Denver: The mission of the Citizens Committee for New York City is to help New Yorkers, especially those in low-income areas, come together and improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. That’s a big mission in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. And here to discuss his work with us and what they’re doing now in the midst of this pandemic is Dr. Rahsaan Harris, the CEO of the Citizens Committee for New York.
Welcome to the Business of Giving, Rahsaan!
Rahsaan: Denver, thank you for having me.
Denver: Share with us the founding story of the organization.
Rahsaan: It is kind of ironic that I get to tell the founding story because where we are is kind of where Citizens Committee was when it was founded. Back in 1975, New York City was in a crisis. City budgets weren’t where they should be to provide basic services for New York City citizens. The president basically told New York City to “go to hell,” as it was in the tabloids.
Denver: I think it was actually “Drop Dead!” I saved that issue.
Rahsaan: “Drop Dead.” Exactly.
Denver: “Drop Dead!” It was on the front cover of the Daily News.
Rahsaan: That’s right. And some really forward-thinking, great New Yorkers, Senator Jacob Javits and Osborn Elliott, who was the founder of Newsweek magazine, decided that they wanted to come together, even though they were on different parts of the ideological spectrum, to help New York and to bring New Yorkers together to improve New York City.
And so, they started the Citizens Committee for New York City, first to kind of survey and see what the needs of the city were. And then after that, bring New Yorkers together to improve neighborhoods. And we have a long tradition of doing that for 45 years since 1975.
And it just so happened that my first day on the job was March 16, 2020, basically the unofficial start of the New York City shutdown. So we’re kind of there again in crisis, where New York City needs people from all stripes and all backgrounds to come together to do what’s right for New York City, to show how resilient we are, and to hopefully build her better than she ever was before.
We wanted to make sure that we told the stories of a need for attention, but also the resilience and the leadership that’s happening in those spaces so that you can invest in folks that are going to be there to help those communities come out of the pandemic better than they were before.
Denver: Well, you are the ultimate virtual leader, I guess, having never been in the office to meet the staff, at least once you’d taken on this position.
What’s been the impact of the pandemic? And how has the organization adapted to address the slew of issues and challenges that it has brought on?
Rahsaan: The pandemic has caused us really to double down on our founding mission. When we were founded, the leaders said, “Let’s first survey and listen to what’s going on. Let’s do the analysis. Let’s do the research. Let’s hear from the best thinkers and figure out how we can solve problems.” And then made suggestions, supported leaders in place, brought folks together to have conversations so that they can influence the trajectory of the city.
Of late, Citizens Committee, because of, to a certain extent, some people would argue there was an economic boom of late in New York City; ever since the ’08 recession, we’d been on an upswing. So, there was more money available, and not everyone has participated in that, but to a large extent, many folks had access to more resources. So you could focus on a lot of beautification of spaces, bringing people together, a lot of environmental issues. And that is definitely really important. I’m glad that Citizens Committee has led the charge in New York City in thinking about those issues.
But the pandemic caused us to really figure out: How can we talk to New York City, not just about environmentalism and beautifying spaces, but basic needs? So right before I came on, the staff had the foresight, “Let’s listen to grantees.” We sent out a survey across New York City. We got over a thousand responses, and we heard: “We need access to financial resources. We need food. We need mental health and physical services. We need to have folks help us take care of the elderly.”
And when we got those results, it let us know that the way we looked at potential grantees and applicants…we had to shift. We had to be more open than just doing what in I guess, even six months before would have been prioritized in regards to beautification and recycling environmentalism. We had to be more expansive and inclusive to meet basic needs.
So as a good, responsive funder, we said, “We’re going to select people who are in our general network already. But we’re going to ask them, “What are they doing in this moment?” And since we already knew them as great leaders, we said, “We’re going to give you general operating funds so that you can take care of the problems that you see now.”
So a group that might have run a block association that was doing like a block party and educating folks on keeping the block clean, they were checking in on the elderly on their block. Someone that might have had a community garden… they were giving out protective gear to their block association members and to folks on the block.
