Valery Jean, Executive Director of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, on FUREE’s 10th Anniversary Party


It’s the holidays and time for nightly benefit parties. This month, we’re be circling back to non-profits and art groups we’ve talked to through out 2011 as they gear up for their annual shindigs.

Today we’re talking to Valery Jean, Executive Director of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE). FUREE (whom we’ve interacted with several times this year, including during our coverage of Mary Lee Ward’s foreclosure) is celebrating 10 years of stirring up trouble in Brooklyn on behalf of poor and working class New Yorkers trying to hold on. We chatted with Jean (who was on Tom Robbins’s “Thanksgiving Honor Roll” last year) about FUREE’s origins, the challenges of development in Brooklyn, Occupy Wall Street, her take is on Governor Cuomo’s recent budget, and their big bash tonight at La Vie Lounge & Restaurant.

Congratulations on your anniversary. How did FUREE get started?

It started as a project of the Fifth Avenue Committee and it stated out to look at what was happening with welfare recipients, people who were getting public assistance who were being forced to work in the BEGIN program or WEP [Work Experience Program]. As the story goes, one of the members of what was the Fifth Avenue Committee was not feeling well, and she called into her job to say she wasn’t feeling well, but she knew she had to go to her assignment or risk losing her benefits. And she went to work and actually passed away while working. And that prompted people into mobilizing around this issue of engaging in forced labor for your benefits, and it pushed people to push for sustainable jobs that could lead to economic stability.

That coalition brought together WEP workers, social justice organizers, labor, students, and people fighting around Local Law 23, which was for access to education and training. That was our first win, which called for the ability to go to school, college or trade school, and to have that count towards your WEP hours. But that was later vetoed by Bloomberg.

It passed in the City Council first?

Right. Later on, we figured out, when people need to go to school or trade school, childcare is an issue. A lot of people can’t afford that, and also childcare providers were not being paid what they were worth. They hadn’t had a raise in 10 years. Our second campaign was the Childcare Campaign. Through fighting, community mobilizing, leadership building, and building coalitions, we eventually won $4.5 million in back pay through the campaign.

In 2005 we started door knocking in the Ingersol and Whitman houses, and no one was home. We came back in the evening and no one answered their doors, either. We went back at different times and it was a similar thing. We heard people saying they didn’t want to talk to anybody because they thought, “They’re trying to get ride of us.” At first it was community gossip, but we did research and found out about the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning plan. We launched a sustainable development campaingn. The [city’s] rezoning plan had promises of jobs and affordable housing, which are all good, benevolent things to happen. But what the rezoning actually did was to transform Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn into the state that it is today.

We’ve had ads going up against millionaires and billionaires. Our budget is not even a half million dollars. But because we strongly believe in the concept of organizing from the bottom up, we’ve been able to shift the debate.

So that enormous Ratner development is going up and will open next year. How big a loss do you think Atlantic Yards is, from your point of view

How big a loss is it to the community? We know we can’t stop development, but it can happen in a way that’s responsible and fair, and in which it gets input from the community. The loss here was that there were major opportunities for the city and the state for what could have been a positive impact on the community.

[Atlantic Yards] wasn’t developed on a human basis, but for the needs of the developers. The loss – and what we’re learning is that things can be learned from every situation – is that if there were sound and effective community benefit laws, it wouldn’t have lead to the loss of jobs and homes which can totally devastate families on many levels, including the diversity of what those families look like.

For me personally, I grew up on Vanderbilt, near Atlantic Yards. When I go back, it’s nothing like I remember it al all. We’re hoping there are still opportunities out of it, but it’s also a wake up call for our community.

What does FUREE make of Occupy Wall Street? I was specifically fascinated to see everything happening with Mary Lee Ward in August, and then to see a lot of those ideas – things FUREE has been protesting for a long time – bubbling up in Zuocotti Park shortly after.

We just had an internal conversation about this with members. We’re not an organization where I, as a leader, decide things and implement them. We don’t say to the staff, “This is what I decide,” we ask our members, who are really in charge, of what campaigns we work on.

Mary Ward felt like a natural connection for us, because we’ve been fighting displacement of families for new development for a long time. When we learned about Occupy Wall Street, it was like, “Wow, people are finally so pissed off, that there’s nothing left to do but to do something!” We’re like, this should have happened years ago!

But it’s good that it’s finally happening, and there’s an opportunity to expose FUREE’s work. We have the chance to build a broader alliance and build a critical mass for economic justice. When I think about it, I’m really grateful to be alive while all of this is happening. What you read in history – the civil rights movement, the labor movement – my children are watching that kind of history happening right now.

What do you make of Cuomo’s tax plan? Do you think the work people like you do had an effect on it?

We, along with VOCAL NY and Community Voices Heard in Albany, we worked together with some other groups that did the first action calling for taxing the rich back in March. I think the pressure on Cuomo is coming from multiple sources. One is the sustained work of groups like us who cause trouble. [Laughs.] Our job is to create conflict. We keep close contact with elected officials, telling them about the impact the tax laws and the tax base have on real people.

Specifically with Cuomo [and his budget], I think it’s a combination of community organization, Occupy Wall Street, and – this is my personal belief – a sign of more negative policies that might be coming down the line. After every legislative victory, I also think: what detrimental policies should we expect to be coming? What’s going on with the massive losses of funding to social services and housing? This morning, I’m hearing that they’re going to remove the MTA tax on small business, but the state will reimburse instead. Where will that money come from? Who will it be taken away from?

What’s happening at your party?

There will be lots of food and lots of people celebrating our 10th anniversary. We’ve set out to have this be a celebration. We didn’t want a traditional sit down dinner – we wanted people to know what it feels like to come to a FUREE pot luck! So there will be lots of food, an open bar, and the entire program is dedicated to our members.

We are honoring two powerful women, Sonia Sanchez and Frances Fox Piven. We’ll be celebrating with lots of folks – founding members, past members, allies in the social justice world, journalists, media folks who have been supporting us, and there will be a performance by Sonia Sanchez and a speech by Frances Fox Piven. We’re hoping people will understand that that is a sustained movement. The past couple of years have been really difficult for FUREE, and for a lot of grassroots organizations. So we’re celebrating making it to the 10 year mark and the next decade of work. For an organization to make it to the 10 year mark means your’re doing important work. We hope to honor the energy, the hope, the tears, and the arguments our members have put into making FUREE not just into an activist group, but into a mass to grow and develop. It’s going to be fun.