Communities in Rockaway Islands say Wall Street connected charity denying them access to funds raised through public donations after Sandy
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Six months have passed since superstorm Sandy ripped through the East Coast leaving over 100 dead and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. The ferocity of the storm was overwhelming. A hundred thousand homes were flooded and utilities were knocked out for millions. In some areas, like the Rockaway Islands, recovery was slow and it took weeks or months to restore heat, power, and water. It became painfully apparent an official response would not be enough.
VOICEOVER: Kanye West, the Who, Paul McCartney–
NOOR: On December 12, 2012, JPMorgan Chase put on a star-studded concert and raised $67 million for relief efforts. Chase tasked the Robin Hood Foundation, a Wall Street-connected charity, with distributing this money. But economics writer Richard Eskow, who has investigated the Robin Hood foundation, says although their intentions may have been good, a Wall Street-connected organization controlling disaster relief funding is problematic.
RICHARD ESKOW, FELLOW, CAMPAIGN FOR AMERICA’S FUTURE: Wall Street is used to maximizing profits. That’s a different kind of psychology towards the balance sheet and towards the people you work with than, for example, going into a classroom full of kids who are discouraged about life and giving them reason to believe they can make something of themselves. So I think that–or if you’re talking about disaster relief, giving people a kind of hope and encouragement and sense of community that allows them to pick up and go on with their lives.
So I think what you start to see is a collision of cultures, where people who aren’t really trained or expert–you know, Wall Street billionaires think they’re experts in everything, but they’re not.
NOOR: Eskow says it’s important to follow how Robin Hood actually distributes its money.
ESKOW: So they come in and they say to themselves, well, I want to know I’m giving my money to a guy–and it’s usually a guy–who thinks the way I do. So what happens when you do that? You find yourself sitting down with three or four different possible recipients of the money. And, you know, I don’t think these guys are racially prejudiced or anything, but I think–or at least not consciously, but I think at the end of the day, the guy who comes back and says, Paul, I’m going to give you A, B, and C for X, Y, and Z just makes them feel comfortable, and that’s the guy more often than not that gets the money.
Now can I prove this? No, because they haven’t opened their books to me. I wish they would. But this is what I sense can happen in many circumstances.
NOOR: One of the groups that received funding from Robin Hood is Friends of Rockaway.
TODD MINER, DIRECTOR, FRIENDS OF ROCKAWAY: It started out with literally going into people’s homes and mucking and gutting out. And then they became a real resource, a point of contact for information for residents.
NOOR: Todd Miner is the director of Friends of Rockaway, which so far has received $845,000 from Robin Hood.
MINER: We got contact with the Robin Hood Foundation after 12/12/12, and it was at that point that we decided to actually be a real organization.
NOOR: Miner previously worked as a consultant for the World Bank, and before that for FEMA in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
MINER: The whole experience of Friends of Rockaway has been the force of personality of the people that founded it.
NOOR: Miner says the organization is anchored in the trust they built with the local community.
MINER: And I think, you know, for an organization that just started, that’s all you really have when you’re going to an organization like Robin Hood, ’cause Robin Hood clearly has–you know, outside of a disaster, they have really strict standards for funding. They want to know a whole lot more about your organization and your past in order–you know, before they ever even give you the first grant application. But in this case we didn’t have anything. But what we did have was, you know, a month and a half, two months of consistent volunteer effort, where we were actually getting stuff done, you know, we were going into people’s homes.
NOOR: Overall, Robin Hood has distributed over $70 million to nearly 400 organizations for Sandy recovery, many of them past grantees. Thirty such organizations are poised to do work in the Rockaways. Of those, some are based as far as San Diego. Of the groups funded that are physically based in the Rockaways, most are located in the western whiter and more affluent part of the island. So far, nine organizations in the west have received over $1.3 million from Robin Hood.
Miner says that a lot of progress has been made with recovery efforts in the west, where Friends of Rockaway is based. He acknowledges a high level of need still exists in the east, which is majority people of color and low-income.
MINER: From within the organization, we want to have, you know, a majority of our work sort of what I would say is, like, you know, east of 95th Street. That’s where we want a majority of our work to be. And Robin Hood is sort of behind us pushing us that way as well. And it’s just–it’s where the need is, right? So if I–like, I establish priority lists all day long, and they’re based on income, they’re based on sort of vulnerable populations, they’re based on your, like, occupancy. And we’ve taken care of this spot. We’re done. I mean, we’re not done with it. There’s a lot of work, there’s years of work to go on. But in terms of priority, the priority’s over in the east.
