that’s really apparent in terms of race and class, especially because those things map on to each other so clean in the United States, but we’re also looking a lot at gender, and I was wondering if you had any ideas about gender and equity and how that played out in the storm or aid or aftermath.
A: You know our organization is so—we have many more women who work there and are in leadership roles than men, and because so much of my experience was literally standing in that building, it was not a huge part of what I saw. I mean I think you have more female-headed households certainly, living in public housing, so—I don’t know. There were more female-headed households affected than male-headed households? I don’t know if that’s a relevant factor.
Q: But that’s—but that’s just because there’s more female-headed households.
Q: It’s not because, yeah. There’s proportionally—
A: Yeah. So I don’t think I have anything very interesting to say about that, although I’m fascinated to hear what other people—
Q: What, what’s really interesting is because people are like “Yeah, well no, but no, maybe.” And that’s sort of what we always get, no matter where we go, and that’s—I mean statistically, it falls out that, that women and children are just always—this always happens. They always have an unequal burden, how does this play or not play out to experiential data, or other sorts of things. And I—but it’s not—we don’t have a conclusion.
A: I heard someone from Louisiana talking about this. The New York Foundation brought in some from the Gulf Coast to talk to a bunch of groups afterwards. And she, if I could remember her name, she had a very clear analysis about it that was interesting.
Q: Yeah. I mean there are some excellent analyses about it, but how that falls out in interviews is almost extremely ambivalent or ambiguous.
Q: Yeah, so, it’s—
A: Yeah. I mean I would say—I don’t even know if this is going to be true. Of, of people I had never seen before who had showed up and started bossing me around, more of them were men. [Laughter]. But there were a lot of both, I’ll tell you.
Q: Interesting. I mean on one point it’s—if people come into your house and start bossing you around and your house is a public house, I mean in some ways that’s good. Being like, “I’m glad you feel you have ownership of this community space. On the other hand, it’s also my community space.” [Laughter].
Q: Did you hear anything or any differences in conversation about climate change pre- and post- and during the storm?
A: Well, I mean just so much more about climate change and so much more—I mean it’s—this is just a personal thing, but, I mean you know these were horrible weeks for me personally, right? I was there everyday. It was like I’ve never been more scared in my life in a more sustained way. I was already totally insanely terrified of climate change, but, or maybe not insanely, but I did have this small comfort of being like, “Well of the three things I care about: Obama being re-elected, climate change raising to the top of a national discourse, and Red Hook Initiative meeting our budget, like, this is actually good for all three of those things.” [Laughter].
A: But yes, I mean literally graffiti on the street about climate change? You know, there—
Q: Oh really/
A: Yeah. Which—
Q: In Red Hook?
A: Which certainly I had never seen [Laughs] before.
Q: What was the graffiti like?
A: I feel like I could find a photograph of it. I, I don’t know. There’s no global warming? You know, sarcastic global warming graffiti.
Q: Right. Right.
A: And I imagine that for the young people in the neighborhood—in the city, for all of us in the city who thought that this was not about us, that that’s what really changed. You know and I think about my kids—you know I think all of us just know that this is a fact now in a way that we were trying to hold out—hope that it was not before. And then I would say that the other thing that I think this—I mean [laughs] again, just in my own imagination, the way I was terrified of nuclear war when I was a teenager is how I am about climate change now, and I think the thing with both of those is that they threaten everyone. There’s no economic security that exempts you from—
Q: Although the burden is, will be distributed unevenly, according to some of those lines.
A: It is true, but the way at least sort of on the east/upper middle-class east coast, where waterfront property is also—
Q: Wealthy, yeah.
A: Privilege of the wealthy, you know? I mean having your billion dollar home destroyed is different than having your whole life destroyed, but I think, again sort of trying to see the glass a tiny bit full, I think that there’s a way to bring many different constituencies into this.
Q: Yes. Excellent. So is, is the Red Hook Initiative doing anything climate change-y adaptation, mitigation, any of that business?
A: I think we’re trying to figure out is there, is there something we can do? I mean we have our social justice fellows, our young people who design their own campaigns, and so those—that is certainly a world that is open to them, and I think probably more interesting than it was before. You know our programs are mostly around helping young people get jobs, get into school, change their neighborhood, and so the climate change—you know I guess in terms of some sort of neighborhood rebuilding, but again I don’t know what you. I mean what can you do? Aren’t we just fucked? [Laughs]. I mean in Red Hook, what are we going to do? We’re going to put the houses on stilts?
Q: Right [Laughs]. Yeah. Well that’s the discussion between mitigation and okay how do we, how do we try and reduce carbon in the atmosphere so that this happens less often, less severely, although yes, it’s going to happen versus adaptation being we’re so fucked. Okay, how do we, how do we make it so that we’re not devastated every time a storm hits. Yeah. Right those are the two sort of—
A: Yeah. So I think people sort of talk more about bikes than they used to. I mean, that’s some small thing [Laughs], you know?
