An Interview with Nicole Grennan at ERASE Racism

In 2019, Enterprise launched the Community Organizer Fellowship, providing funding to three community-based organizations across New York State to further their community organizing priorities. The fellowship seeks to empower these organizations to address pressing issues including displacement, youth organizing, and the supply of affordable housing. In this multi-part blog series, we will provide space for each organization's community organizer fellow to reflect on their work. You can also view our spotlight on other grantees, United Tenants of Albany, and the Red Hook Initiative.

This week, in our final blog post of the series, we are featuring ERASE Racism, a Long Island-based civil rights organization that organizes and advocates on the local, state, and national level for equity in education and in housing. The primary focus of their work under this grant is to increase affordable housing options for Black and Latinx families in Long Island’s two suburban counties, Nassau and Suffolk. In addition, they will educate residents about their rights under local and state fair housing laws and advocate for changes in policies and practices that will make it easier for housing developers to build multifamily rental housing projects.

ERASE Racism's fellow, Nicole Grennan, will accomplish this by educating and organizing local voices at town meetings to support rental housing projects with affordable units in communities that have been largely inaccessible to people of color due to segregation and persistent housing discrimination.

Briefly describe your professional and personal background and how that led to your current role at ERASE Racism as a community organizer?

NG: I moved back to Long Island after graduating from college and I was really interested in connecting with local activism. As a student, I had done work with Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools and Collegespring, which informed my understanding of the structural impediments leveraged against communities of color. I found the landscape of Long Island activism difficult to navigate. After about a year of being home, Newsday released the findings of a three-year investigation into housing discrimination on Long Island. I attended a panel discussion about the Newsday investigation and Elaine Gross, ERASE Racism’s president, was one of the panelists. She spoke about the state of housing and education segregation on Long Island. I immediately thought, I need to be a part of that struggle. I reached out to ERASE Racism and started as a Research Intern with them in April of 2020. In July, when the Community Organizer role opened up, I applied and was selected.

What is the state of community organizing on Long Island?

NG: My work with ERASE Racism made clear to me why it had been so difficult to navigate the local activism space: Long Island is intensely fragmented. We are only two counties, yet we have 125 school districts and 665 government entities. The state of community organizing reflects this fragmentation.

ERASE Racism is spearheading the fight for fair housing on Long Island. What we are doing is laying the groundwork for all Long Islanders to see fair housing and racial integration as something that impacts them. We use education about structural racism and housing segregation as entry points for our organizing work. Our strategy is to help residents understand the housing development process in their town and teach them organizing strategies. Then, we help them to mobilize residents for meetings, craft testimony for local board meetings, and build relationships with local officials so that they can leverage these alliances to increase affordable housing in their communities. This way the people of the community are at the center of every movement.

Despite the fragmented state of organizing on Long Island, there is a fresh appetite for justice. People really have their ears open and eyes wide since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. This narrative of structural racism has been intentionally suppressed, so it is difficult for a lot of people, but also it is impossible to unsee structural racism once you have the information. For this reason, I would say that there is fertile ground for organizing right now.

What have been your biggest challenges as an organizer at ER?

NG: The fragmentation of Long Island requires that for every municipality, we understand a new process for getting housing projects approved. Sometimes, even in the same municipality, processes change depending on the projects. It’s been a year of filing FOIL requests to get information that isn’t readily available, navigating complicated town hall agendas, knowing that town boards can refuse to consider a proposed multi-family housing development that requires a zoning change, which nearly all multifamily housing projects do, by simply not putting it on a planning board agenda. Unfortunately, single family housing is the norm on Long Island. Local villages and towns can “kill” a project without ever bringing the proposal forward for discussion and a vote to approve or deny.

Long Island is also one of the top ten most segregated metro areas in the country. Organizing in the suburbs is generally more difficult than in urban settings, largely due to the distance between people. If someone can’t see how they are directly and positively impacted by expanding affordable housing, they are not going to show up to town board meetings to advocate for projects. They aren’t going to sign petitions, spend time connecting with elected officials, or use their evenings reaching out to neighbors to gain allies.

So, we are working to dismantle segregation embedded into our structures, fragmentation that allows the segregation to continue, as long as no one does anything about it, and we are doing it while being sure to place community needs at the fore.

What is needed to further the progress you've already made, especially considering the obstacles posed by Covid-19, and where do you see community organizing going looking into the future for Long Island and yourself?

NG: There are a lot of myths about multifamily and affordable housing, most of which are thinly veiled racism. Our goal is to dispel these myths and make integration seem like the only next step for Long Island. We have to re-educate people and then move them to action. This education process has been a big thrust for us. We’ve had public forums and workshops, and we’re planning another series of workshops about housing discrimination and legal protections to be conducted in English, Haitian Creole, and Spanish. Our original strategy was derailed by COVID-19, as developers and town governments were all put on pause. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we’ve been leveraging the benefits of an increasingly virtual world to engage more people in our public education campaigns.

In addition to this education piece, we have been able to proceed with our pre-COVID strategy. We worked with our partner, Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI), to identify the upcoming affordable housing projects. We have prioritized four projects based on the information they provided. Using our outreach strategy, we are in the process of fostering relationships with these communities in order to garner support for the affordable housing project being planned in their area.

What big takeaways/lessons have you learned from the first year?

NG: I think often about the word “community” and what it means or looks like in a place as fragmented as Long Island. Part of the word “community” is “unity,” and the biggest takeaway of this past year has the barriers to organizing. So, the next step is to keep pushing on this question: how can we unite people of different socioeconomic backgrounds around new narratives grounded in equity and access? How can we foster connection around affordable housing as a human right? How can we build a community that understands the urgency of these issues and is willing to take action?