NOOR: While Robin Hood has funded new groups like Friends of Rockaway, it has rejected grant applications to some black-led organizations with deep roots in the communities in the east. One of the groups denied funding, culinary kids art initiative, has been active in sustainable agriculture and youth education in Far Rockaway for seven years and provided disaster preparation and relief for residents before and after Sandy.
MALISA RIVERA, FOUNDER, CULINARY KIDS: So it was imperative for me as a parent and as a woman not just to keep myself and my children safe, but to keep other family safe as well, because it could’ve been really, really bloody out here had there not been people like us and other various organizations that took charge and–.
NOOR: Founders chef Malisa Rivera and Moses Malone were preparing their own emergency food distribution program for residents just before the disaster.
RIVERA: This is a food desert. We emphasize nutrition. We emphasize growing your own food organically, leaving GMOs, F1s alone and getting back to your roots.
NOOR: After the couple’s farm was damaged and the community was in shambles, they reached out to Robin Hood with a proposal for relief funding but were rejected. Chef Rivera said a phone call from Robin Hood didn’t expressly describe the reason for the rejection. Another local grassroots organization, Rockaway Youth Task Force, has gotten national attention for its efforts delivering supplies and coordinating outside groups immediately after Sandy.
SALIKA COX, ROCKAWAY YOUTH TASK FORCE: So we definitely were helping people who weren’t being officially responded to by, you know, the government or other outside community groups.
NOOR: The group’s vice president, Salika Cox, notes that they reached out to the area’s most vulnerable residents.
COX: We were servicing high-rise buildings that were up to 19 stories, and also residential houses that were flooded during hurricane Sandy.
NOOR: Robin Hood cited finite resources in denying Cox’s application. But Robin Hood did give $25,000 to the Harlem Children’s Zone and over $2 million to the charity Single Stop U.S.A.
Geoffrey Canada, CEO and founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and board member of Single Stop, also serves as a board member for Robin Hood. Additionally, Single Stop was founded by Robin Hood vice president of programs Michael Weinstein.
Both Cox and Rivera expressed dismay at being overlooked for Robin Hood funding, but perhaps one of the most surprising rejections was that of the Action Center. A community organization with over a decade of experience serving low-income people of color in the eastern part of the peninsula, the Action Center served as a central hub of recovery activity after Sandy. Cofounder and executive director Aria Doe says she was shocked when Robin Hood denied them for funding.
ARIA DOE, COFOUNDER AND EXEC. DIR., THE ACTION CENTER: We were rejected. Not only were we shocked, but also the groups and organizations that have been funded by them were shocked as well, as well as the groups that work with us. And it’s a diverse group. I think Robin Hood was shocked because we fought back.
NOOR: In response, the Action Center launched an online petition to pressure Robin Hood to reconsider. It’s received more than 700 signatures. According to Doe, after the petition was launched, Robin Hood contacted her but only offered her a fraction of what she requested. Doe says they rejected that smaller amount because that would be, quote, selling out their community.
In an email to The Real News, the Robin Hood Foundation says although they won’t comment on specific cases, they are agnostic as to where a particular organization is headquartered, as long as it’s able to demonstrate an ability to provide high-quality services that are needed by the residents of the community. But Doe says who gets the funding and distributes resources is a critical issue.
DOE: People will come to us where they won’t come to other groups or organizations. We have so many low-income housing residents, not just [naIdZ@] housing residents, but homeowners or folks who were in three-family homes, and they were in the basement or they’re on the second floor, and then this–they have no funds to get mold clean, but they’re not going to open their door to people, first of all, who don’t look like them, to people who may be someone they don’t know, and when they may be elderly, have children, or be preyed on. But they trust the Action Center. We have roughly 300 homeowners like that, as well as we have apartment dwellers who want us to come in and help them and to show them also how to help themselves as well.
NOOR: Both the Rockaway Youth Task Force and Action Center say they will continue to pressure Robin Hood to reconsider their funding application.
Reporting for The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor with Josmar Trujillo.