Back in October, we announced the winners of our Second Annual Isaac C. Kwock Award. This unique award honors a former staff member who contributed a great deal to both University Settlement and The Door over the course of 11 years. It presents an opportunity to honor Isaac's memory and keep advancing his important work through supporting projects at both agencies that work to bring about social justice in the many, many forms that it can take.
One of the projects selected was from our Project Home staff, entitled Tenant Leaders. Since being selected, the staff have created a group of tenant leaders to provide trainings, culminating in an advocacy event at the final vote of the Rent Guidelines Board (on June 29). In a historic moment, the Rent Guidelines Board voted to freeze rents for the first time in its nearly fifty year history, a rousing success for tenants and their advocates.
Tenant leaders received stipends and are full-fledged community experts who can serve as ongoing resources to their neighbors and friends, with the potential to inform, teach and inspire others. One of our tenant leaders, Eleanor, shared her thoughts on being part of this incredible project in the following remarks from our Isaac C. Kwock Awards Celebration earlier this month:
Unity is strength. Mattie Stepanek added, "When there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved." A few months ago University Settlement's Project Home gifted me the opportunity to be a tenant leader for a series of workshops planned to focus on NYC's rent regulations and tenants' rights. The task seemed simple; make calls, invite attendees and learn more about tenants' rights. But what I did not realize when I eagerly accepted the position was how much I would be enriched by the experience.
After the first batch of calls, names and numbers changed to lives - individuals with unique experiences interwoven in very specific sets of circumstances. The conversations with the individuals who allowed me in impacted my resolve for advocacy. A win-win for sure.
I was not able to connect with a few people - some assumed I was a bill collector or pretended not to be the person on my call list, or worse, rudely dismissed me and abruptly hung up. But those few did not lessen my resolve because there were others, and they were the majority - persons who wanted another human being to take the time to listen. Their stories varied, the situations complex, and, while I am not authorized to give advice, I quickly realized what I had was an opportunity to be the person on the other end of a phone line who would simply listen. Someone to send the message: "You matter, your issues are important and I'm willing to allow you to vent."
So many times in our daily lives we feel powerless when faced with the injustices meted out to our fellow men and women. We think, "What can I do to impact such a mammoth situation? Nothing!" But, that's not true, because each of us need not stand alone. Each of us need to believe in the power of togetherness; to find other souls with a common focus and bond. We then use our combined power to move the mountains of injustice, prejudice, inequality, and oh-so-many ills of our society. It begins with me believing in the strength that comes from changing "me" to "we."
This change for our workshop attendees transpired because Project Home also experienced the power of the phrase "unity is strength." Our workshop speakers hailed from Housing Court Answers, Cooper Square, Goddard Riverside, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Asian-Americans for Equality, and each facilitator has become a valued resource for our attendees. The collaboration of our organizations has strengthened the cause and our resolve. Each organization is committed to be a source to affect change.
So, after weeks of making calls inviting Project Home clients to workshops where facilitators shared their vast knowledge of rent regulations, the history of rent for low-income NYC residents, the Rent Guidelines Board, and tenants' rights, we look towards the next few weeks when what we now know becomes the chrysalis for what we do. The power of our togetherness will be heard on the floors of each venue and at every site we assemble. The information from our workshops will transform into confident testimonies.
Our workshop attendees are ready. Each tenant and her/his rights will not be a lone whisper, but a triumphant voice confidently stating our demands at the public hearings before the RGB makes its final vote on the percentage of rent increase (freeze or rent rollback) that will be enforced on residents in rent-stabilized apartments across our city. We are informed, inspired, and no longer thinking, "What can I do?" Now we confidently say, "This is what WE will do." I know it is a challenge to have an effective voice in a sea of financial power, political dysfunction and apathy that thrives in the metropolis that is New York City, but we are not alone. We are a united voice and we will be heard.
I cannot close before expressing my sincere thanks to Project Home for inviting me to be a part of this enriching experience. I have learned so much, as each workshop has provided a plethora of information, and I feel my greatest blessing came from each person from my call list.
As one of the tenant leaders, so much was shared with me and I was invited into so many lives - families with individual strengths and lives that matter. Through the bonding experience in our workshops, I have a new zeal to use my voice to affect change.
Thank you Project Home for the honor and privilege to be a part of something good - something meaningful - and to be able to touch lives I would not otherwise be privy to. Thanks for reinforcing in me the words of George Herbert Mead: "Society is unity in diversity," and for allowing me to be a part of positive change.