the brooklynite

Pair to the People
How two law school grads shook things up in Bushwick
By Alec Appelbaum

OONA CHATTERJEE AND ANDREW FRIEDMAN arrived in Bushwick eight years ago with little more than an idea. The two New York University law students, in their mid-twenties at the time, were looking for a low-income neighborhood where they could put their legal education to good use. But they had much greater ambitions than simply doling out legal assistance to needy residents. Instead, they wanted to combine legal services with a community-organizing model that would, as Friedman put it, “build power for poor, lower-income folks in New York City.”

“We met all over the city to find groups that would host us,” Chatterjee recalled. “Most wanted us to do public benefits cases on-site.” But St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church, an activist Bushwick landmark, welcomed the young lawyers’ more expansive approach, and in 1997, the two set up shop in the church’s rectory.

Within a year and a half, their project—which they dubbed Make the Road By Walking, words borrowed from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado—had outgrown St. Barbara’s rectory. Today, Make the Road has blossomed into an innovative nonprofit with a full-time staff of 16, an annual budget of $1.6 million, 1,350 dues-paying members, and a citywide reputation—a force to be reckoned with in this hardscrabble, mostly Hispanic corner of Brooklyn, where more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

This past spring, Make the Road enjoyed a high-profile victory as New York’s crusading attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, intervened to stop illegal labor practices on Bushwick’s Knickerbocker Avenue, forcing several retail establishments to pay back wages to workers whom they had paid as little as $300 for 70-hour workweeks. The state attorney general’s office publicly credited Make the Road, which had initiated a community boycott of some of the offending stores, with bringing the problem to its attention.

But this is all par for the course for Make the Road, which through its dogged activism on the streets and in the courts, has won an impressive string of public policy victories on issues affecting its low-income, largely immigrant members, ranging from the adoption of stricter municipal regulations of residential lead paint to expanded translation services at city welfare offices. But Chatterjee and Friedman, Make the Road’s co-directors, say the group’s greatest accomplishment is something more basic: the transformative impact it has had on its members.

“You see people who kind of felt alone and vulnerable and who were totally accustomed to being mistreated at the welfare centers, at the local hospitals, to having their needs ignored, undergo this transformation where now not only are they able to stick up for themselves and motivated to stand up for themselves, they’re also standing up for family members, neighbors, and are actually becoming citywide spokespeople, advocating for increased civil rights for LGBTQ community members, or for recent immigrants, or advocating on behalf of other issues,” Friedman said.

Make the Road still offers legal assistance to neighborhood residents, along with a variety of social services, including a food pantry, adult education, and after-school programs. But providing services is only one element in Make the Road’s effort to build community power.

Those drawn to Make the Road’s services often get involved in its activism. But the goal isn’t just getting neighborhood residents involved; it’s getting them to take ownership. Make the Road has a highly democratic, membership-based governance structure. Members over the age of 21 pay $100 for lifetime status; they must deposit $10 and pay the balance within two years. “It’s really about saying the organization is yours, you contribute to making it be here, and it’s not like a social services organization where you go in and you kind of swallow it if they mistreat you. This is your organization, and the folks who are working here are working for you.” Friedman said.

Members meet each quarter and receive discounts for English-language instruction and other assistance. All learn how to organize.

Whether through public protest or testifying before the city council or state legislature, Make the Road members are active on an array of issues, from housing and health care to workers’ rights and education. “If you come here as a worker, you probably also have a kid in school and probably also live in a bad apartment,” Chatterjee said.

MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING’S OFFICES resemble a tiny town. You enter a storefront into a client intake area, pass a kitchen and a piazza-like outdoor space, and reach a conference room, its walls lined with rallying slogans. Every weeknight, residents gather in the conference room to set strategy for the organization’s various campaigns. Make the Road follows what Friedman calls a “meeting-heavy” procedure, characterized by long, often emotional sessions sometimes conducted entirely in Spanish.

Even as they avoid ministering to their members, the duo provides ballast and organizational acumen. Chatterjee’s quiet voice and Friedman’s careful locution convey dignity. Chatterjee, 33, is in charge of the group’s youth organizing. Friedman, 34, is Make the Road’s tactician and peppers his speech with words like “systems” and “superstructure.”

Neither were strangers to the world of activism before launching Make the Road. During his high school years in Washington, D.C., Friedman played bass in a politically inclined punk band that tried to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Central America and apartheid South Africa. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, he worked in a shelter for homeless women, helping them access government benefits. Later, he worked with Guatemalan refugees in Mexico.

Chatterjee, who was born in Mississippi to Indian immigrant parents, was introduced to activism as a student journalist at Yale University, where she covered grad-student unionization efforts for a campus newspaper. After college, she worked as an organizer for the New York Public Interest Research Group at Brooklyn College and became involved in the fight against tuition hikes at public universities.

The two met at NYU Law School, where they helped start a discussion group that parsed the writings of various social theorists. But for all their background, neither quite realized what they were getting into when they started Make the Road. “It’s just unbelievable to me that so many people are involved and want to do so much different stuff with us,” Chatterjee said.

Today, Make the Road pursues five main campaigns, each with its own regular meeting and leadership. One pushes for workplace justice. Another seeks Spanish translation in public facilities like hospitals and schools. A third calls attention to unsafe buildings and filthy parks throughout the area. A fourth supports gays and lesbians. The final one organizes neighborhood youth.

Make the Road’s activism has grown organically at the initiative of neighborhood residents and volunteers. “Young people started showing up and saying Bushwick High School is overcrowded, we’re finished at one p.m. We thought they should do more than answer phones,” Friedman said. So the Youth Power division began. Make the Road’s Globe project—Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick Empowered—was started by a transgendered woman who had lived in the neighborhood her entire life.

“We had a belief that if folks were treated with respect and given a space to shine, they would,” Friedman said. “What I’ve seen over the last eight years has validated that belief beyond my wildest expectations.”

It’s certainly become something much larger than two young outsiders volunteering their time from a neighborhood church rectory. “You walk down the street and see people wearing our shirts, and you recognize them as folks who have come through the office,” Chatterjee said. “And sometimes you don’t recognize them, which is great.”

Alec Appelbaum has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, and New York magazine.