Recently there has been a lot of New York Post-type noise about a certain sum of city money that gets allocated to my organization, the Arab American Association of New York. Granted, when this noise began, I dismissed it as drama that only the Post would care about. But since this story has now officially led to a death threat and wannabe councilmen claiming it as grounds for their own advancement, I feel it’s time for some real talk.
I am the Deputy Director of the Arab American Association of New York. We are a community-based organization located right in the neighborhood—which happens to also be the largest Arab community in the city. We serve well over 100 people a day through our direct services, or about 4,000 people a year: teaching them English, helping them get jobs, helping permanent residents become citizens, and providing SAT tutoring and college readiness for youth. Our budget—and this is public information—is approximately $550,000 per year. I’m going to repeat that. We serve 4,000 people, and employ 12 staff members, with $550,000 per year. Since everyone screaming about funding is having a hard time putting numbers into real-life perspective, that’s about $132 per person that we serve. Which would mean that the $7,500 we received from Councilmember Gentile this year serves about 57 people. The remaining 3,943 clients? We’ve got to figure that out on our own.
And in the process of serving 4,000 people per year, no one at this organization, and I mean no one, makes the wage they deserve, despite the enormous amounts of effort and work put in each day by our tireless staff. We are an organization that runs on passion for assisting others, and the drive of those who feel the need to support and empower their community. This is, sadly, fairly typical of a nonprofit. But nonetheless, we’ve been blessed with staff that have made significant sacrifices throughout the 15 years of our operation in order to keep our doors open. (And speaking of our doors, the front one is broken. We honestly can’t justify using the funds we could use for salaries in order to fix it, when the other one works just fine.)
All of this is why it’s so incredibly infuriating to read the articles of Andrea Peyser, Bob Capano and Rich Calder over the past two weeks, not to mention the comments on social media, that are calling for city officials to revoke our funding.
None of these articles, and none of the internet trolls working hard to undermine our fearless Executive Director (without whom this organization wouldn’t be half as effective), have mentioned our social services, nor the benefit this organization provides to the community. I suspect that this is because they’ve never taken the time to visit us, and they don’t actually care about these services being provided to the Arab community. Otherwise, why would one be okay with treating 4,000 people per year as collateral damage to their ill-founded political rants?
Here’s a quick tutorial for everyone—from Peyser to the trolls—on how councilmember-funding works for nonprofits:
Councilman Gentile and other elected officials make awards through something called “discretionary funding.” This funding is something each organization must apply for, and must use exclusively for the program designated by the elected official. As is clearly stated on the council website: our discretionary funding is used for our Arab American Family Education Initiative, which encompasses ESOL instruction, SAT tutoring and youth leadership programs, and civics instruction. That’s right, Mr. Calder et. al.: we teach immigrants English. Are you happy now?
Yes, our organization conducts advocacy and civic engagement efforts on issues like police reform, immigration reform, and education initiatives. We represent the issues that affect this community the most, and we do a damn good job of it. But again, if you’re worried about city-funding going toward, god forbid, Arabs building political power: none of this is covered by discretionary funding. Our advocacy efforts are covered by private foundations that are invested in building the power of social movements. Don’t agree with the priorities of those foundations? That’s fine. You can go support Pamela Gellar’s group instead. (Though, one should be careful. Her organization is actually classified as a hate group.)
Finally, as Councilmember Gentile pointed out: discretionary funding goes to local programs serving local residents. Don’t agree with a 5-year-old Palestinian child under occupation defending himself with rocks against machine guns? Well, I don’t agree with a councilmember calling a 5-year-old “barbaric.” But, that’s an issue not fit for this local blog, nor this local council budget. In the meantime, would you like more than 57 Arab immigrants in your neighborhood to learn English? Awesome. You should ask your local councilmember to give us more funding.
Here’s the simple fact. Our Executive Director is a nonprofit leader by day—every other day, to be precise, because she is part-time—and an activist by night. And since she’s not a city employee, this is totally okay. If anything, you should be going after the councilman who apparently uses your taxpayer dollars to tweet about Palestine. (And let’s remember Ms. Peyser’s own tendencies toward compassion—she notoriously once called an established female journalist a “war slut” on record.) Meanwhile, we’re not setting the best example locally, either. With Bay Ridge discussion groups (albeit, the usual suspects) teeming with hateful comments, including a call to “assassinate this troll racist bitch,” which still remains on the page and has been liked by several community members. I don’t think I need to fall over myself pointing out the irony here.
Honestly, the local domain is the part I’m most disappointed by. It’s a shame that the first time a bunch of my neighbors are actually concerned about our funding, it’s because they want to take some of it away. (And that it comes on the heels of a New York Post article, nonetheless!) And while I have my suspicions that this is about more than just a lack of knowledge regarding how city funding works, I’m going to chalk it up optimistically to folks simply not understanding who we are, what we do and who we serve with our $7,500 of funding.
So I’m extending an invitation to everyone from Ms. Peyser to my neighbors. Want to voice your opinions about AAANY to AAANY? Reach out to me directly—I’ll start taking office hours. And if, even better, you’d like to throw five bucks at us so we can fix our door, it’d be much appreciated.