If you’ve spent time in a hospital, you know the chaos—the doctors and nurses and orderlies rushing around in order to help an endless line of patients. But every now and then those employees need a savior, too. Enter Michelle Crentsil, who has advocated on behalf of those same health advocates as part of the Service Employees International Union. At heart—and ever since she was as kid—Crentsil’s concern and work has centered on pervasive injustices. More recently, she has advocated with SEIU on behalf of workers at New York City airports for higher employee wages. And next, she’ll bring her passion to Open Philanthropy Project, where she will work as a program associate in criminal justice reform.
And all of this is quite a relief; after all, when someone is looking out for those who look after everyone else, they’re better able to look after us, too.
Where do you live and how old are you?
I’m 28 and I live in Crown Heights.
What made you first interested in your profession, and how old were you when that happened?
I can’t really think of an exact age. Ever since I can remember, my parents made sure to make explicit injustices in our society. I would go to school and come home and explain what I heard in class. And my parents would give me the “real” story. My mother would show me old clippings of protests and actions. I knew I wanted to do social justice work. Maybe my parents didn’t have the exact terminology, but the power of organizing was always something emphasized in my household.
Do you feel Brooklyn is still a viable place for a young person to build a career?
It’s complicated. I think Brooklyn is getting increasingly unaffordable for many people. But it’s a diverse and vibrant community with a dope history. There really is something here for everybody, and good organizing will keep it that way.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Still organizing and causing trouble, and definitely still in Brooklyn. Maybe in better shape?
Have you ever felt like leaving your career path?
So interestingly enough I’m switching jobs! I’ve been a union organizer with SEIU. Most recently I’ve been working at Local 32BJ on the airports campaign, one of the most exciting campaigns in labor organizing for a while. I just got an opportunity to work in the movement against mass incarceration. So I’ll be transitioning into that role.
What’s felt like your biggest professional accomplishment?
It’s hard to say. I’ve been part of successful organizing drives and been part of a great team to pull off some impressive actions. But I think the best moments are when I get to work with someone through the personal transformation of feeling powerless to completely unstoppable.
What’s some advice you’d give to people trying to get a foothold in your industry?
Be patient! Organizing is really hard! We’re often up against some incredible forces that have been built for decades. It will take more than a few days to change them. Also, take care of yourself. Whatever that means to you. And keep your day ones or your ride or dies so close. Having the support from my best friends have really seen me through my roughest times.
Who are your role models in your industry?
Bertha Lewis. She’s the truth. Marlena Fontes. She’s my best friend and a damned good organizer.
To learn about more sub-30 Standouts, visit this year’s list of 30 Under 30.
Image by Jane Bruce