Q: Getting around on bikes or being on a bike in a storm?
A: Getting around on bikes.
Q: Okay. Because also, people—one of the main ways people got around during and after the storm was on bicycles and bikes, there wasn’t anything else. So, and it’s also climate change neutral. Right? So that was—
A: Yeah, yeah. Recycle a Bicycle gave us a bunch of bikes during the storm so that people could get around, because we were—there were sort of volunteers at all these different places in the neighborhood, and the young people loved having those bikes and so we were sort of trying to think is there something more, bike-y we could do.
Q: That you could do, right. Right, right. Cool. If you want, I can get you in touch with Times Up people, who are a bike co-op in Williamsburg, but they’re also, it depends on who you talk to. They’re also a group of self-organized anarchists. They also did a lot of Sandy relief work. And they have power generators where you just—you—it’s, it’s a bike rack, and any bike can go in it and then you can bike up electricity.
A: Oh that’s cool.
Q: And that’s how, what people were doing pumps and phone charging in, in Rockaways and other places. And I’m sure they’d come down and teach people how to build those or whatever. I’m not sure. I assume that that’s what they would do [Laughter]. The anarchists are, who knows.
A: They may not show up on time.
Q: They don’t have a mission statement, so yeah. But I’d be happy to introduce you.
A: I should be an anarchist.
A: I think I should be an anarchist. [Laughs].
Q: [Laughter] It’s, it actually involves a lot of work and communication and I’m—it’s like being in a polyamorous relationship where you always have to be checking with everyone and anyway. There’s no hierarchy so there’s so much more work.
A: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Alright.
Q: That’s, that’s my impression. So, maybe you are an anarchist.
A: [Laughs] No.
Q: [Laughs] Sorry.
A: No and I don’t want to do anymore work, so.
Q: Yes [laughter]. Let’s see here. So it sounds like a lot of what happened before during and after the storm is intensely local. It’s very focused on Red Hook and that sort of stuff. Do you see sort of what you’re doing or what happened ties Red Hook to larger discussions and other neighborhood cities, globally?
A: Certainly. I mean in New York City I think we’re very—I mean I think there are huge conversations about what happens with public housing. Again we’re at large and in terms of the storm and future storms and those are not—those are neither decisions you’d want to just make in one neighborhood, nor ever could make. You know I think this question about social resiliency is one that we shouldn’t figure out by ourselves. I think we should be in conversation with lots of people who are, have the same set of questions that we do. I think this set of questions about keeping, sort of moving volunteers along some kind of continuum, and then I think the climate change questions obviously are—
Q: Right. Normal.
A: Not beyond us. [Laughter]
Q: Right, okay. Another question I have is about so, so there was a different set of needs during the storm than there are now. Right? How do you go about during the storm and then also now figuring out what needs are? Again, this is what crisis intervention is, right? What are needs? How do we meet them? So how do you determine what the needs are and where they are?
A: I mean I think we—our assessment on what the needs are largely based on what the young people come into our center telling us, and what their families are telling us, and what our staff our observing.
Q: Is that true, was that true of the storm as well?
A: Yeah, I mean, during the storm our phone was ringing a thousand times a day, so we had a lot more input.
Q: [Laughter] Right, yeah.
A: And also people had nowhere to go, so there was just a billion words a day. Sometimes contradictory, right? But that’s the only way we were assessing the needs. I mean it was just the ultimate proof that there are no grown-ups. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. So I would say again personally I had two different reactions to that. One, utter terror, and the other well, if nobody knows what’s going on then let’s just us decide what’s going on and go with that. But our sort of program design and delivery is always driven by what, what the people in the community are telling us they need.
Q: Did you guys do canvassing at all?
A: We did canvassing—we did—I mean this is again more sort of the we gets nebulous. There was daily—[laughs] there were so many different people canvassing all the time.
Q: Yeah. Yeah.
A: The folks who were doing the medical services and the homebound food delivery built a database, and so everyday out of our offices there were volunteers who were on the computers in our media room, checking that database, sending meals up twice a day, checking on people’s medical conditions and sending doctors up.
Q: What group was that? Do you know? Who knows [laughs].
A: I mean you know there were a bunch of Occupy people doing it. There were a bunch of individual volunteers doing it. They were liaising with our social work staff all the time. There was this ‘Medical Matt’. He’s this Red Hook hero. He’s a guy who lives in the neighborhood who’s a med student and he’s the one who really drove the, addressing the medical needs, and that’s what everyone called him. Medical Matt.
Q: Medical Matt.
