Around press time for this feature, Jose Lopez was pretty busy—as he told us, with his position as Organizing Director for Make The Road New York, he was totally swamped with #ResistTrump work. Based in Bushwick, Lopez helps Make The Road New York—known as MRNY—toward the organization’s mission of building the power of Latino and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice through organizing, policy innovation, transformative education, and survival services.
Recently, Lopez was selected by President Obama to serve as a member of the ‘President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing’ charged with identifying best practices and offering recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust, and was also featured in Eva Longoria’s directorial debut. It’s a busy time for all of us, but for Lopez and MRNY, time is of the absolute essence.
How/why did you become involved with Make the Road NY?
As a teenager in 1999, I was in search of a summer youth employment job and had very little luck. Upon my search, on a random early summer day, I decided to make a left on the corner of Myrtle and Grove Street. As I approached mid-block, I noticed a storefront office that read ‘Make the Road by Walking’ and that lifted up stories and images of communities working together.
When I peeked inside the storefront, I noticed two of my cousins talking with a big haired Indian woman who was the Co-Executive Director at the time. I pulled the door open to walk in and say hello to my cousins, but the conversation they were having never granted me the choice to say goodbye. I knew there was work to do.
The back and forth focused on the lack of youth services in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My cousins articulated that there was no place for young people to congregate after school hours, and the Director, Oona Chatterjee, challenged us to build that space at ‘Make the Road by Walking’. When we questioned how, Oona introduced us to a short film titled ‘Palante Siempre Palante’; the story of Puerto Rican teenagers in Chicago and New York who organized their peers in their barrios to fight for equality, jobs, health care and education.
Within weeks, we set off of on our first organizing campaign which we dubbed ‘Wise Up’. Our mission, bring young people together to challenge the New York City Council and then Mayor to invest more fiscal resources into programs and services for young people. Though we continued to build our base and demand action, we realized that the campaign was at a standstill. When we demanded funding, the City repeated that the funding simply did not exist.
In late 2000, the city took a turn that ignited us into action. For some time the city stated funding did not exist for youth programs and services, but somehow, the Mayor put forward a capital plan of $64.6 million dollars to expand two youth detention centers in New York City that were not sitting at full capacity; Crossroads and Horizons youth detention centers. Here is what we knew, if the city was intent on building new jail beds, the city will fill those jail beds with young people who looked like us.
For over one year, the young people from the ‘Wise Up’ campaign joined a citywide coalition of young people to form the ‘No More Youth Jails’ coalition. Our demand was to stop the Mayor’s capital plan from moving forward and to highlight ways in which $64.6 million dollars could better serve poor communities of color. In only our second organizing battle, as 14- and 15-year-old teenagers, we won! $53 million of the $64.6 million was removed from the capital plan to build new youth jail beds.
The small local fight for youth programs which turned into a large citywide fight to stop youth incarceration was my introduction to the work, but also my marriage to the work. Who knew that turning left on Grove Street and running into two cousins would lead to 17 years of organizing at Make the Road New York.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliff’s Notes version of your day to day and what’s at stake.
Today, I serve as Organizing Director at Make the Road New York. We are a 20,000+ membership based organization whose mission is to build the power of Latinx and working class communities of color to achieve dignity and justice through organizing, policy innovation, transformative education, and survival services.
The focus of our organizing department is to bring immigrant New Yorkers together to promote justice, civil rights and opportunity. We want to build community, but we also want to win on major public policy fronts to improve the lives of those most marginalized.
Weekly membership meetings are at the heart of our community organizing strategy. On any given night of the week, 50-100 community members gather to address problems and find solutions in our base communities of Bushwick, Brooklyn; Jackson Heights, Queens; Port Richmond, Staten Island and Brentwood, Long Island.
Our organizing campaigns and meeting lineup cover a multitude of issues from ending bias-based policing to securing fair wages and safe working conditions to challenging discrimination against immigrants who do not speak English to taking action against negligent or abusive landlords. As stated by Audre Lorde, we understand that “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
What do you find most fulfilling about your work?
There is always a moment, after an individual or group develops a laundry list of community issues where we discuss ‘who has the power to give us what we want’. This organizing practice, also called a power map or analysis, helps us to identify the different systems that have power, what the relationship is between those systems, who the decision-makers are and which of them will be the focus of our action plan.
It is at this moment where we must pivot to discussing the ‘community’s action plan’, what are we willing to do to move those targets. Here is where the most fulfilling part of the work lies; the realization that we are the ones we have been waiting for to address the problem at hand. As soon as this clicks, a new level of excitement and creativity pours out of people who go on to design great tactics and strategies to advance social justice in their barrios.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future?
Immigrant communities and allies across the country are outraged and horrified by the current President’s choices. From cabinet member nominees to executive orders, there has a blatant attack on poor and working class immigrants of color and the Trump Train does not intend to stop anytime soon.
As expressed by activist songwriter Joe Hill, “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!” This is exactly what groups like Make the Road New York will continue to do; ramp up organizing efforts so that those most impacted by this administrations hateful rhetoric and disruptive policies lead the path to change.
For those who have taken to the streets, called or written their local Senator, become a member of a grassroots group and/or made a donation to a grassroots group, we need you to stay active and invite new people to participate alongside you. For those idly waiting on the sidelines for the next election cycle to come, yes ‘vote’, but do more and do it now!
Behind every successful social movement is a network of communities. This requires individuals like you (the reader) to organize, build strong relationships grounded in love and support and be willing to take risks in the most trying of times.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.
Photo by Daniel Dorsa