So we are allowing folks to show their full selves as leaders. We’re not all just one identity. We’re not one issue people. And so being there for New Yorkers that are leading on the block level, checking in on everyone from the young to the elderly, making sure folks have what they need– access to food, access to services– we wanted to provide our grantees the funding that was unrestricted to allow them to do what they needed to do. And then secondarily, also a platform to discuss these issues and make sure that the rest of New York City knew about it.
So, as you’re talking about what was happening in western Queens and the South Bronx, and COVID rates being extremely high, and Black and Latino folks dying at rates that were two or three times their white counterparts, we wanted to make sure that we told the stories of a need for attention, but also the resilience and the leadership that’s happening in those spaces so that you can invest in folks that are going to be there to help those communities come out of the pandemic better than they were before.
Citizens Committee is most valuable as a social capital network. As we identify leaders in place, as we have alumni, so to speak, that received grants from us in the past, staying in contact with them, understanding what their issues are, and giving them access to one another and access to decision-makers I think is the best thing that we can do.
Denver: That’s a very nice pivot, getting those organizations to repurpose but doing so in a way where you did not direct or dictate, but left it unrestricted and trusted them to do something that was going to be in the general vein you were hoping for.
With the need as great as it is, and it’s probably never been greater, at least anytime that I can remember, you are trying to address these challenges with limited resources. So how do you look to leverage those resources so that they will have the greatest impact on the communities and people you serve?
Rahsaan: It goes back to listening and trying to figure out if you can aggregate stories and narratives. I think Citizens Committee is most valuable as a social capital network. As we identify leaders in place, as we have alumni, so to speak, that received grants from us in the past, staying in contact with them, understanding what their issues are, and giving them access to one another and access to decision-makers I think is the best thing that we can do.
We almost give micro-grants locally in the United States of America, and I think people associate that with international giving. Those micro-grants validate. They help kind of recognize people that might not have been recognized on a broader level. And I think the job for Citizens Committee is to make sure that we stay in conversation with them and elevate these people and their concerns so that they can get addressed by politicians, decision-makers, institutions that keep the city thriving. And ultimately, if there are a group of leaders that are identifying the same problems, then we really want to make sure that we have a consistent focus on some of those issues so that they’re heard.
Denver: You’re almost like an on-ramp for a lot of these grassroots organizations that are doing great work, but with that on-ramp, they can go to bigger pots of money and will have been helped by you. Share with us a story about a grant or a micro-grant that you’ve made that has really made a difference to a local organization and the community that it serves.
Rahsaan: So it’s been rather incredible. I’ve only been on since March 16, so if we’re doing the math, I guess about five months now. Nicole Lee stands out. She is not just a nonprofit leader. She runs a nonprofit that focuses on the needs of her autistic teenager, a teenage son. And she is making sure that the issues that he faces have a platform, that folks recognize it, and that he can get access to services, and others like him can get access to services.
But she’s also a Black, single mother of a young man that has a disability. She’s also an entrepreneur. And being able to support her and where she lives, in Far Rockaway, Queens is also another neighborhood that if you go a couple of neighborhoods over, folks are doing much better socio-economically.
And there was a New York Times article that talked about how just blocks away in that area of Queens, you have COVID kind of decimating a community, versus one where it is not, and it had to do with class and race. And so being able to support her with some funding allowed her to do some great work in her community.
She’s been an outspoken advocate. Her son, Seth, was part of a surfing group. They did a surfing protest around George Floyd’s murder, and they all paddled out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean showing solidarity of: We need to take care of systemic racism, and it starts with us coming together right now.
So, it’s been amazing to be able to support her and support her voice, her story, her business opening during, I guess, phase two or three of the pandemic. And then her just talking in a way that got the attention of local elected officials and recognizing that they can’t forget Far Rockaway, Queens as they’re trying to help New York City through this pandemic.
So, Nicole, in particular, stands out, and we’re just so grateful to have folks like her that are associated with us because we can give her access to even more resources and more individuals so that her story can be heard.
Denver: That’s a great story. You know, you’re in so many different neighborhoods. You’re connected to so many different people, and as you said, aside from the grants, you kind of provide the social capital for people to connect and talk and share. Is there a story you’re encountering that is not being told, perhaps is being overlooked by most of the media?
