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Posted under: Opinion

How Our Communities Can Thrive If Given The Right Tools

Now is the time for us to come together as a nation of builders, organizers, activists, creators and entrepreneurs.

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A young 8-year-old boy sits down in a barbershop on Malcolm X Blvd in Harlem and the owner walks over to him and hands over a book for him to read. The barber tells the young boy that his hair cut is free, so long as he reads while he waits. The owners of Harlem Masters Barbershop are recipients of our organization's latest round of neighborhood business grants.

Throughout 2020, our non-profit Citizens Committee for New York City (CitizensNYC), has been able to give out nearly $1.2M in direct cash grants, impacting more than 87,685 residents in 122 neighborhoods across all five boroughs. Most of our grantees are receiving grants for the first time.

Today, we are one of the nation’s oldest micro-funding organizations. We have learned that every act of kindness, love and thoughtfulness makes us stronger, especially if everybody is doing their part.

At CitizensNYC we are working to support our neighbors who have been most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. From Queensbridge to Far Rockaway and the South Bronx we recognize the disparities that our underserved communities face, but we also believe in people power and that we are more than capable of rebuilding our city again.

Our network is a village of small business owners, activists, neighborhood artists, innovators and community gatekeepers who continually step up to improve the quality of life for the people around them.

Ironically, when our organization was first founded, New York City was mired in one of the worst financial crises in its history, back in the 1970s. Federal and local government services were cut and businesses were closing their doors, much like what we’re experiencing today. But that same circumstance is what gave birth to our organization. That’s the moment where we saw the power of community leaders and their ability to help fill in the gaps where social services and government systems were falling short.

I assumed the role of CEO at CitizensNYC in March of this year, when the global pandemic was emerging and mandated lockdowns were just starting to take shape. Already since joining the organization, we’ve seen diverse and dynamic ideas bloom across the five boroughs during the pandemic, and headed by grassroots leaders who are looking to advance real solutions.

In the months ahead, it is going to be crucial for decision-makers to step out boldly and support our neighborhood leaders, and for corporations and nonprofit leaders alike to take the action we need so that all are safe and have access to opportunity.

Now is the time for us to come together as a nation of builders, organizers, activists, creators and entrepreneurs. We must get comfortable listening to, and lifting up, the authentic experiences of one another — so that we’re able to rebuild a stronger and more self-sustaining future. Most New Yorkers wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. That’s why our organization is #Allin4NYC.

Together, we must all learn from our history, so that we can move forward together.

As we rebuild together, our organization plans to hold local institutions and elected officials accountable to the communities we serve. In the meantime, we will continue to invest in grassroots leaders who might not otherwise be presented with the social capital necessary to improve their neighborhoods. We’ve learned that if given the right tools, our neighbors will find their voice, small businesses can continue to be the lifeline that our local economy needs and we the people will be better equipped to take control of our future destiny.

We encourage you to do anything you feel will improve your neighborhoods as well, so long as it is done in a safe, socially distanced way. Will you join the movement?

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Dr. Harris has more than 20 years of experience leading nonprofits and international grant making, partnering with communities to make local investments and promote community improvement. He is a transformative leader and role model who has been a New York City public school teacher, board member of various Harlem-based organizations, devoted Big Brothers Big Sister mentor, and Peace Corps environmental education volunteer in South America. He received his doctorate in Public and Urban Policy from the New School, where his dissertation was on understanding how socio-economic diversity in the African-American community affects their philanthropic interests. He also holds a Master in Management and High School Science Education from New York University and Columbia, respectively, and a Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University.