Public Agenda and the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay, through Cycles of Resilience work funded by the New York Community Trust, have partnered with the Eastern Queens Alliance (EQA) and Blacque Resource Network to host a series of “Intergenerational Conversations About a Sustainable Southeast Queens.”
The dialogue series culminates a yearlong “Cycle of Resilience,” a program that creates new pathways to bring residents, scientists and members of local government together to form relationships, exchange knowledge, nurture ideas and empower community-led action. The Eastern Queens Alliance is a coalition of civic organizations in the neighborhoods surrounding John F. Kennedy Airport whose mission is to “to unify, organize, mobilize and utilize the talents and potentials” of all community members and institutions. Cycles of Resilience supported that mission through work with “Roots n Shoots,” the EQA youth council on education, support on the Alliance’s annual gala last fall, and most recently, the development of the “Intergenerational Conversations About a Sustainable Southeast Queens.”
The communities of Southeast Queens have a long history of organizing through the Eastern Queens Alliance. Since the 1980s, the coalition has been a guiding force in addressing local issues. However, the current leadership has recognized a generational divide in the community. Barbara Brown, chairperson of the EQA said, “The older folks in the civics are largely on the same page about what their priorities are, but there seems to be a gap between what we want and the priorities of younger folks who have their own organizations.” With that in mind, the goals of this dialogue series were to encourage conversation among a diverse group of Southeast Queens residents and help them find common ground around what a sustainable Southeast Queens would look like.
The series comprised three sessions. In the first session, participants shared their stories of why they live in Southeast Queens, what they love about the area, and what challenges they would like to see addressed. In the second session, participants were presented with the focus areas that emerged from the first conversation and used the polling platform Pol.is to indicate whether they agree or disagree with certain viewpoints raised by other participants in the first session. This allowed us to better understand what the most contentious issues are, such as policing and the place of renters in a community of majority home-owners, and have conversations on what common values the community members share in order to bridge divides. Professor Mike Menser from the Science and Resilience Institute also gave a presentation on various green policies being developed on the state level that the Eastern Queens community could capitalize on for their own efforts. In the final session, the group was divided into teams in order to brainstorm ways that they could work individually and collectively address challenges and visions identified around the specific areas of interest identified in the first two sessions. They prioritized at least one action item and discussed next steps towards achieving that goal.
During the sessions, we utilized games as a way for community members to participate and learn about key issues in the community. For example, Idlewild Family Feud is a fun twist on the classic game show format where contestants form teams to see who can guess their neighbors’ knowledge about the local ecology of Southeastern Queens and community fun facts such as the best place to go grocery shopping. Contestants competed to win prizes from local small businesses. They excitedly guessed what birds people thought they could see in Idlewild Park (the top answer being “Canada goose”) and what people liked the most about their neighborhoods (“Friendly Neighbors” was #1 on the board).
The sessions revealed new frontiers for what community meetings can look like. Held entirely online, the sessions were carefully planned to be as accessible as possible while utilizing advanced online polling and collaboration tools like Mentimeter, Miro, and Pol.is. The meetings were attended by veterans of community organizing in Queens as well as newer residents engaging for the first time. During the first session, one young man remarked that he has attended community meetings before, but this session was the first time that he felt comfortable speaking up at such an event. He then went on to make great contributions to the transportation group, which demonstrates the success of our methods. By focusing on recruiting underrepresented voices and building a structure to encourage those new voices, we were able to uncover fresh ideas and input.
We didn’t shy away from diversity, but instead embraced it. It revealed tensions, but by focusing on common values, we were able to chart a path forward. Now there are six community action groups being led by vision statements that center those common values. In 2022, we look forward to continuing to support this ongoing work in another Cycle, in addition to uplifting and incorporating the voices of generations of leaders past, present, and future.