Rahsaan: One story that I believe the media has paid some attention to, but I don’t think they recognized how difficult it is and how much it really requires intention and attention is: how small businesses led by Black and Latino folks are being affected by this pandemic, and it’s a double whammy.
One, people are getting sick, and you don’t feel safe opening your business, but then there’s a federal response, and assistance is out there. Hooray! But wait. Our relationship as people of color to banking institutions was already fraught before the pandemic. So, when you go to apply in the midst of the pandemic, you do not get the support that some of your other white colleagues might have gotten. And so there’s been some reporting on the high rejection rates for the Paycheck Protection Program that a lot of Black and Latino organizations got or businesses got.
And we were happy that some of our partners wanted to step up and support neighborhood businesses. We started a grant program that we call the Neighborhood Business Assistance Program where we’re giving grants from $5,000 to $10,000 to neighborhood businesses and prioritizing — not being exclusive to, but making sure that we take a really good hard look at — small businesses run by people of color, run by folks that have like a recent immigration status, or run by women so that we’re not reinforcing unintentionally some of the structural inequities that exist out there. And being able to reach those businesses and being able to help them out in this moment, and being able to pivot to do so… because we’ve supported leaders for a very long time, but having a lens of helping also entrepreneurs that are in communities because they’re going to be the engines that drive us to success.
As larger businesses leave New York City, as the ability to travel across different boroughs and different neighborhoods is reduced because people are trying to stay safe, having hyper-local economic opportunities and activities and leadership and education matters so much. We really believe that the Neighborhood Business Program is one way for us to help the whole neighborhood be a lot healthier than it would be without those economic drivers.
Systemic racism, institutional forces that reinforced disparities, are reinforced by assumptions that we make about one another and practices that, in aggregate, lead to disparate and different outcomes.
It really takes the intention of folks really focusing and looking at their own biases and assumptions. And whether they meant to be mean or bad doesn’t matter, but it’s thinking about not your intent, but your impact. And I think that’s what’s going to take us to a different place.
Denver: That’s a great point you make. And having spoken to a lot of people about this, too, hyper-local does seem to be the way that people are thinking. They are really beginning to get in touch with their local community. And as you said, the money flows through the existing system, which were the large banks. And the large banks basically showed favor to their existing customers who were predominately white customers, and it just reinforced the inequity of the system, intentionally or unintentionally. That is what the bottom line was.
Rahsaan: If I can say one more thing on that because I think that’s a really important point. When people talk about race and inequity, you have some of the images of like Bull Connor and the Civil Rights movement, or KKK and folks that are easily identifiable as bad actors. But systemic racism, institutional forces that reinforced disparities, are reinforced by assumptions that we make about one another and practices that, in aggregate, lead to disparate and different outcomes.
So, for example, I’m not saying that larger banks are bad, but the way folks have calculated risk has done things that do not favor people of color. And why have people of color been at the bottom of the totem pole? Well, it goes back to decades and centuries of being denied opportunities and legally locked out of opportunity.
So then when you open it up later and be like, “Oh, well, they’re high risk.” Well, why were they high risk? Because of the history that has gotten us there. And if we are really intentional and look at what we define as a risk, what do we see as opportunity? What do we see as safe? What do we see as dangerous? But like really examine and interrogate that, then that can help all of us have new opportunities and get to a new place and innovate.
But it really takes the intention of folks really focusing and looking at their own biases and assumptions. And whether they meant to be mean or bad doesn’t matter, but it’s thinking about not your intent, but your impact. And I think that’s what’s going to take us to a different place.
Denver: And I think a real danger going on right now is taking all that data, which has been skewed in the analog world, and putting it into the digital world. So artificial intelligence, which seems even sort of more objective, is going to reinforce these discrepancies and these biases and: garbage in, garbage out, and that’s what’s going to happen.
The other thing I thought about when you were talking is that my daughter went to business school. And one of the things about getting to business school, when we had a discussion about this, was that it was really important to visit the campus because they wanted to be sure that you were going to attend the school if you got accepted, and that was a tremendous sign that you would. But I remember having a conversation saying, “Boy, that is really biased,” because a lot of people can’t afford to get on an airplane and visit a campus in Chicago or California or whatever. Doesn’t mean they’re any less interested, but the way the system is weighted, what seems to be innocuous but it’s not, really will change the outcomes.
