By Maria Mottola
Executive Director, New York Foundation
Construction sites are common enough around New York and unlikely to draw much attention—so it must have seemed unusual to see a large group on a guided tour of construction sites in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. On July 28th, I joined colleagues, community leaders, and grantee partners for a bus tour that began in Harlem, continued through Highbridge, and went on to Newburgh, Yonkers, and Poughkeepsie. The tour was organized by Community Voices Heard, a membership organization of over 35,000 low-income families with chapters throughout the state. The purpose of the tour was to highlight how federal stimulus dollars are being spent in different low-income communities. Where is stimulus funding working and what still needs to be done?
In February 2009, President Obama signed the largest single spending bill in United States history—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). A response to the economic crisis, the stimulus package had several goals: to create and preserve jobs, to spur economic activity, and to foster transparency in government spending. The stimulus package was meant to assist those most impacted by the recession; encourage investing in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructures for long-term economic benefits; and stabilize state and local government budgets to avoid reductions in essential services.
On the 28th, we met people whose jobs had been created with stimulus funds, residents of public housing whose buildings were being repaired with federal dollars, and community leaders who are acting as monitors to make sure that stimulus dollars are being used in ways that meet the goals set by President Obama in 2009.
A wide range of advocacy groups and foundation partners are pressing for maximum openness and equitable stimulus spending. In New York, the New York Stimulus Alliance is ensuring that the economic recovery lifts up all New Yorkers, especially those in communities of color and distressed areas. Members of the Alliance include: Common Cause New York, Community Voices Heard, VOICE Buffalo, the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment, Make the Road New York, the NYC AIDS Housing Network, the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo, Syracuse United Neighbors, Good Old Lower East Side, and the New York Immigration Coalition. In addition, Good Jobs New York adds its policy research expertise to analyze and relay relevant data and information in order to assist community organizations demanding equitable development in their neighborhoods. The New York Stimulus Alliance receives support from the New York Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute (OSI).
Last year, OSI issued a request for proposals to support alliances of state-based organizations working to assure transparency, equity, and accountability in the economic recovery. Alliances are active in eight states: California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin. These alliances blend grassroots organizations—especially those led by people of color and rooted in communities of color—with policy and research organizations that have knowledge of state budget and fiscal priority processes. In the spring, Good Jobs First brought together 100 representatives of the alliances to strengthen their connections to one another, share case studies and successes, and increase in-state expertise.
The New York Stimulus Alliance collaborates with state and national research and policy advocacy organizations, such as the Center for Social Inclusion (whose Director, Maya Wiley, spoke at a recent Philanthropy New York briefing), Opportunity Agenda, the Kirwan Institute, and the Advancement Project, all of which are funded to do stimulus-related work nationally and have the capacity to focus on the details of the city and state processes. The Alliance’s work includes educational presentations and public forums, monitoring media coverage, and producing media segments. The Alliance researches and monitors the use of stimulus funds and disseminates its findings to community members, elected officials, and other key advocates. To win an equitable distribution of funds, the Alliance engages in direct negotiations and advocacy with local and state government agencies. It has provided in-depth training about the stimulus package to hundreds of community leaders throughout the state, and these leaders serve as spokespeople on the issue.
On our bus tour, we spoke with community leaders who had high hopes for what the federal stimulus package could offer: new job-creation strategies, improvements in housing conditions, and expanded transportation and other infrastructure projects. Today, their feelings are a mix of relief and disappointment. Standing outside a large public housing project in Highbridge where stimulus dollars had been used to replace roofs that had been leaking badly for years, residents felt that it was about time—but they were concerned that more funding would be necessary to really bring the building up to code. Chris Keeley, who staffs the Alliance, said its members are taking stock of where stimulus dollars have helped low-income communities and where they have fallen short; the consensus is that much more is needed. He repeated a quote from the Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Dean Baker, who said about the stimulus spending, “You can’t put out a forest fire with a few buckets of water.”
Foundations interested in more information about stimulus spending and what’s happening around the country should check out the States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery (STAR) Coalition, which helps state and local organizations mobilize to ensure that ARRA is implemented in a way that is transparent, accountable, fair, and effective. You can visit the STAR Coalition’s website at www.accountablerecovery.org. For more information about the New York Stimulus Alliance, contact Chris Keeley at ChrisNYSA at gmail dot com.
Maria Mottola has been the Executive Director of the New York Foundation since 2003; she served as a Program Officer from 1994 to 2002. Prior to joining the Foundation, from 1989 to 1994 Ms. Mottola was Executive Director of the City Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a housing advocacy organization that promotes the reform of New York City’s Housing Court. As the Task Force’s founding director, she managed the group’s transition from a volunteer activist campaign to a fully staffed and funded organization. From 1984 to 1989, Ms. Mottola was the Director of Neighborhood Programs and a community organizer at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a settlement house on the East Side of Manhattan. Ms. Mottola has taught community organizing at New York University’s School of Social Work and has been an adjunct instructor at the Hunter College Graduate School of Urban Affairs and Planning since 1996. She was a Co-Chair of the Neighborhood Funders Group, a national affinity group, from 2003 to 2006, and is currently a member of Philanthropy New York’s Philanthropy Connects Committee. Ms. Mottola received her undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts at the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Social Work from Fordham University.