A: [Laughs] And you know in the end, I mean sort of as the power came back on, there was this remaining case load of some number of people who’s RHI social workers continued to check up on. But then there was you know, supposedly FEMA canvassing going on and there were neighbors checking on each other. I mean I think people must’ve just been canvassed up the—
Q: Yes. Yes, we have some reports, particularly in the Rockaways of canvass harassment [laughs].
A: Yeah, yeah.
Q: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So do you think that canvassing would be something that you guys would adopt outside of that situation? Or you guys didn’t really do it to begin with; those were your affiliates, right?
A: I mean, I would say canvassing to what end?
Q: Well, that’s what—that’s what’s interesting. Is there ever a case where you want a house—household by household assessment of anything?
A: I mean we have, we have talked about doing now in sort of dealing with this world of mold remediation and NYCHA advocacy and repairs. We have talked about doing a house-by-house, apartment-by-apartment canvass to see exactly what we’re dealing with, because there has been no satisfactory product of that. Again, for us organizationally that’s a question that is not—we’re not in the home repair business. We are about serving 10 to 24 year olds, and yet that is a piece of work that needs to be done that NYCHA needs to know the cases that we know, you know. We have been in apartments where people are living with terrible mold. We have bought people new beds. We have—so. I think—so yes, there is a scenario in which we would do canvassing, but I don’t think it ever makes sense for it to be an ongoing part of what we do.
Q: Right, right. Okay.
A: I have a phone call in ten minutes.
Q; Okay. I think that is about it. Yeah, and do you have any questions or anything that you think I should’ve asked that I didn’t ask?
A: No, I mean I’m curious to hear what the big themes are that you’re hearing across the city and—
Q: Right. So all of us have different specialties. My specialty right now is looking at government versus non-government responses in terms of spaces and times of disaster, and what I’m generally finding is that, big surprise, there are multiple space times of disasters. And community groups of all sorts tend to see this as stretching out much more long-term, while government is very invested in being like May 1st, setting deadlines and putting them in ink. And spatially, when—so everyone talks about how the government wasn’t there, but, and in the same sentence, they often say a FEMA truck went by, but the government wasn’t there. And you’re like, but the FEMA truck went by. So the idea of how to be present and how to be in a space is very radically different for both groups: where the government was like, we were everywhere, and people were like, you were nowhere. But they’re both true, you know in a certain sense. So how do you, how do you talk about those different presences and what kind of presence.
A: Yup. Maybe if you talked to people in Red Hook, I mean, this guy Carlos Menchaca, who was Christine Quinn’s LGBT outreach guy was dispatched to Red Hook during the storm, and he was there, biking around and everyone knew Carlos. I don’t know how many people thought ‘Oh, there goes the government.’
Q: [Laughs] Right.
A: He’s now running for City Council to represent Red Hook. I think partly transformed by this experience he had during the storm. Brad Landers office was—Brad—we’re not Brad’s district, but he had someone there all the time. And I mean it was really interesting to me sort of day by day how much people got their shit together—you know, finally the city—I don’t know. It may have been two days. It might’ve been a week. It was so hard to assess time. But once there were borough czars appointed in the city, then there could be port-a-potties. You know? Then there were warming—I read a press release one day that talked about warming centers that the city had put out. And I was like, “Well, where are the warming centers in Red Hook?”
Q: They were all on Coney Island.
A: Right. And so I called someone and they were like, “Oh, right.” And so that next day I went over and met someone at the library and then that library was a warming center. So—so it was both gratifying to see how you could influence what the city was doing, and then also to be like, “Well how could they only have set up warming centers in one neighborhood?” You know?
Q: Yeah, yeah. Interesting. We have some reports of government folks being like, “I got the best when I went off the grid. And then when the government got it’s, you know, poop in a pile, I went back and was official government.” So that’s sort of—that’s interesting.
Q: But yeah. Phone call time?
A: Come on. [Laughter] I, I do. In a few minutes. Yeah.
Q: Okay. Any other questions or comments?
A: I guess, just sort of as we figure out what we’re doing moving forward again, I don’t know how kind of ‘user-friendly’ this is, but if we say with the social resiliency stuff if we’re now like well, who’s smart, thinking about this smartly? Who do we go talk to? I don’t know if that is something that comes out of your research or—
Q: If you asked us, we would, we would get on it.
Q: Yeah. That’s—we’re, we’re the academic, specialty arm of whatever people need.
Q: Basically. That’s what we’re trying to do.
A: That’s great, and so that is, those are services that are accessible to us and—
Q: Yeah! Basically what you would do is you would e-mail me, I would bring it up at the next meeting, we would put somebody on the job, we would send you a bibliography or a name or something. Whatever we can come up with.
A: All right.
A: Cool. Alright, well, you’ll be here.
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