Rahsaan: Absolutely. We have to look at our different indicators. What are we measuring? What gets measured and what doesn’t get measured to figure out what success is? And you can really build a system that gives a consistent outcome, and that outcome can be consistently biased. And so, therefore, we just really have to ask a lot of questions and hopefully, we get there by not demonizing one another, but just thinking about what the different, alternative possibilities are and really taking them into consideration.
Denver: I had a guy on the show who runs a nonprofit organization. He’s a person of color, and he had a hard time getting a job. And he said one of the reasons he had difficulty getting any of the jobs is that his cover letters were really not as polished and crisp as they should be, and his grammar was inappropriate, and he recognized all that. He said though, “But does it count for anything that English is my sixth language?” And I thought that was wonderful.
Rahsaan: Perspective, right?
Denver: Isn’t that great? Yeah. So, what have you found to be some of the unique challenges that leaders of color face that are not encountered by those who are white?
Rahsaan: I think, staying on the theme of unintentional consequences, if you hang out with who you hang out with, if you go to school with who you went to school with, you create familiarity. Culture is created. Ease is created. So, unfortunately, the way we have been segregated, by the way social capital flows and who you’ve been exposed to, creates a little bit of a challenge for people of color to break into some of these networks and to some of these opportunities, to build trust.
You inherently trust someone that you spent decades with, or you know their father, their mother, their cousin, or you went to school with them. Building trust with someone that you’re just meeting and getting to know is a little bit fraught. And again, not blaming anyone, but I think it’s really important to recognize that.
And so I think certain leaders of color have to get over the trust hump, to a certain extent, and the familiarity hump so that they can get into a groove and a flow, but that affects everything from decisions made on a policy level and programmatic level, to fundraising, to any or all of the above.
I also think leaders of color, unfortunately, at times, have to make a choice of how much of their authentic self do they bring if they’re not sure how that’s going to be received by the folks they are interacting with. The Black Lives Matter moment has created a situation where individuals are saying “Black” a lot more, and being authentically Black is a big deal. And I’ve definitely seen a lot of Black leaders, on one level sigh a sigh of relief because they can show up and show more of their full selves, but also, at the same time, looking over their shoulder, recognizing: when is this moment going to end? Because they’ve been masking parts of who they are, not because those parts are bad, but because they don’t know how those parts will be accepted in the mainstream to survive. So that’s a really interesting moment that we’re in.
It begins and it ends with the data because what is measured is managed, and if you’re not measuring it, you can’t manage it. You can’t define success, you can’t reward, and you also can’t make pivots if you don’t know what’s going on. And I think in talking about race, you have to have a very explicit way to address it.
Denver: It really is. And that causes a lot of mental stress when you’re forced to do that. There’s no question about it.
As you know, so many organizations have started, I don’t know, anti-racism task forces or something along those veins, and we’re in the midst of discussions right now. And trying to figure out a way to approach it. You know this arena just about better than anyone else. What advice would you have for them?
Rahsaan: First and foremost, not to be self-congratulatory, but they should be happy. It is a huge achievement to make that declaration to do that. Now, some folks might say, “Well, it’s being on the bandwagon. This moment is obvious to do it,” but it’s still not easy. So, I think it’s extremely important for folks to recognize that what they’re doing isn’t necessarily obvious, and it’s not going to be easy, so celebrate it, and stay with it for a moment.
And after you’ve been able to celebrate it, I think the next step is to recognize you’ve got to do a lot of listening across the organization, across the community, your stakeholders, to understand what the temperature is, to understand where some of the need for greater information and education are going to come from because it’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. It’s not as easy as just declaring Juneteenth a holiday and putting up a Black Lives Matter statement, and then the work is done. You’re talking about undoing centuries of bias and centuries of culture that we all are susceptible to.
Racism is a virus. It’s out there. We’re all infected by it. The notion that folks need to be civilized and that they’re savages and that they’re educated, and then they’re folks that are just coming in from the wilderness. Those are all things that we’ve all been taught. You think about watching cowboys and Indians and John Wayne movies. It’s in the media, it’s in the way news is reported. And so, undoing it in our own practices is going to take a lot of intention and conversation.
