Masa: Hitting the ‘Sweet Spot’ with Resident-Led Advocacy and Organizing

Written by: Caitlin Duffy

Date: April 28, 2016

For over two decades, community organizing has been a central tool in the New York Community Trust’s strategy to improve the accessibility and quality of public education in New York City. From 2012 to 2014, the Trust allocated $10.7 million in grants to make public schools effective for all students and to build a broad constituency in support of public education by funding efforts that strengthen the involvement of citizen groups, particularly parents. In doing so, the foundation found the sweet spot in implementing a program that combines a commitment to equity with resident-led systems change.

The Mexican American Student Association (Masa), a small grassroots organization that works closely with its South Bronx and Mott Haven communities on education and immigrant issues, is a NYCT grantee. As Aracelis Lucero, executive director of the organization, explained:

“Our work has been empowering and engaging families. We can’t really work alone. There is a huge fight and a lot will be required to move the needle forward for community issues through direct services, getting them involved in education and helping them be better equipped in tackling the issues from a local perspective. … What we’ve done is provide education support from as early on as possible to college and beyond. We engage parents; we focus on children and youth but our entry point and the way we engage is in a very holistic family support and community support.”

One of the ways in which Masa engages families is through parent committees that provide space for parents to voice concerns, share knowledge and best practices to support each other, and to engage in larger community issues. For example, a group of parents felt they were not being welcomed to a charter school’s PTA. They also faced a language barrier to participating. Masa assisted the parents by recommending strategies to address the problem and by helping them voice their concerns to the charter school’s board. As a result, parent involvement improved in the school.

One parent in particular who took language classes at Masa was able to speak at a press conference at City Hall to talk about the difficulties of participating in the PTA. Lucero noted:

“We have people who couldn’t even dream of being part of the committee and she is now part of it. … There has been a huge transformation in how she expresses herself. Before, she wouldn’t talk in parent meetings and now she is much more open and is really driving the conversation and creating the agenda to talk about. That’s a huge transformation.”

Similarly, through its youth committee, Masa is empowering the younger generation to become leaders and advocates in the community. “Youth have been really key to building trust with the community and to driving what has been happening,” said Lucero. “The organization grew from a four-person staff to 18. Of the 18 staff, 14 of them are young adults who are pretty much children of immigrants or immigrants themselves who are running Masa right now. Everyone is from the community or has grown up in the community.”

On working with the Trust, Lucero praises its staff for providing honest feedback and for supporting grassroots organizations:

“I appreciate the work they’re doing to include grassroots organizations. … We needed people who would take a chance on us. … NYCT was one of the earlier partners, along with New York Foundation, to believe in Masa’s work, see what we were doing at the grassroots level and recognize the potential. …One of the things that I appreciate beyond the support and taking a chance to believe in us is that [the Trust] also provided very honest feedback at each point of our development. I appreciate that; when you are growing you want to be told what you could be doing better and make meaningful changes to help you grow.”

Lisa Ranghelli is director of foundation assessment and Caitlin Duffy is project associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Together they authored the Philamplify report on the New York Community Trust. Follow @DuffyinDC and @NCRP on Twitter and join the #Philamplify conversation.

Image courtesy of Masa.