03/05/2013 04:57 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Let's Hear It for and Thank the Vendors

Street Vendor Project and Vamos Unidos are grassroots community groups made up of street vendors organizing to protect the rights of small businesspeople struggling to make ends meet by selling goods on the streets of New York City. For years, the African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants and war veterans that make up New York's vibrant street vendor community have been subject to outlandish fines for minor infractions such as storing a vending license in one's pocket. Last Wednesday, the New York City Council passed a veto-proof bill that halves the fines that can be levied on vendors, from $1,000 to a more manageable $500, and I join with those celebrating this critical victory.

This win overturns years of anti-vendor initiatives in which successive mayors have disrespected, belittled, sought to ignore, fine, and in some cases imprison, vendors selling everything from fruit, to great food, art, books, sunglasses and other trinkets of city life.

But, street vendors have organized, fought back and won. Because of this victory, street vendors can conduct their business without the fear of excessive fines. Thousands of new immigrants who enrich our city can go to work secure in the knowledge they'll be able to feed their families. Thousands of veterans will retain the resources they need to pay their rent. And thousands of black and Latino vendors will be able to invest their dollars back into the local economy.

This bill is a victory for all of us who believe this thriving metropolis of New York needs to create more opportunities for more people, not only those at the top. For years, taxpayers have been subsidizing multimillionaires that run companies like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase with incentives and loopholes, popularly and accurately referred to as "corporate welfare." Meanwhile, street vendors, who earn 25 cents for the sale of a banana or five dollars for a pair of sunglasses, have been subjected to fines that can literally put them out of business.

Moreover, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, funded by North Star Fund, proved that higher fines were less successful in terms of revenues collected. The study found that the more expensive a fine, the less likely it was to be paid, and that by making fines more affordable, and more in line with the average income of street vendors, the city would actually receive more revenue.

But it wasn't just common sense that sparked this change. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who sat on the bill for months, is now in a competitive race for mayor and needs to shore up a progressive base of immigrants, veterans and others who have ties to the street vendor community. The "new majority" that enabled President Obama's reelection is potentially strong in New York City, and Speaker Quinn and other candidates ignore them at their peril.

It was a combination of all these factors that helped the activists at Street Vendor Project and Vamos Unidos seize the moment and achieve this victory. Big victories happen when groups invest the time and energy to build their movement. This story shows why sustained investment in grassroots activism is vital. A decade ago, North Star Fund began making the first of many grants to Street Vendors Project and Vamos Unidos. With these resources, these two outstanding groups have been intrepid, relentless, and sometimes even frustrated, in their campaign to reduce the burden of excessive fines on their low and middle income constituency. But now they have won, and we are proud to have supported them at every step along the way.

Through grassroots activism, even small or unknown groups can make themselves heard and build up enough power to make our city a better place for all. It is incumbent upon all of us who care about fairness and justice, as well as thoughtful public policy, to support grassroots organizations that are on the front lines every day.