C A R O L S. C O H E N
I returned home to New York after receiving my MSW degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1974, and obtained a position as a “street worker” with youth. Deciding that I wanted a roof over my head, I found a better fit as the Group Work Supervisor at the Williamsurg/Greenpoint Human Service Center of Catholic Charities in Brooklyn. I later became Program Manager there, which brought me into the community coalition that made my object – the ‘COCO’ delegate button. After seventeen years with the agency in a variety of programs, and then moving into my academic career and current position with Adelphi University, I now serve on the Board of Directors of Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services.
I chose this Delegate button (badge) because …
… It comes from a large scale community organizing project called COCO (Coalition of Community Organizations) that I participated in during 1977-78 in Brooklyn, New York. This button is iconic to me, and the story behind it follows.
It was a time when our community-based office of Catholic Charities (on the ground floor of a former convent) was working with the full range of social work services. Our program integrated individual and family advocacy, counseling and case management, groups and programs of many types with many populations, grass roots community organizing and large scale collaboration. There were big lessons from this experience about the depth and breadth of social work – and all the threads that tie our profession together. Also, it speaks to all the amazing communities that participated in the organizing effort.
The linked geographic area of Wiliamsburg and Greenpoint in the late 1970’s was experiencing widespread “red-lining” (abandonment by banking and other institutions to support housing) and planned shrinkage (a policy to allow some communities to wither and require less municipal services). In these days before hipsters and extensive gentrification, there were intensive community development activities in communities often identified by ethnicity, religion and race. At least six regions/constituencies had distinct identities and goals, living in contiguous neighborhoods, Polish and Irish in Greenpoint; Latino, Black, Italian, and Orthodox (Hasidic) Jewish in Williamsburg. We had communities called the Southside, Northside, Lindsey Park, the Projects, and a host of parish and congregational names that were key identifiers to residents.
Into this mix, came the idea of building a strong area-wide coalition that could unite residents and leaders to address common purposes – a daunting task, only made possible by the intense, shared needs of residents, and important because of the inherent problems in fighting each other for an ever shrinking pool of resources. The COCO organizers, trained in the model of Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation, managed the unimaginable feat of bringing all groups together in a Community Convention to determine and fight for a common agenda. This effort was sustained over a 5 year period, then diminished as the New York City political structure and directions changed. Echoes can be seen in many current leaders, community institutions, local governance, empowerment approaches, and coalitions established during this period.
For me, the greatest legacies of this were through living the “case-to-cause” imperative for social work, and the need for integrating all levels of practice (from micro to mezzo), no matter what your social work specialization. Most important, was to have the opportunity to contribute to an effort which honored and elevated the primacy of people’s needs, conditions that impact on them, and their aspirations and capacity to make change happen. I’d be negligent not to include the excitement and great joy that came from partnering with others in a cause closely allied with the fundamental, justice oriented purposes of the social work profession. It stays with me today, and this artifact brings it all back.