A Statement from the President & Executive Director, Gregory J. Morris
BLACK LIVES MATTER
A little over a week ago, Isaacs Center began a conversation at our staff’s Virtual Town Hall about another unconscionable act of violence on a black body. That the images were recorded, that the recipient of this harm was defenseless, that the violence resulted in a fatal conclusion was neither unimaginable nor unprecedented. The lifespan of our country is pockmarked by memories of those who have died by a police officer’s knee, forearm, or bullet. #SayTheirNames. What happened on a Monday evening in Minneapolis is part of this country’s lengthy narrative of black suffering. The persistence of this suffering over 400 years, and the ancillary and state-sponsored machinations that have served to enforce and perpetuate it [Black codes and Jim Crow laws, redlining, the genesis of the police force in the U.S., stop-and-frisk, the school-to-prison pipeline] is often defined and catalogued as racism, but racism alone cannot account for the brutality directed upon black bodies like that of George Floyd, or the equally historic distancing of a collective American self from its responsibility for this brutality. To give language to this long immoral arc, to bend it even slightly toward justice, we must reckon not just with our racism but with our anti-blackness. It is this ‘anti-blackness’ that we are calling out when we, as an institution, say BlackLivesMatter.
Recently, I joined my partner and our two college-age children at a protest at Barclays Center. What I experienced that night is unlike any of my other family members because they experienced it as people of color, and I did not. [The power and privilege associated with being white serves as both shield and cloaking device – to shield me from the complexities of thinking about race as an identity – which people of color cannot shield themselves from – and to allow me to hide in plain sight when faced with any real or perceived threat to my body – which people of color cannot.] What I remember of that night is marching past cars frozen on Fort Greene Place [their drivers honking in unison with the chants] and long streams of police-issued pepper spray parting protesters. Later that night, my partner and our children were separated in the crowd. Between us were batons and riot gear, and I’m seeing them holding onto each other, knowing that the sense of racial belonging I have known in my lifetime is as foreign to them as their racial trauma is to me.
HOW OUR WORK INTERSECTS WITH THE MOVEMENT
Our mission, “to promote social and physical well-being and encourage growth, self-reliance and dignity throughout every stage of life” is both aspirational and subject to interpretation. It is used by us now to account for our commitments to a specific set of activities – meal preparation and delivery, case management, education and recreational activities, and workforce development – that are planned to increase the independence of older adults and young adults who are out-of-school and out-of-work, and to improve academic outcomes for children. The development of Theories of Change has helped us to connect our desired impact on the lives of the people we serve through those activities. This effort has been complemented by an improved focus on data collection and performance management. These are laudable and life-changing commitments, and yet, they seem, increasingly, and desperately, out-of-sync with this moment in time best described as a ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ in our Black and Brown communities.
Police violence and COVID-19 are public health crises, and they are the direct consequence of systemic oppression. If we are to activate our mission in support of “self-reliance and dignity” we must take stands on behalf of the communities we serve, in support of our sector and the social safety net, in opposition to racism and anti-blackness, in recognition of the failures of our past, aware of the possibilities of ‘this’ present, with an eye toward a just tomorrow.
Here are the two actions we have taken with this mission in mind:
Isaacs Center co-authored this letter: Invest In Human Services, Not Over-Policing Our Communities. The letter points to the cuts in the FY2021 Executive Budget to crucial programs and services for communities of color, immigrants, and low-income New Yorkers hit hardest by COVID-19- while maintaining funding for the NYPD. It articulates the position that it is our work that keeps communities safe, and not the NYPD, “an institution that too often fails to protect and serve, and disproportionately harms, these exact communities.” As of today, there are 194 signatories to the letter. While that is impressive, it is not lost on me that a letter is not going to fundamentally change our City’s budget, end institutionalized racism, or repair broken organizational cultures, but it is a step forward, out of the shadows. We will make the commitment to identifying where the resources will come from to support the stances we take, and to build the capacities (and muscles) to ensure that those resources are sustainable.
Isaacs Center co-authored this letter: Human Services Workers are Essential Workers. As of today, 207 organizations and 1,500 individuals have signed on. The reliance that we place (and our City places) on our #alwaysessential workforce, mostly Black and Brown people to deliver on the commitments that we make to New Yorkers in need, and ultimately, to preserve the social safety net, while jeopardizing their own health and safety, could not be more clear. It is also clear that despite periodic hourly wage adjustments, we have not (and the City has not) provided the #alwaysessential workforce with the financial relief and long-term economic support that is necessary to build a better future for themselves (and for the City’s long-term recovery.) As I have said about food delivery to our neighbors since New York Pause, or this summer’s programs for kids, or the re-opening of our facilities, we cannot wait for others to tell what us what to do or when to do it- we must find the resources, or reallocate the ones we have, to always meet the needs of our essential workforce.
HOW WE WILL MOVE FORWARD
I admit to you that because of my white fragility, I fight the urge every day to restore my equilibrium by “shutting down and/or tuning out.” By holding my hands over my ears to block out the sounds of the helicopters overhead, or the sirens, or assuming that because of my lengthy career in the human services, I am exempt because I have done enough already. [Our sector is not immune to the racism, complacency, and the perpetuation of the racist systems and structures that BlackLivesMatter calls out.] I have a responsibility to strengthen my awareness of these systems and structures, to let what I learn on my own and what I learn from you guide the decisions I make as an ally, to sit in the discomfort of knowing that I will make mistakes in my efforts to be an ally.
On the day of George Floyd’s funeral, I am writing to our community to express my desire to rebuild our organization from the ground up to reflect anti-racist and anti-oppression values and principles, to reframe our service delivery and our impact through a racial equity lens, to create a diverse and inclusive culture, and to ensure wage equity.
I do not anticipate that the journey that we will take together will be easy, or that there won’t be missteps along the way. No less of an authority than my son told me, “It’s like we’re climbing a mountain, and the mountain keeps getting higher and higher.” But the debt that is owed to those who have suffered requires nothing less than the impossible. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”