The education piece…The third thing I would say is: make sure that white people get a chance to talk to white folks because if white people don’t have a chance to mess up the language and try it before they’re talking in front of people color, it’s hard to be on stage and to get everything right. So, have a chance to have trusting conversations with folks in spaces that feel a little bit safer.
And then I think, as we talked about before, declare it your victory. Celebrate yourselves; educate yourselves; have circles of conversation. And then getting to work means collecting data and then figuring out how you’re going to have that data impact the decisions you’re making on an ongoing basis.
For me, it begins and it ends with the data because what is measured is managed, and if you’re not measuring it, you can’t manage it. You can’t define success, you can’t reward, and you also can’t make pivots if you don’t know what’s going on. And I think in talking about race, you have to have a very explicit way to address it.
Denver: I would agree with everything you said. And to that last point, that data really needs to be measured and managed at the board level. This should be done at the board level, just the way your fundraising is done, and your program success is done. It’s got to be a big part of that agenda because if you don’t get the board involved, nothing’s really ever going to change.
Rahsaan: To that point, it’s really interesting. There are two tables and sometimes in organizations, especially younger ones, nonprofits sometimes don’t pay the largest salaries. So, the folks who are working on staff are kind of at the kids’ table proverbially, and then the board is at the grownup table. And within organizations, there’s always the kids’ table conversation and the grownup conversation. I think you’ve got to look to create “full family conversations” so that everybody’s on the same page. And I think that’s the opportunity of this moment because a lot of organizations have had the kids’ table conversation that have been happening, but bringing the board into it is the Holy Grail.
Denver: Well, the healthiest organizations are the ones that have one conversation and not six conversations.
Finally, Rahsaan, how concerned are you about the future of New York City? There are people out there who say, “It’s going to take many years, maybe even decades for the city to come back to where it was.” What’s your take?
Rahsaan: I am concerned for New York City. And I also know that New York City is resilient, and I heard someone, a historian, talk, and she said, “Cities are resilient.” Cities have endured. They’re an enduring institution. Sometimes they do better and sometimes they do worse, but they do persist. And in that resilience, and I think it comes from density, there’s always an opportunity for something to happen that can be extremely positive.
So there has been a lot of flight from New York City. There are folks and companies that are leaving, and we don’t know when they’re coming back. But I also think that that creates opportunities for local leaders like the ones that we, at Citizens Committee, support to rise up and to fill in those spaces that have been left open by other folks that might have crowded it out.
I also talked to another friend mine, and they said they hope that New York City can go back to the way New York City used to be. And not so much from not having economic opportunity or from a public safety standpoint, but much more from the different communities had their own different personalities. And you really felt when you were in the Lower East Side, you understood what it was to be in East Harlem or Washington Heights or into Bedstuy. And there was a certain personality and a culture to it. I hope that this provides an opportunity because of entrepreneurship and because of leadership that’s local, and folks having an opportunity to influence and take control of their own destiny, that New York City can rise in a way that’s beautiful and that’s more equitable. And that some of the disparities and the problems that were built in in the last few decades go away.
Denver: And it also sounds like what you’re saying is– more interesting, you know, with so many national chains coming into the city. I had a friend of mine who came in to visit. We were walking around Times Square and he said, “You know what? This is like Kansas City.” You know what I mean? So you’ll lose a little bit of the heart and the soul and the grittiness of a city when it becomes commoditized along those lines.
Where can listeners learn more about Citizens Committee for New York City, and maybe provide some financial support so you can continue to grow your work?
Rahsaan: Well, Denver, again, thank you for this opportunity to share with your listeners what we’re doing. You can visit Citizens Committee’s website, www.citizensnyc.org. You have an opportunity to donate there. We have a lot of great initiatives. In particular, we’re focusing a lot right now on neighborhood grants to support local neighborhood leaders and neighborhood business grants that are helping local neighborhood entrepreneurs. And so, Denver, thank you for this opportunity, and I really appreciate spending this time with you.
Denver: Well, fantastic. Thanks, Rahsaan. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Rahsaan: Great. Thanks so much.
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