Neighbors in Action - Amy Ellenbogen

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Neighbors in Action Director - Amy Ellenbogen

I recently became interested in Neighbors in Action as a budget delegate working with Laurie Cumbo's office to promote my own proposal to plant trees along Nostrand Avenue and also the Participatory Budgeting process itself, a great idea for getting funding for things people in the various city council districts want. Neighbors in Action's role is to make the Participatory Budgeting process work, to get the ideas out to the community, to enlist volunteers to help, and to turn out as large a vote as possible. They sponsored a meeting with Arts and Democracy to get budget delegates to make posters to promote their ideas. These posters were presented at an Expo on March 30. The group lined up volunteers to man the polls and trained them to do that. They see to it that the polls have the materials they need – five different items with ballots in different languages,all this to be done by a fairly small organization running numerous polling stations created just for Participatory Budgeting.

I found out that Neighbors in Action is directed by Amy Ellenbogen; she told me that Neighbors in Action grew out of an organization called Crown Heights Community Mediation Center. This organization was started by another organization called the Center for Court Innovation back in 1998. It was an attempt to improve the conditions that had led to the riots in Crown Heights in the early 1990's in which Orthodox Jews and the Black Community came to blows with each other and people on both sides were killed. Amy came on the scene soon after in about 2002. The Mediation Center soon found that tensions between communities were not the main thing on their constituents' minds. They began creating programs that addressed the problems that were foremost in people's minds. They found people were concerned about schools and the problems of youth, housing, jobs, a host of legal problems, and violence in the community. They found ways of addressing these problems, often by creating a dedicated project to focus on a single problem. So for schools they developed After School programs, they set up mediation programs at various schools such as Paul Robeson High School. M.S. 61, and there was an anti-truancy program at Ebbets Field. They started a leadership training program to develop talent in the neighborhood, in a multi-week course people were taught about grant writing, dealing with the media, and community organizing. Also they hired people from street organizations who had often been in trouble with the law. For anti-violence advocacy they set up S.O.S. (save our streets) it reaches out to people in danger of being victims or perpetrators of violence. Neighbors in Action treats the problem as a public health issue. They also try to help with healing those who have suffered. They formed a healing group for the family of Shaheed Vassell, a harmless mentally ill man, who was gunned down my police when he pretended to be threatening people. They started Legal Hand which gives legal advice on a multitude of issues from housing to loss of benefits to no fault divorce. They also have a group that deals with domestic violence. They have created Job Training programs and they work with others who are trying to get young people to start careers and improve their skills. To do this work Neighbors has secured money from the city, state and federal overnment.

Soon the work with Participatory Budgeting will be over. That last day of voting is April 7. However, Neighbors in Action will continue all the work it has done before and some important events are coming up. In May there will be a show at a local gallery titled Arts to End Violence with works by young people of all ages to get them thinking about the issue and how one might take effective action to prevent more damage. Another will be the Kingston Avenue Block Party which will take place on two blocks of Kingston Avenue near Atlantic Avenue on the weekend before Memorial Day.

It was a pleasure to talk to Amy and find out more about her organization, and perhaps the Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association will be able to find ways to work with this dynamic group in the future.

– John DeWind

UpdatesJonathan Judge