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Hurricane Sandy, LGBTQ Youth and the Power of Community Organizing

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Battle on the Waterfront

For 12 years FIERCE has been waging a battle on the waterfront: a battle against the gentrification of our safe spaces and the displacement of LGBTQ youth of color. Last week New York City waged a different kind of battle along our waterfronts: one with Hurricane Sandy and the devastating impact the storm had on the lives of millions across this region. Those of us who are regularly made most vulnerable in this city -- the homeless, the youth, the elderly, the queer and trans, the disabled, the non-English-speaking and those without identification documentation -- understood exactly what was at stake in this battle: the fight over who matters when help comes and who gets prioritized in the systems we rely on in times of emergency.

Crises Reveal and Magnify the Inequalities and Injustice Our Communities Face

Days after the stormwaters have receded and Wall Street has its power back, thousands of working-class New Yorkers remain without heat or lights or a concrete timeline from the city for when the power will be restored. Many people who were displaced from damaged homes remain displaced, without a safe or stable housing alternative, and hundreds more are waiting for information about the OEM and FEMA relief efforts that were promised.

At FIERCE we've seen how systems that are supposed to serve New Yorkers are not always safe for our communities, especially LGBTQ youth of color. The police, mainstream aid organizations, city and federal agencies and politicians, who are notorious for targeting and victimizing our communities, fail yet again to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable.

As the city ordered evacuations, those with resources, mobility, connections and healthy relationships with families and friends were able to find shelter and safety. But what happens when the places city leaders tell you to turn are not an option? What if the public spaces you rely on to connect with your community are closed or unreachable, or shelters aren't safe because you're trans or gender-nonconforming? What if you have nowhere to go or no one to call, or when staying at home or travelling to stay with family means putting yourself at further risk of violence or isolation? These are the questions that hundreds of LGBTQ youth face every day, and their struggles were only exacerbated during the storm.

Over the past weeks we've heard some of these untold stories. The story of two FIERCE members who had no power, heat or running water who walked for hours to charge their phones at Port Authority to make a call for help and get emotional support from a friend. The story of a youth member who walked for miles in the pitch dark, across city bridges, seeking a warm shower, only to be turned away by relatives. And there are many more experiences that echo similar struggles.

In addition to scarce resources, the heightened presence of the NYPD in many neighborhoods left some LGBTQ youth feeling even more left-out and unsafe. As a FIERCE youth member Nico noted of the situation on his powerless Lower East Side block: "There were police all around us during Sandy -- we have a precinct down the block -- but they weren't around to keep queer youth of color safe. Not once did they offer information or support to me or my friend. They were around to meet their quota and target our communities. It's clear that the NYPD's not here for helping people like us; they're here for getting us."

The Power and Vision of Community Organizing

We have seen the power of community organizations stepping up when city officials were nowhere to be found. We are inspired by the emergency relief efforts of ally organizations, like CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in Chinatown, GOLES in the Lower East Side and FUREE and Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn, who have been reaching out and providing services to affected communities.

In supporting and reflecting on emergency relief efforts and the longstanding work of grassroots community organizations in NYC, we can't help but to wonder how different this storm could have been if our city leaders had been proactive in listening to and addressing the needs and wants of our communities.

What if the demands of organizing efforts across the city had already been in place, like Right to the City's campaign to turn vacant condos into affordable housing? Or if the Community Safety Act to protect New Yorkers from unjust policing had passed? Or if LGBTQ youth had had a 24-hour center to turn to for help? What could relief efforts look like if city officials put their resources and support behind building the kinds of solutions and infrastructures that are informed by the needs and visions of our communities?

Times Like These Call for Leaning Into Our Communities for Support and Drawing Deeply on the Connections That Hold Us Together

For generations we have understood that the strength to make change happen and ensure the survival of our communities comes from recognizing our kindred struggle and organizing for a better future. Organizing builds the infrastructure and power needed to support our people in the face of trauma and fight for our collective well-being and livelihood.

In the days and months ahead, the news cameras will turn their attention away from those still in need, but we must remain steadfast in supporting our communities. We know that our response to the immediate must be rooted in solidarity, not charity -- solidarity that teaches us to deepen our relationships and commit to the work and vision of systemic, lasting change.

"It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
--Assata Shakur