Citizen Action of New York, a key player in grassroots advocacy since 1983, marks its 40th anniversary with critical lessons for all organizers. Executive Director Rosemary Rivera shares her story as the first Latina and first LGBTQ person in that role, and how her life experiences not only brought her here, but are helping to give clarity to an organization poised to deliver victories for working people in a time of great inequality.

As Citizen Action of New York reaches its 40th anniversary this year, I have officially become the organization’s first Latina, and first LGBTQ, Executive Director. As I take the reins of this organization, I am keenly aware of the shifting battlegrounds for progressive politics, not just in New York but all over the nation.

Citizen Action of New York is a grassroots membership organization that has been at the forefront of the fight for racial, social, economic, and environmental justice in New York State since 1983. My first encounter with Citizen Action was as a volunteer, over eighteen years ago. I began as a door canvasser and as part of the training, Citizen Action introduced me to materials that gave history and explained the socio-political world in which we live. It was like a lightning bolt for me, contextualizing so much of what I had experienced in my life.

Up until that point, all I knew was the experience of systemic oppression. As a baby, I was abandoned in a hospital and I was raised in group homes in New York City in the 1970s. After experiencing a lot of violence, I dropped out of school in the 6th grade and began a path of drug addiction. When I found Citizen Action, I had just been released from prison and I was determined to stay clean.

At that time, I could never have imagined that one day I would be leading one of the most important political organizations in New York State, surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds in politics and some of the most caring and compassionate people about the issues and the oppression that we face. I am extraordinarily grateful to find myself in the role of Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York, as well as Board President for the Alliance for Quality Education, state committee member of the Working Families Party and Vice Chair of the national organization, People’s Action.

But as I look at New York State, and look across the nation, I see fierce and well-funded opposition to the progressive values that make us freer, safer, healthier and more secure. And here in New York, the rise of the right wing, anti-government narrative has already cost us five Congressional seats, leading to Republican control of the House of Representatives

The victories that Citizen Action of New York has achieved over 40 years give me hope that we can successfully organize to make our politics put people first. As I take leadership during such an anniversary, I’ve been talking with my three predecessors in the Executive Director role,and crystallizing the lessons that are going to help us not only win back New York’s five house seats, but build stronger regional and national coalitions to beat back hate and greed, and center humanity in 2024 and beyond.

The first lesson: Build movement infrastructure

Building enough power to win requires a commitment to investing in building the larger movement. My predecessor Karen Scharff shared with me that in the early years, Citizen Action of New York’s theory of change was that building grassroots power by organizing neighborhood by neighborhood would make it possible to win on big statewide issues. Up against powerful interest groups–and a Republican-controlled state house until 2018–they quickly realized the need for strong allies and shared infrastructure. So they invested time, resources and capacity in building and anchoring broader longer term independent infrastructure.

Citizen Action of New York helped create and lead many issue coalitions over the years, at first with a focus on expanding health care coverage, then on state revenue and budget issues, and later on education, public funding of elections, raising the minimum wage, and a host of other state legislative issues. These issue coalitions brought together hundreds of community groups, labor unions and advocacy groups to combine their power and successfully pass legislation that would improve the lives of ordinary New Yorkers.

But even these coalitions were not enough – we also needed to build shared longer term electoral power, so we could elect real champions to the state legislature, as well as locally, and work with them to enact more transformational policy change. Citizen Action was one of the four founding organizations that created the NY Working Families Party (WFP) in 1998. Over the past 25 years, we worked closely with our allies in the WFP to grow the party so we could shift power in the legislature. WFP not only helped turn the state triple blue, but also took on the centrist and corporate Democrats in primaries, and shifted the political terrain to be more favorable to a pro-working families agenda and less favorable to big real estate and Wall Street. Similarly, we founded the NY Civic Engagement Table to support the work of community based groups in engaging voters.

The major statewide victories I’ve been a part of winning have involved these coalitions moving together for years–even decades–at a time. The Alliance for Quality Education is one of the most compelling examples. In New York, as in many other places, students have attended schools whose funding level is based on the relative financial wealth of the communities they’re in–which is why we see deep educational inequities continuously perpetuated in low-income Black and brown communities. After 20 years of organizing parents and teachers alongside a coalition of organizational allies, while keeping a steady, central message about the value of our kids’ education, we finally won full implementation of equitable funding for schools across New York in 2021. 

