Accounting for Justice

Feb 27, 2015 | Executive Director Melissa Aase | categories: Advocacy

In the wake of the tragic, violent death of a 20-year-old University Settlement program participant, neighbor and friend, everything we do simultaneously comes to a full stop, and flows forward with intentional force.

We are stopped by shock, fear, disbelief, confusion, and we wonder, what is the meaning of our daily work to weave our community together when such violence continues to happen?
And yet, some part of coping is keeping the flow going --- opening the community center doors, our arms, and our hearts to one another, rather than shutting ourselves down. The balls still bounce in the gym; the sweaty dancers are moving; the safe and welcoming community haven we have built is overflowing with neighbors of all ages, talking, playing, and communing.

As the leader of this organization, I am not infrequently confronted with cognitive dissonance. One of my tasks this month, for example, is to fight for important items in this year's State and City budgets that directly impact the communities we serve. But we've just lost a young man, a vibrant member of our community, to a senseless shooting. Suddenly, the machinery of government budgets seems very insignificant.

It seems insignificant because we cannot do "business as usual" when yet another young man of color has been lost to his family, his child, his community where he worked and played, striving to better himself. To talk about fiscal priorities when there is such loss seems to us foolish, even petty. In a crisis like this, we want to devote ourselves to nobler pursuits -- comforting a bereft mother, providing support to brothers and sisters, helping neighbors deal with the often threatening conditions of their community.

These are the things that must come first in a tragedy, and perhaps no one is better able to respond with immediacy and depth than a settlement house. We have a breadth of expertise to work in sync, and an open heart and orientation to the whole community.

Within minutes we can call on our staff in youth development, mental health, and community programming to convene onsite in response. Our case specialists can fan out into the residence where this young man was killed, and neighbors with small children, elders and members of our staff live, to offer crisis support. We can call together neighborhood and City partners to try to understand what happened and to work to prevent future incidents.

So perhaps in the midst of all of this crucial, even life-giving work, we shouldn't be distracted by pecuniary matters, shouldn't care about the almighty dollar. Our compassion and expertise will provide.

Or so we tell ourselves, and so perhaps others would like us to believe. But I am not so sure.
It's not just that settlement houses and other non-profits need money to survive and do their necessary work – for that we do, to provide that safe and welcoming space, fill it with nurturing activities, and pay for the staff that can help people begin to heal.

No, it is more than that. For to pretend that adequate resources is somehow divorced from compassion and mending is to drive yet another wedge deep into the hearts of our neighborhoods.

It says to a mother: your son is worth our tears, but not our investment. It tells a younger brother: you are truly on your own. It tells a community: we have sympathy to give, but not solutions.

If we accept that creating a more just and peaceful world sometimes requires us to reorder our priorities, then State and City budgets must be seen as either a powerful tool of justice, or not.

I write now about three budget priorities not as a distraction from our work, but as central to it; not as a bureaucratic detail, but as a common sense stand for dignity. In the wake of great tragedy, we are compelled to act. I hope you will join us in advocating for these investments by taking the link at the end of this message. On behalf of all of us at University Settlement, I thank you.

  1. The Settlement House Initiative: zeroed out in the Governor's current Executive Budget, the Settlement House Initiative has, for seven years, provided funds to settlement houses across the state to meet emerging community needs – whether that means helping people who otherwise would have nowhere to go or bringing neighbors together to confront tragedy. This fund has recognized the enduring and unique contribution that settlement houses make to working in partnership with all members of a community. We are urging the state assembly and senate to include this in their budget letters to the Governor and to fight for the initiative's reinstatement with an allocation of $3 million. Find your New York State Assembly Member and Senator, and call or email them with this message: "I support New York's settlement houses – press the Governor to reinstate the Settlement House Initiative with a $3 million allocation."
  2. The Non-Profit Infrastructure Fund: A new item introduced by the Governor at our urging, this fund would use a small portion of this year's $5 billion surplus to help the non-profit sector afford physical infrastructure upgrades. The Governor's proposed $50 million, though welcome, would serve only a small fraction of the need for new roofs, boilers, energy efficient systems, generators to remain open in emergencies, and ADA-accessibility upgrades – expenses well beyond normal annual budgets. We are asking the legislature to push for $500 million in this fund, because creating safe community spaces for neighbors of all ages to gather, learn, and build social capital is as important as building roads and bridges.
  3. Cost of Living Adjustments: This year's City and State budgets provide an opportunity to rectify long-deferred human service COLAs and indexing. For too long non-profits that contract with government have struggled with flat contracts, making it next to impossible to keep our employees' wages rising with the cost of living. The dedicated women and men who do the work I witnessed with pride this week, mending communities and reaching out to kids and families in the depth of grief, deserve more. They are the ones modeling hope for the future through skilled and compassionate social work, counseling, education, youth development and community building. We are strongly urging legislators to act this year. Find your New York State Assembly Member and Senator, and call or email them with this message: "I support the important work of employees in the human service sector and encourage you to make cost-of-living adjustments."

To add your voice to that of others encouraging our legislators to act affirmatively on these budget items, visit our advocacy page.


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