Andrew Friedman is co-director of Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based community-based organization founded in 1997 on the belief that the center of leadership must be within the community. Since then, the organization has grown dramatically and now includes over 600 members, a member-elected board composed of low-income community residents, and a staff of twelve. Over the past 5 years, MRBW has achieved many improvements to the lives of Bushwick residents. They pushed New York City to conform to federal law and provide translation services to non-English speakers in food stamp, welfare, and Medicaid offices, and got dozens of neighborhood employers to pay more than $100,000 in illegally withheld wages to garment workers.
Their programs have also included education efforts aimed at detecting, preventing and treating lead poisoning, and the founding of the neighborhood’s first designated center for lesbians and gay men. MRBW’s Youth Power Project recently helped redirect $53 million of New York City's budget away from the expansion of juvenile jail facilities and toward youth development projects.
What made you become an activist? When was the first time you thought you wanted to work for social change?
I think that my work for social and economic justice is motivated by a sense that our society is deeply unfair, and that far too many people are denied opportunities to develop their skills and to actualize their aspirations. Unless, we work to change this, it is not likely to change.
I first became interested in social change work as a teenage punk rocker in Washington, DC. The older musicians were very focused on challenging the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America and in South Africa. I learned a lot at the concerts and fundraisers I went to, and, as it turns out, I was a more effective organizer than I was a bass guitarist.
Your work has largely been concerned with the immigrant community in Brooklyn. In the last couple of years, you've seen a new population moving into the neighborhood. How has that affected the people you represent? Are you concerned about gentrification in Bushwick?
Gentrification in Bushwick is a major concern. Rents are rising rapidly, and many landlords are aggressively moving to replace longtime tenants with artists, students, or others who can pay more rent. Many members of MRBW are nervous that they will be pushed out of the neighborhood they have been living in and working to improve for many years.
Make the Road By Walking has worked to ensure that government services and documents are made available in languages other than English, especially with food stamps, social security and Medicaid. But President Bush has apparently reversed his position and has supported an English-only amendment in the Senate immigration reform bill. How might that effect MRBW's accomplishments, and what is the organization doing now in terms of government services and non-English speaking residents?
Over the past ten years, MRBW has successfully challenged national origin discrimination within NYC and we have won expanded access to translation and interpretation services for the close to 25% of NYers who are still in the process of learning English. In particular, the City now provides comprehensive language access services at Welfare, Food Stamp and Medicaid Centers, Schools, and at public hospitals. We are currently working with a broad coalition of groups to draft legislation to require similar services at the Department of Housing Preservation and development. Also, we are working hard to convince Mayor Bloomberg to make a real investment in English as a Second Language classes, so that all NYers have an opportunity to learn English. Such training drastically increases people’s earning power, and generates new tax revenue for the government.
The English-only provision of the Senate immigration bill, and the President’s support of it, has been deeply disappointing to us at MRBW. We believe that English-only laws hinder effective government, hurt all Americans, and, in particular, lead to discrimination against immigrants.
You've also worked to ensure better pay for garment workers in Brooklyn, with $100,000 recently paid out to illegally underpaid employees. How prevalent is the problem now in New York? Are there other manufacturers you're targeting? How many workers in New York are in the position of working for substandard wages in textile or other factories?
MRBW has been confronting employers who exploit their workers for the past ten years. We have helped workers win almost 2 million dollars in illegally withheld wages, and we have helped workers organize unions at a number of shops as well. Our current efforts focus on the retail sector, and the widespread wage and hour violations that characterize retail shops in our community and around the city. We are currently leading a community boycott against an Associated Supermarket in Bushwick that owes its workers over 1 million dollars in back wages.
Wage and hour violations are very common in many industries. Tens of thousands of restaurant, garment, light construction, landscaping, retail and factory workers have their rights to minimum wage and overtime pay violated every day. It is crucial for these workers to organize to defend themselves, and it is crucial for government to get significantly more aggressive about enforcing labor law.
MRBW launched the Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick Empowerment project. What has GLOBE been up to, and what has the neighborhood reaction been?
Overall, community members have been very supportive of MRBW’s GLOBE Project. Homophobia is still a major problem in our community, but GLOBE has been very effective at providing opportunities for people to develop a world view that supports equality, challenges discrimination and celebrates the contributions of all community members.
GLOBE is currently working closely with 3 neighborhood high schools to create institutional reforms that ensure that these schools are safe and supportive environments for all students and LGBTQ students, in particular. Also, GLOBE has begun to challenge rampant workplace discrimination against transgender workers in our community.
You spearheaded an effort to redirect $53 million in the NYC budget from expansion of juvenile jail facilities to youth development projects. What sorts of projects have been funded? Will that remain as a budget item in future years?
We succeeded at convincing Mayor Bloomberg to pull this money out of his capital budget. The money did not go to building more juvenile detention centers in communities like Brownsville. This particular budget issue has not come up for the past few years, but the fact that young people in our communities are often treated like criminals is still a problem. We continue to support young people organizing themselves to promote effective and respectful schools, access to excellent after-school, college preparation, recreational and cultural activities.
If resources weren't an issue, what would you like to see happen in Bushwick?
Even though MRBW is based in Bushwick, our members come from all over NYC. We believe that we cannot win justice for one low-income, immigrant community in NYC without winning it citywide. We would like to see a New York City where everyone has an opportunity to realize his or her dreams. That would mean that workers would receive decent wages and have their right to organize into unions respected; that immigrants would not face discrimination; that the public schools would prepare students to go on to college; that basic government services would be accessible to the millions of NYers who are still learning English; that all NYers’ sexual identity would be respected and valued; and that low-income adults would have access to job training and educational opportunities.
We’ve obviously got a lot of work to do, but our membership base is growing, we’ve got great allies, and we’re willing to work hard.