The second lesson: Keep organizing at the core

No matter what else we build, consistent grassroots organizing has to remain at our core. Without an organized base of members and leaders who are directly impacted by the policy issues we address, we would not have had the power to win, and we would risk losing our way.

We had to learn and constantly re-learn that organizing is not just mobilizing people to show up or take action. Organizing is about agitating people to understand the systemic causes of their problems and moving them to do something about it. Organizing is about empowering people who are new to political action to develop strategy and tactics, and make decisions about what we can accept and what’s unacceptable. Organizing is about investing in directly impacted people through leadership development and political education and allowing them to lead.

The crises that we are facing – climate, race, gender, and authoritarianism, have left many demanding ideological clarity. But ideological clarity without a base does not equate to much power at all. Our role is to create the conditions for movements to rise by being a container for organized people. While social movements raise awareness and force a conversation on a crisis or contradiction that lead to change, it is the most organized forces that will propose and win practical solutions that directly impact people’s lives.

Third lesson: Race matters

Citizen Action of New York’s founders came to this work with an economic analysis focused on class, to build an organization of low- and moderate-income New Yorkers to work together across barriers of class, race, and age, and build a majority. That worked in some ways, but as privileged white people, they didn’t understand forty years ago how central racism is, not only to everyday life, but also to organizing for social change. Regardless of issue, we have to make clear that systemic racism is at the core of our institutions and our vastly unequal society.

Fortunately they learned this lesson early, enabling them to organize truly multi-racial coalitions that won big change, from nearly universal health care to public campaign financing. It’s also why a person like me–a proud Puerto Rican, formerly incarcerated and directly impacted lesbian–is able to rise to the top through hard work and demonstrated leadership. I sometimes worry if funders will balk at my background, but even in the face of implicit biases, the call for marginalized communities to lead grows stronger and positive change is afoot. More and more social justice organizations are actively championing a transition to diverse leadership, and I'm proud to be part of a growing cohort of this new generation of leaders.  Many in philanthropy wholeheartedly embrace these transformative shifts and for that I am grateful.

The Way Forward

Returning to the present matter of New York’s five swing House seats, and the national struggle against autocratic and neo-fascist political movements, it’s clear every one of these lessons is key to turning around the rightward movement of our national politics. We have to look at more than just the next election. It took decades of Citizen Action, Working Families Party and coalition partners building independent political power to shift the dynamic of New York state and elect a triple blue majority. Now, we are focusing our organizing power, working with the broader long-term infrastructure we’ve built, and using our deeper narrative on class and race to win back these seats. We are out on the doors, along with our coalition partners in NY Civic Engagement Table and the WFP, speaking directly to working families of all races about what will make their lives, and their children’s lives, better.

As Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party who previously led the NY Civic Engagement Table and worked with Citizen Action of New York says, “They are selling our people a compassionate and logical story and we can’t be naive and think that their story isn’t resonating with our folks. There is a 50/50 chance that the people we want to build with will accept our story and solutions or they will accept theirs. This requires us to be in principled relationships with each other and those that are a notch or two to the right of us.”

We’re up against extreme and worsening inequality created by the combination of racism and toxic capitalism, and protected and fostered by decades of neoliberal government policies. Our own base of people are, at times, the new persuadables. We can’t allow the right to continue to succeed in selling a narrative that hides the role of racism, capitalism and neoliberalism in creating our multiple economic and social crises. It’s up to us to make sure that our analysis, our ideas and our solutions get through and shift people’s “common sense” interpretation of what is needed to make their lives better. We do that starting from the point of our values, with racial equity at the core. And then we keep engaging them, through consistent organizing aligned with our coalition partners.

Nelson Mandela said, “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” We’re still here, changing New York state, after 40 years because of relentless persistence combined with adaptability. Citizen Action of New York’s four decades are a story of dreaming big, pushing the edge of what’s possible, learning from our mistakes and our victories, and never giving up.



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