Mark Winston Griffith’s first brush with civil activism came in the 1980s. Wielding axe handles and anger, a few men from an organization called Black Men Against Crack forcefully closed down the crime-riddled drug dens of Bed-Stuy, as Griffith, a third-generation native, watched. It was a move he didn’t condone, but understood: it was for the community. That mentality drove him, in the early 1990s, to co-found the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, which became the country’s fastest-growing black-owned urban credit union, and then head the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, among other community-based efforts. Now, Griffith is the executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, an organizing project he founded in 2012. And, he says, its mission is simple: to strength and flex central Brooklyn’s history of activism, which he compares to an atrophied muscle, in the face of strained police relations, municipal shortcomings, and skyrocketing prices.
Griffith sat down with BKLYNR to discuss this idea of local power, how it can change a neighborhood already undergoing rapid change, and what that means for his home.
In 2009, you unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2009 on the Working Families Party ticket, but the experience inspired you to start the Brooklyn Movement Center. What was it about the election that inspired you to do that?
In the midst of the campaign, I had to knock on tens of thousands of doors. It made me realize that campaigns are one-off things. You go to someone’s house, you knock on their door, you tell them what you’re going to do, and all they have to do after that is vote for you. It wasn’t a revelation, but it occurred to me all this energy and time, and literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, were going towards a single election … [and] after the election was over, there wasn’t much for people to do after that. The democracy seemed to be ass-backwards.
It left me frustrated and made me want to honor what I said what I was going to do in the campaign, which was to be part of a direct movement, getting people involved in issues and building leadership and having them determine what the priorities are, and have them be involved in changing practice and policy in their neighborhood and throughout New York City.
What were people talking to you about?
Gentrification was a part of the conversation, but it wasn’t as big as it is now. People focused in on the failing education system; the fact that young people didn’t have something to do. There was this sense of a lack of agency over decisions being made and frustration over the political system. They talked about everything from the police and public safety to crime and housing. There was a concern about people being displaced because of the foreclosure crisis, but also this idea that the neighborhood was becoming increasingly unaffordable. The underlying thread was the expectation that someone up high, some policy maker, was going to make these decisions for folks.
When you’re running an organization, the impulse is always to focus on an individual. What I’m trying desperately to do with the Brooklyn Movement Center is to have organizing in central Brooklyn move beyond personalities, move beyond elected officials, move beyond any one person and build a system where leadership is grown and developed and nurtured very broadly. We identify issues, we build campaigns, and people figure out strategies and figure out ways to change what’s happening locally and across the city on their own. At the end of the day, local people are making decisions based on their own self, individual and collective self-interest.
We live in a time where there is a lot of political apathy and cynicism. Perhaps enough doubt to even question community organizing. So, did you find that people caught onto those ideas of creating leadership and building power easily?
Yes and no. People catch onto this idea of building power. When you look at the history of black communities and central Brooklyn, you see, over a period of years, how there’s so much self-help and self-determination efforts that happened through churches and civic associations. I think what happened in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s is that all that energy was sort of dampened by these organizations that were designed to be these places where middle-class people play this interpreter roll, where they help pacify folks and tell them everything is going to be OK, but they really do not organize them, do not bring them together to put pressure on the status quo to change policy.
You’re making a distinction between activism with community organization.
Yes. Things have changed a little bit in the past year with the Black Lives Matter movement, but, in general, what you’ve seen is these episodic outrages where something will happen and people will react. I don’t think there has been, over the last 20 or 30 years, activism tied to some long-term, strategic thinking and specific policies that change the system. The missing element is a way for local people to not just be served by these organizations, but tell these organizations what their interests are.
With BMC’s street harassment and police accountability programs—issues that affect a lot of people—I bet there is a lot of energy and desire among people to become involved if there is the opportunity. Have you found that to be the case?
A tenet of organizing is that, at the end of the day, it’s about people’s self-interest. We’re not looking for people to come together out of a sense of charity or a feeling of obligation, but out of a sense of your own self-preservation and improvement of your own life. That’s where we see things become most passionate. When it comes to police accountability, it’s true that not everyone involved are people who have been the target of police harassment. But everyone involved gets it. They understand how this affects them and how this gets to the core of what kind of society they want to be a part of, and to the core of what they see as social justice.
