Leading with Lived Experience: VOCAL-NY’s Social Justice Advocacy
The pandemic has magnified systemic inequities that are devastating communities of color across the city. Our Brooklyn COVID-19 Response Fund’s Community-led Social Change grants zero in on these inequities in the health, economic, and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, while addressing the unjust systems and policies that have harmed Black Brooklynites and other communities of color in the borough.
Through our Community-led Social Change grants we’re proud to partner with VOCAL-NY as they continue building power among low-income New Yorkers who are impacted by HIV/AIDS, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and homelessness. VOCAL-NY's Director of Development Zach Ford spoke to our partnership, saying:
"VOCAL-NY has been building power among low-income New Yorkers from our home in Brooklyn for over two decades. Having the support of the Brooklyn Community Foundation has allowed us to deepen and strengthen our work in the community in ways that would have been unimaginable without their partnership."
VOCAL-NY’s work is steadily building momentum—last year alone, they passed more pieces of legislation than any other year since their founding in 1999—and their advocacy is more critical today than ever before. VOCAL-NY's Director of Organizing Jawanza Williams acknowledged the urgency of their work earlier this year, stating: "It's no longer a question if low-income New Yorkers are in crisis, it's about how much worse it will get."
Read on for updates on VOCAL-NY’s legislation priorities as they advance their legacy of advocacy through their four unions—each of which is made up of New Yorkers who lead from their lived experience.
Civil Rights Union
One of VOCAL-NY’s key goals is to end mass incarceration, and this work is led by their Civil Rights Union, a group of New Yorkers who have personally experienced incarceration and criminalization. Black New Yorkers in particular face immensely disparate treatment within the criminal justice system—in 2019 alone, more than 45% of New Yorkers arrested or cited for drug offenses were Black, despite Black New Yorkers making up under 25% of the city’s population—and the Civil Rights Union has passed a set of bail reforms to address this glaring discrimination. Despite these reforms facing opposition from conservative lawmakers, the Civil Rights Union is continuing to develop this advocacy agenda with campaigns including the fight to close Rikers Island and advocating to decrease the NYPD’s budget. The Civil Rights Union is currently working on:
- Reducing the population of incarcerated people in state prisons through parole reform;
- Addressing prosecutor power and criminal court practices to challenge wrongful convictions; and
- Ending felony disenfranchisement by restoring the right to vote to incarcerated populations
Among VOCAL-NY’s advocacy priorities is supporting stable housing for all with an aim to end homelessness— this work is led by their Homelessness Union, which unites people who are currently or have formerly experienced homelessness to access quality housing. New York is currently facing the worst homelessness crisis since the Great Depression, with at least 92,000 people living in shelters. In January 2022 the New York eviction moratorium expired, and since then homeless New Yorkers sheltering in the subway system and in other makeshift encampments have been targeted for removal by the NYPD.
VOCAL-NY’s Homelessness Union has long called out the need for more funding and policies to end homelessness, and earlier this year they advocated in Albany for the NYS Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP), a rental assistance program that could help homeless New Yorkers across the state find stable housing. They are also calling for the expansion of funding and geographic coverage of the House Our Neighbors with Dignity Act (HONDA), legislation passed last year that allows for programs to convert financially distressed hotels and office buildings into permanently affordable and supportive housing.
Positive Leaders Union
The Positive Leaders Union promotes VOCAL-NY’s HIV/AIDS work, uniting low-income people who are living with HIV to fight for their health and rights. Ending the AIDS epidemic has always been at the forefront of VOCAL’s mission and as a member of New York’s End the Epidemic coalition, VOCAL-NY’s Positive Leaders Union is calling for new city leaders to renew the commitments that previous administrations have made. At the legislation level, the Positive Leaders Union is calling on lawmakers to reintroduce the Point of Access Housing and Services (PATHS) bill which provides housing and services to those living with HIV across the state, including providing access to the existing HIV rental assistance program and the 30% rent cap affordable housing protection, as well as enhanced nutrition and transportation benefits. The Positive Leaders Union rallied at the New York State Capitol in Albany earlier this year, and they continue to call for statewide funding towards housing for people living with HIV/AIDS.
VOCAL-NY’s Users Union brings together low-income people who are directly impacted by the war on drugs to fulfill VOCAL-NY’s drug policy work. The Users Union promotes increasing access to harm reduction services and drug treatment, ending overdose deaths, and reducing and eliminating involvement in the criminal justice system for people who use drugs.
Data shows that in 2020 over 5,100 New Yorkers died from preventable overdoses—the worst year in New York’s recorded history. One way the User’s Union is addressing overdose deaths is their call to decriminalize buprenorphine—a medicine for opioid use disorder—as many New Yorkers are arrested for distributing this life-saving medicine. Additionally, the Users Union has launched two campaigns to ensure universal access to harm reduction: the Safe Consumption Services Act, which would legalize prevention centers across New York, and a campaign to secure continued funding for the NYS Department of Health’s AIDS Institute, with a specific focus to grow harm reduction infrastructure.