Success Story: NYC Afterschool Advocates Block Funding Cuts
In a triumph of community activism, afterschool advocates across New York City have defeated proposed budget cuts that would have left more than 25,000 elementary, middle and high school children without afterschool.
The cuts were part of a budget package put forward by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would have eliminated funding for 193 afterschool sites and reduced the city’s spending on afterschool programs by $19 million. The proposal also included massive cuts in city funding for child care programs. But the plan touched off a firestorm of protest from parents, educators, and advocates around the city, galvanizing opposition among the New York City Council. That led to intense negotiations between the mayor and the council, resulting eventually in an 11th-hour budget agreement that not only restored current funding but added a small amount of new funding, as well.
Deepmalya Ghosh, director of youth development programs for the Child Center of New York and an Afterschool Ambassador, said that the community reaction was unlike anything he’d seen before. “People were just enraged by the potential loss of these programs,” he said. “So they mobilized.”
The Campaign for Children
The outpouring was the product of equal parts passion, energy and organizing savvy. While Bloomberg’s formal proposal was not made public until early May, its broad outlines—including its funding threat for afterschool—were known well in advance. As early as March, afterschool and child care organizations began banding together into a newly formed Campaign for Children. As Gigi Li, a leader of the campaign and co-director of New York’s Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, explained, it was important to bring the child care and afterschool groups together so that they did not end up pitted against each other, competing for shrinking funding.
It worked. “In the course of our first week, we had about 100 organizations sign onto the coalition,” Li told the Afterschool Advocate. “And it kept growing after that, because we had a clear agenda, and because we were determined to be a unified voice for both causes.”
Over the next several weeks, the Campaign and its allied organizations conducted a grassroots, media and social media blitz, elevating the proposed cuts to front page news, and creating a platform for parents and students to express their demand for adequate funding. “We had at least one event every single week of the campaign,” Li said. “Whether it was a press conference, the release of a report, neighborhood events, vigils or other events at City Hall, we really turned up the heat with our outreach.”
Esther Grant-Walker, afterschool program coordinator at the Isaacs Center Afterschool Program and an Afterschool Ambassador, faced the likely closure of two of her four afterschool sites. That served as a powerful motivation for the affected parents in the community, who turned out for a community action night at two Isaacs Center program sites. In addition, Grant-Walker says, “We did an awful lot of letter-writing and petitioning from the community, as well as a neighborhood march and ‘flash mob’ at our state assemblyman’s office with more than 100 people participating.”
Ghosh faced the prospect of having to close three of the Child Center’s longstanding afterschool sites, representing more than 1,000 afterschool slots, by his count. “Our youthful workforce here at the Center—the tutors, the activities specialists, the other young employees—were especially emotional, even tearful, about all the closures,” he said. “Many of them were participants in the programs when they were kids, and they were the greatest voice for us. They mobilized their students, giving them a chance to express themselves, a lot of it using social media.”
Rob Abbot, director of family and youth services at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, noted that afterschool programs have faced possible budget cuts in the past, and that the pattern over the years has become recognizable: The mayor proposes cuts, the community mobilizes, and the city council restores some of the cuts. Over the last several years, in fact, afterschool programs have lost some $30 million in city funding. “We’re accustomed to this budget dance,” Abbot said. “We know that at some point in the spring, we’ll be going to steps of City Hall, with staff and parents for a press conference. That’s part of the dance. This was completely different, and it didn’t feel like the usual thing. So we were down at City Hall multiple times for rallies and press conferences, and we took a day where we were the lead organization at the budget vigil at City Hall.”
In the charged political and media environment of New York City, getting the attention of policy makers and the media is no small task. But the sustained campaign broke through, earning coverage from the major media outlets in the city. Li also says the campaign’s social media efforts were key, as well. Not only were Facebook and Twitter useful tools for mobilizing parents and students, but they also served as a way to communicate directly with reporters and city council members. “We tweeted at press conferences and from City Hall,” Li said. “We even encouraged people to tweet into the mayor’s and deputy mayor’s television programs with questions for them, and had a question asked on the air as a result, forcing them to go on the record.”
Victory at a Cost
So successful was the campaign that the eventual budget agreement between the mayor and city council restored all the afterschool and child care funds the mayor had proposed cutting, and then added several million additional dollars.
But the victory did not solve all problems. While Ghosh and many other afterschool program directors in the city saw funding for their programs restored, even increased somewhat, allowing them to serve even more children than they did this past year, for Grant-Walker, the post-fight picture is less rosy. Some of her program’s city funding expired this year, having reached the end of the grant cycle. She had expected the grants to be renewed, she says, but in the wake of the budget agreement, new grants are to be awarded with more emphasis on the strength of the grant proposal than on the experience and track record of the programs. As a result, one of her two endangered sites will be funded, but the other is likely to close.
“We’re constantly getting calls about September,” she says. “We feel for these parents. They’re working and then running to pick up their children on time. Many are parents who don’t speak English or don’t have a formal education, and their kids really need the help we can provide. So the loss of our East Harlem elementary school program means a lot of these kids won’t get help with their homework.”
Still, the overwhelming emotions in the afterschool community are relief and triumph. “Everybody feels validated,” Ghosh says. “It wasn’t hard for people to take to the streets, because they knew they were protecting resources for the poorest in our communities. So there was a sense of fighting for what they knew was right. The process actually worked.”
This article was originally published by the Afterschool Alliance, appearing in their Afterschool Advocate (Vol. 13, Issue 7) newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission.