Civic organizing taps the power of the people


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Jun 14, 2023

Civic organizing taps the power of the people

By Jim Nelson, Dana Patton, Brigid D’Souza and Rev. Ritney A. Castine Politics

By Jim Nelson, Dana Patton, Brigid D’Souza and Rev. Ritney A. Castine

Politics is often called "the art of the possible," a frame that describes the nexus of political power and agency. Politics’ more powerful cousin, often untapped and unrealized, is organized civics.

In Jersey City on June 1, we had a concrete display of organized civics with news that 20,000+ public school students in Jersey City finally -- at long last -- have access to working water fountains. The magnitude of this accomplishment can perhaps best be understood by how long the solution took to implement: decades. And so, this moment is instructive about how we can work together -- in the civic sector -- to solve complicated, systemic problems.

Jersey City is rife with systemically entrenched issues that disproportionately harm lower income residents, from lack of potable water fountains in a majority free- and reduced-lunch school district to rent control laws that are not properly enforced in a city that was just named the most expensive place to rent in entire country.

So we do not write lightly that "systemic problems can be tackled." Instead, we write with enthusiasm about both the opportunity and the need to proactively tackle, not recede from, systemically entrenched problems.

First, a quick overview of the challenge. The majority of Jersey City's public school children -- most of whom are from lower income families -- have been without working water fountains for decades. When the district found out in the mid-2000s that its water fountains had unacceptable levels of lead in the water, the initial solution was necessarily simple: turn the fountains off. To fill the water void and ensure school kids had water, the district began contracting with water jug companies who would ship thousands of plastic water jugs into the district, an environmentally unfriendly solution that relied on excess gas, plastic and transit costs borne out over city infrastructure, i.e., our roads, for years.

This simple solution remained in place for years in part because the real solution -- the right solution -- was complex: a multi-governmental agency collaboration was required, borne of infrastructure updates from the Municipal Utilities Authority and access to the school buildings from the Board of Education. Experts in plumbing, water quality and more were needed throughout the process. With 40+ schools in the scope of work, the solution also required funding.

Many said this right solution was too complex. Too costly. Too politically difficult.

Just. Not. Possible.

And perhaps, for a time, that calculus was correct. For years, our city's kids have lived the constraints of the politically framed "possibilities" of Jersey City, which included plastic water jugs that ran dry, forcing kids to thirst, develop headaches and leave school with nausea, all while the local elected spent hundreds of thousands of dollars shipping plastic jugs across city roads using gas-powered trucks.

The right solution was not possible in part because we were relying on political actors to solve the problem. And this is where the importance of civics comes into play; and not just any civics, but the civics of organized people building power to make change.

The primary civic entity engaged on the right solution for water fountains was Jersey City Together and its Education Team. Jersey City Together is, loosely described, a network of organizations -- faith-based groups, nonprofits and, as in the case of the Education Team, a committed group of volunteers who seek to support our city's public schools. Broadly speaking, the aim of community organizing is to listen and learn about issues of concern and then act on those concerns with an intention to solve problems. A key component to this model is analyzing, building and acting on power. It requires volunteerism, sacrifice and compromise; but it gets results.

The primary political entities were from local government, specifically the public schools and the municipality. These are government leaders within the public schools and the semi-autonomous Municipal Utilities Authority. These governmental bodies were presented with a new paradigm of what was possible in part thanks to civic advocates who helped educate the larger community about the water fountain issue, who helped push for funding to solve the issue, and who kept political leaders accountable for solutions.

We should in Jersey City take stock of this accomplishment and what it represents for what is possible when we consider the other systemically entrenched problems that persist, often to the detriment of those who most need public services.

We cannot, and should not, rely solely on those in political power to solve these problems for us. Instead, we can and should organize in community, imagine what is needed and then work collaboratively with those in political power to demand consensus-based change.

Civics can redefine what is possible.

As we reflect on the progress to date and the progress left to achieve, Margaret Meade's famous quote seems more on point than ever: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."

Jim Nelson, Dana Patton, Brigid D’Souza and the Rev. Ritney A. Castine (pastor of Mt. Pisgah AME Church) are members of Jersey City Together's Education Team.

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