Citizens for NYC Sustainability

Jeremy Lehrer

The influence of the Citizens Committee for New York City is evident in communities across NYC. The group has assisted on a diverse array of initiatives, including an urban farm in the South Bronx with fruit trees, a chicken coop and vegetable plots; a maker space in Staten Island that helps local families learn to repair appliances and electronics; and projects to beautify Harlem’s scenic blocks of lush trees and brownstones. These provide locals with sustenance for body, mind and spirit while improving their well-being, lowering their carbon footprint and helping to build connections among neighbors.

“We help New Yorkers come together to improve their neighborhoods, and therefore improve New York City, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable,” says Rahsaan Harris, the organization’s chief executive officer.

Carvery Community Garden. Courtesy, Citizens Committee

Founded in 1975 to support low-income residents throughout NYC, the Citizens Committee offers micro grants, up to $10,000 each, that allow neighborhood groups to contribute to residents’ well-being, pride and community cohesion. It organizes a youth leadership council that provides mentorship and camaraderie for young people. And it offers a spectrum of workshops—on community organizing, navigating government bureaucracy, fundraising and more—enabling emerging leaders to accomplish their goals. Sustainability is integral to the group’s ethos, with grant categories ranging from public school “green teams” to “Reduce, Reuse and Repair” initiatives. (A complete listing of grantees is in its annual report [PDF].

Rahsaan Harris. Courtesy, Citizens Committee

In 2019, the committee channeled $2.3 million into grants and other endeavors for 593 organizations in 164 neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Harris, who has a PhD in public and urban policy, is its first Black chief executive officer and started his role on March 16, just as the City was awakening to the urgency of the pandemic. Many of the communities that his organization supports are in neighborhoods where BIPOC residents were severely impacted by the pandemic. Harris says that as a person of color, he can be more effective in the group’s mission of “having an awareness of the communities that we're working with, lifting them up, and lifting up their voices so that they are not seen as a minority—or as an ‘other’—but as part of the fabric of New York City.”

As the coronavirus spread throughout NYC in the spring, Harris and his staff surveyed grantees and program alums to shape the organization’s pandemic plan. In response to the findings, the committee introduced new neighborhood and small-business grants to help local leaders and organizations continue their operations, pay employees and pivot in the time of crisis. Queens-based Together We Can, for example, redirected to providing food and check-ins for area residents.

Quincy Community Garden. Courtesy, Citizens Committee

The Citizens Committee also launched a hub for Covid-19 grants and resources, featuring a series of ongoing discussions. The “Covid Conversations,” broadcast live on Facebook and available on YouTube, have showcased pioneers like Karen Washington, cofounder of the Bronx-based Garden of Happiness, which shifted to distributing its fresh-grown produce to residents. Other recent forums focused on relations between police and local communities and on the halting of youth services programs because of social-distancing mandates. “What does that mean in a moment where opportunity is needed, but services aren’t available and racial and social tensions are high?” asks Harris. “Our goal is to make sure that we elevate these conversations to folks who are decision makers.”

STooPS. Courtesy, Citizens Committee

At a time when anti-racist work is so essential, Harris sees the Citizens Committee and its grant recipients making important contributions to the effort. “We want everyone to have economic opportunity,” he says. “We want people to be well—mind, body and spirit. If we can find a way to take that energy and work together, we can make a difference. Using our platforms and the voices of our different grantee partners to spread that message and their vision of New York City to create understanding and togetherness—I think that is the opportunity in this ‘George Floyd moment.’”

For more information on the Citizens Committee for New York City, visit citizensnyc.org.

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