The announcement of the indictment in the Eric Garner created a lot of energy around police harassment and accountability. But the shootings of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu made it seem inappropriate to criticize the NYPD, creating a really confusing moment for the Black Lives Matter movement. What do you think comes next?
One of the reasons why we’ve had this kind of movement in New York City is that we have a different city council and a different mayor. Some of the things we’re talking about around police accountability would not have happened under Bloomberg. And so you had city councilors who were primed, and then once the police officers got shot, a lot of them got more scared. They were no longer emboldened. But I think the energy is still very much alive.
We are putting together a working group, in the same way we have around street harassment and food. The working group is where the leadership begins. The working group is going to focus on the Right to Know Act, which is a set of bills in City Council. The working group will be organizing so there is enough public awareness around those measures, doing things like “know your rights” trainings, organizing potential Copwatches, which is an effort to videotape police actions so there is a record of what’s happening.
The working group is a way for local people to be involved in the short-term and long-term struggle, which is to bring dignity to the lives of the people here and hold police accountable, not as a anti-police measure, but as a way—and I know people are going to roll their eyes when they hear this—of improving relationships between local people and the police. At the end of the day, the police work for us. They’re getting tax dollars. We want safety … we just don’t want criminalization to be institutionalized and wove into the attitudes of police officers. All of this is to the larger agenda is to have a healthier neighborhood, to build community.
In addition to police accountability and street harassment, the Brooklyn Movement Center has active campaigns on food justice and improving local schools. Those are pretty hot-button topics, especially in a neighborhood like Bed-Stuy. But what do you think that says about life in the neighborhood, and the issues that people are dealing with?
I don’t think those are the most important things, necessarily. Those are the things that got traction. People came together and said, “We want to do this.” One thing we were going to tackle was civic engagement and electoral activism. But we never got the traction. We do parent organizing, but we’re only touching the surface with the kind of impact we can make on local schools.
How would you want to go deeper?
There are 27 traditional public schools in District 16. District 16 is about half of the areas that we cover. But with every single school, you’re talking about a little micro-universe of issues and problems and parents who have been so marginalized in the educational process that they don’t even know where to begin. If you look at District 16 where we work, more than half the parent-teacher associations are barely functioning.
The bureaucracy itself is frightening. People don’t know where to begin. The Department of Education systemically does not tell parents how to advocate for themselves. What we’ve begun to do is train parents to get them more active in their PTAs. But we also have to work outside the PTAs. Parents have to know their rights. They have to believe that they have the power.
It’s extremely daunting. I say we scratch the surface because we can only talk to certain schools, we can only have an impact in schools where parents meet us halfway. You’re talking about people who are single parents, who are working two jobs, who have three or four children. How do you step to that person and say, “Come to this meeting and learn about X, Y, and Z”? You have to start with their own self interest. You have to say, “Look, if you don’t do this, then you will have no ability to improve the quality of the education that your child is receiving.” It comes down to that.
When parents hear that, how do they respond?
They’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great, but show me how. Because I don’t get it. I’m just one little person in this whole big system. Until you show me how I can put a chink in this armor, I’m knocked down.” So you have to have a one-on-one conversation with them. You’ve got to get them to take a step outside of their life to understand how they can have an impact back inside. You have to create a picture and give examples of how other people have done it. You have to expose how the sausage is being made and how the levers are being moved. You have to connect the dots for them. You have to do that person by person.
You’re saying something very important, I think, about community organizing, which is that everyone has the capacity to be a community organizer.
Very much so. Being an organizer is not about making decisions. They’re there to create the space for others to understand their own power. What you have is a group of people who are equipped to take matters into their own hands and have the wherewithal to determine what the future of this neighborhood is going to look like, particularly when you talk about how this is rapidly changing neighborhood. Low- and moderate-income black folks are increasingly finding it more difficult to live here. They’re no longer in position where things are just happening to them. They have a voice.
It sounds like the Brooklyn Movement Center works to put a foot in the ass, as you put it, of the status quo. What is scary about that?
People who get elected these days, it’s a career step for them. They don’t see themselves as vessels. They get into the business to be the top dog. We are challenging that notion they are sitting on top, telling us what to do. That is scary to people.