“Rob and I were planning an inaugural wedding in San Diego on January 20th, but I guess that’s out for now.” He paused, a look of determination crossing his face. “Hey, I’ve been in that battle a long time, and there’s no stopping us now. We’ll get there, I’m sure of it!” he raised his cider mug in triumph. “Tonight, there’s too much to celebrate to dwell on what didn’t happen. We’ve had to do that for so long, it’s hard not to, but tonight is celebration time! I can get back to work tomorrow, but tonight we’re keeping it happy. Like you said, who could believe a Black man is gonna be president of the United States! And that he read the nation’s mood so brilliantly!” He took another sip of the cider. “He sure did his assessment better than we started out, don’t you think?”
They both laughed, the memory as warm as the mugs they held in their hands. They were taken back to 1990 and their first macro organizing class and their dreaded group assignment, a community assessment of their own choosing. Sitting together in a small classroom, there were four of them in the group: Ellis; Kay; Esperanza, an older Puerto Rican woman who’d gone back to college after her children were grown and had completed her undergraduate degree in three years; and Jill, a quiet White woman whose luminescent brown eyes grew tight only when Kay and Ellis argued, which was often.
“So we chose Harlem to look at. There’s so many oppressive conditions there, I say we just take poverty and racism and that’s enough. I mean, look at how poverty’s grown over the last 10 years!” Ellis was as emphatic as he was assured as the group members sat down to meet for the first time.
“Well, yeah, sure, but couldn’t we slow down a bit and find out why we chose Harlem? It’s not the only community in New York, it’s not even the only Black neighborhood. We must have our own reasons. Couldn’t we start there, at least a little?” While less assured, her voice trembling slightly, all the group members noted Kay was no less emphatic in her request.
“You’re telling me about Black neighborhoods?” Ellis gave Kay a withering look.
“I wasn’t telling anybody anything. I was just trying to slow down and learn about each other and why this assignment might matter in some special way to each of us.” She looked at the others for support. “Maybe we all can agree on a focus together after that.”
“Whatever.” Ellis continued to stare at Kay. “I just hope we move on to the work sooner rather than later. Racial oppression isn’t solved with talk-talk-talk.”
Esperanza spoke up. “So let’s take a minute or two, okay? I chose to look at Harlem because it’s pretty close to my community, East Harlem, and my daughter’s first middle school was there. We could even walk to school from our apartment, but the school was so bad I had her transferred out in a month. That was 10 years ago. Now I see that the cuts in education keep coming, but they keep talking about school reform, too. I want to see if that school has gotten any better.” Without speaking, Jill got up and wrote schools on the blackboard.
Kay spoke next. “I worked for four years in a homeless shelter, and some of the staff I got to be friends with come from Harlem. They told me about what a great place it was, with the Apollo Theatre, restaurants like Sylvia’s, the architecture, the famous churches with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. It also has one of the largest numbers of homeless shelters in the city. So I thought I could learn more about how people handle homelessness, even with all the poverty and drugs the papers are writing about. People up here may have answers about how to get people into permanent housing that we could learn from, I’m sure.” Jill paused, then wrote the homeless and local resources.
“I already know Harlem. I don’t need a tourist’s trip to visit there. Walk away from 125th Street and you’ll see problems galore: poor housing, men and women out of work, kids with nothing to do except hang out and end up in jail. Poverty goes up, prison levels go up, too. Like they say, when America gets a cold, the Black community gets pneumonia. Hey, the issues in Harlem come from the conditions of oppression created over the last 350 years. If we’re going to help young people, whatever we do up here better deal with that reality.” Jill wrote poverty and oppression and prisonson the board. Wordlessly, Ellis got up and added youth.
Jill was the last to speak. “My best friend in high school lived in Harlem until she was 13. Then something happened to her brother and her family moved to Long Island. She told me she was happy to be with so much green all around her, but she missed the friends and family members she saw on the street every day. Her family came back to church there every Sunday, a two-hour commute each way. It always amazed me that she never complained about the trip.” She paused, and looked keenly at her group members. “I thought it would be great to find out why.” Kay wroteconnections and people next to local resources.
“So now what do we do? The whole community is too big to work on.” Ellis looked at the blackboard. “Youth, schools, oppression, poverty, homelessness, and the people and resources to fight back. How do we narrow this to make it mean something?”
“And make it manageable so we get it done?” added Esperanza.
Their first meeting broke up soon after, the three women pleased with their progress, the lone man frustrated that they were still talking and not doing something. Much to Ellis’s dismay, it would take them a month more of meeting together, twice a week, to make their project both meaningful and manageable. Looking back, he would later say it was one of the most painful group experiences of his time at school. It also was, he readily admitted, one of the best learning experiences.