Community Organizing Responses to COVID-19
Queens Spotlight was launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of incredible hardship and severe shifts in how society functions, we are continually inspired by the resourcefulness, responsiveness and resilience of Queens community members. In this series we highlight community organizing work and hope to provide insight into the vitality of this work within our borough during the pandemic.
July 30, 2020
Executive Director of Rockaway Youth Task Force
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your youth organizing and community development work at Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF)? How do you ground your work while addressing a range of intersectional social issues including food justice, civic engagement, racial and criminal justice?
Our work is grounded by a deep commitment to the Rockaway community. RYTF takes a hyper-local approach when identifying the issues to focus on and devote resources to. The power of youth and their capacity for leadership and meaningful commitment to their communities is the philosophy that guides our efforts. Further, all of the issues faced by youth in Rockaway are interconnected, and an understanding of the fundamental intersectionality of oppressive systems is necessary in order to organize and fight against those systems. For example, geographic isolation and inadequate public transportation options contribute to the lack of healthy and fresh food available on the Rockaway peninsula, and contribute to poverty by restricting access to high paying jobs elsewhere in the city. The lack of healthy food options contributes to poor health outcomes, which is compounded by insufficient healthcare access. Relevant to all issues of social injustice in Rockaway is a general lack of civic engagement by the communities who are most marginalized, and engaging young people and getting them excited about the political process and participation in community development is a means to harness that power and put it back into the hands of community members. In sum, it is the intersectional nature of oppression that grounds our work at the local, neighborhood level.
RYTF was founded in 2011, the year before Hurricane Sandy devastated Far Rockaway and much of its current mission and approach was developed by living through and learning from the aftermath of Sandy, which brought many of our systemic injustice issues to the surface. This is also a pattern we are seeing in response to how the Covid-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting BIPOC communities. Could you share any lessons from the aftermath of Sandy that remain relevant during this crisis, such as food resilience for example? And are there other ways you’ve had to shift your work or focus in this time?
The Rockaway Youth Task Force began as an informal group of young people who met weekly to identify and discuss the many issues and instances of injustices faced by the Rockaway community. I founded RYTF after I returned to Rockaway from college at age 21 full of questions about why myhome neighborhood seemed to house a disproportionate amount of inequality and discriminatory systems. This early version of RYTF sought to better understand these conditions of inequality, why they existed, and to galvanize our neighbors to join us in demanding change.
Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath came to define us as an organization. While government or philanthropic relief was slow to arrive, Rockaway residents were starving, cold, and trapped in high rise apartments and flooded neighborhoods. Many had lost everything, but instead of coming to their aid, the city placed Rockaway low on their list of priorities, leaving Rockaway to take care of its own. The early members of the Rockaway Youth Task Force answered that call, organizing food deliveries to stranded residents and becoming the point of contact for the Red Cross in that area until additional help arrived. It was the bravery and resilience of a group of Rockaway Youth and the financial support secured from allies all over the country from a Go Fund Me account that gave the community hope and saved countless lives during that most desperate of times. This ability to impact the community in such a meaningful way ignited a fire of empowerment in RYTF, solidifying our sense of obligation to serve the community—our community—and do what we can to alleviate the suffering and disempowerment that results from many layers of city and state disinvestment and corporate disregard.
There are so many similarities between the city’s treatment of Rockaway during hurricane Sandy and its aftermath and the current COVID-19 pandemic. The eastern end of the Rockaway peninsula was one of the hardest hit areas by the coronavirus in all of NYC, and had one of the highest death rates. But despite an obvious and desperate need for additional testing resources early on in the pandemic, the first city-funded testing center did not open in Rockaway until early June. This investment was too little too late for the thousands of Rockaway residents who lost friends and family to this devastating disease. Many residents were triggered in the trauma they endured during Sandy, and the government’s slow response to aid Rockaway residents whose homes and neighborhoods had been devastated.
RYTF has a very conscious and detailed approach rooted in civic education, leadership development, and advocacy work. What are some of the challenges of this work that youth are experiencing? What are ways to support RYTF’s work?
Social justice organizing is emotional labor, especially for those who bear the brunt of the oppression they are fighting against. It can be devastating to learn how deeply racism is embedded throughout our entire economic system, and that anger can be hard to live with. Further, these things are hard to talk about, and there’s an extent to which learning about social oppression is retraumatizing for those who have experienced it. It’s tough emotionally. Practically, youth have so many demands on their time. From high school to sports to family or work obligations, Rockaway students have an even harder time due to longer commutes.
RYTF can only succeed with the support of our community behind us. To guarantee the sustainability of our work, more investment support from local elected officials would help us do even more to serve their constituency.
The best way for community members and other allies to support our work is donating, especially becoming sustaining donors, through the donation link on our website. This gives us predictable and stable support that we can count on outside of the ups and downs on non-profit philanthropy. Another way community members can support us is by supporting our events, such as our annual Crab Boil and Fundraiser that we host every year. And as always, please like, share, and boost our social media, to help spread the world about our initiatives and the conditions of inequity that made them necessary.