Participatory Democracy Drives Anti-Gentrification Movement in New York’s El Barrio

By Jessica Davies : Truthout – excerpt

“We believe that those who suffer injustice firsthand must design and lead their own struggles for justice.”

Eleven years ago, in an area known as El Barrio in East Harlem, New York, community residents of 15 immigrant families, all of them women of color, came together to seek dignified housing in their community. They were struggling against gentrification and displacement, and the abuses of a private landlord who was trying to force them out of their homes in order to attract wealthier tenants and transform the neighborhood they lived in and loved. These women had no previous organizing experience, but they listened to and supported each other, and in December 2004, they formed Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movement).

Astonishingly, Movement now has 954 members in 95 building committees. Eighty percent of the members are women, and it is the women who are the driving force behind the organization. The membership consists of low-income tenants who are immigrants and people of color; many are also Indigenous. Forced by poverty to leave their beloved native countries, they have built a strong community in El Barrio, and are determined not to allow themselves to be displaced again. They understand clearly that their fight is against the neoliberal system represented by the abusive landlords, property speculators, multinational corporations, politicians and government institutions that seek to displace them from their much-loved community…

“We all share a common enemy and it is called neoliberalism,” said Oscar Dominguez, a member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, at the first Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement. “Neoliberalism wishes to divide us and keep us from combining our forces. We will defeat this by continuing to unite our entire community until we achieve true liberation for all.”

The organization is built around the principles of autonomy, self-determination and participatory democracy. This means that it is based on a horizontal form of organizing and has no leaders.

“We believe that those who suffer injustice firsthand must design and lead their own struggles for justice,” said Diana Vega, a Movement member.

The aim is to create spaces where people can come together as a community to share their problems. In this way, they can agree on the solutions, and it is the community itself that has the power. Not being dependent on anyone to tell them what to do, they believe, creates a strong base that can never be destroyed.

The basis of Movement’s organizing is consulting the community. Members go door-to-door, building-by-building, block-by-block, getting to know each other, and constructing relationships. Committees are formed in each building, and once the whole building is organized, they become members. Each building agrees on its own actions and means of struggle. Movement is also deeply committed to fighting all forms of oppression and to respecting each other’s differences. Above all, this means listening to one another…

Building a Community of Solidarity and a Culture of Resistance

Eleven years ago, those who are now members of Movement did not even know each other. They had no fellowship with the other inhabitants of their building. Now, they resist, organize and celebrate victories together — they have built community, friendship, love, confidence and solidarity and have transformed their lives…

They have expressed this commitment in their vision statement:

We fight so that:

The oceans and mountains will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

The rivers and deserts will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

The valleys and ravines will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

Homes and cities will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

No one will own more land than they can cultivate.

No one will own more homes than they can live in… (more)

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