December: Community Based Organizations
We are honoring YPs improving New York through their work at Community Based Organizations. Congratulations to our December Spotlights of the Month, Natasha Camille and Nina Stender!
Natasha (Natty) Camille, LMSW
I grew up in the outer suburbs of NYC in a household with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I have always been proud of growing up as aHaitian-American person because of how resilient and resourceful of a people that I come from. Growing up, negotiating the differences between the teachings of my household and those of my “outside world” (school, friends, etc.) was always a tricky task. My early experiences being first-generation American certainly shaped my understanding of the many ways in which my reality oftentimes felt different from that of some of my family members. Part of how I got to where I am today is by learning how to ask for support, and always searching for communities that I could feel aligned with. My high school’s Gay-Straight alliance as well as a local support group for LGBTQ youth in the town that I grew up were influential communities during my adolescence when I was just trying to figure myself out. These resources that I was lucky to have as a young person helped me gain the confidence and belief in myself and my identities to always stand up for what I believe in and act as an advocate for fellow queer and trans folks and people of color. I have so much gratitude for the social workers that led each of these groups with the utmost compassion and served as an example of the kind of work that I would later become inspired to devote myself to as an adult.
I am proud of the fact that I have learned to march to the beat of my own drum and be unapologetic about the choices that I make. Entering the field of social work was not initially in the plans for me. Want to know a secret? I was pre-med in college, and it was not until my senior year that I realized I was not working towards becoming a doctor for myself. Making that decision did not make everyone happy, but I thank myself endlessly that I trusted myself enough to make a decision that felt good for me. I often share with my friends how much I genuinely look forward to going to work every single day and working with the amazing youth that I do. I am proud of the relationships that I have gotten to build with these young people, and am grateful to be around folks who make me a better person in a multitude of ways: 1) They are super bright, so I am constantly learning from them, 2) They are loving and make me feel valued, and 3) They are bravely and radically themselves, which inspires to do the same. It feels like such a gift to be doing work that I am good at and that I love to do, and I am proud of myself for guiding myself in the right direction.
I would tell them: This work, at its core, is healing justice. It is a radical act of regarding people who have been historically neglected & harmed by oppressive institutions as deserving of joy, care, safety, love, community, etc. and finding ways to support them in seeing themselves this way in the face of continuous harm from said systems. Be ready to recognize your clients’ agency and work alongside them instead of on behalf of them because savior complexes, too, are detrimental.
I probably heard non-stop sirens and chatter outside the window on the fateful night of my birth at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital (now Mount Sinai West) and knew that I was in the center of a city that never sleeps. However, it dawns on me that I am a New Yorker every time that I leave the city for a trip and am super critical of wherever I am. I could be on the most beautiful, picturesque beach and still somehow long for the sense of security that I feel knowing that in NYC I have access to a plethora of things that could be more difficult to locate elsewhere (but I’m working on my NYC-centric views!).
I first became involved in community organizing as a high schooler growing up in Hong Kong. I participated in human rights and environmental activism and advocacy and learned about how environmental issues are inextricably intertwined with social and economic class, where the most economically vulnerable and politically disenfranchised people are burdened with disproportionate risks and face the harshest impacts. After moving to the U.S. to attend Wesleyan University, I took my first full-time position as a legal assistant at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. This job again offered insight into racial and socioeconomic disparities, this time in the criminal justice and legal systems. While I became very invested in policy and systems-level changes, I also grappled with the fact that, having grown up abroad and had a privileged upbringing, I was disconnected from communities who were most impacted by many of the policies and systems that I wanted to envision. I became a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs out of my desire to build deeper and more meaningful relationships with individuals, organizations, and neighborhoods across New York City. I ended up pursuing a job at one of the Center for Court Innovation’s community-based sites, the Brownsville Community Justice Center, because I was hoping to work alongside folks who were on the ground reshaping narratives and conditions in their community.
I am most proud of being actively engaged in communities that I am a part of. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, back when I was living in the immigrant-heavy neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, I became involved in Make the Road New York’s Aliadxs, a network of allies committed to using our privilege and resources to support MRNY’s immigrant and working class members. In Aliadxs, I joined fellow Bushwick newcomers in forming a Neighborhood Defense Team. Now, I volunteer for electoral campaigns canvassing and organizing phone banks, at the local level in City Council and District Attorney races, at the state level, as well as at the federal level for presidential campaigns. I am also a part of an intergenerational group founding a Democratic Club representing progressive Asian Americans in New York City. I am a member of an educational learning community called Think Olio and am part of its members-led working group exploring a structural transition to becoming a worker-owned co-operative.
My experience working in Brownsville has been incredibly humbling. Our model is youth-led, meaning that our services and priorities are shaped by young people who define their needs and interests through focus groups and other collaborative decision-making processes, through which we provide compensation for their time and expertise. From working in this dynamic role that requires planning, organizing, and strategizing, I have learned that policies and programs are most successful when they involve collaboration across sectors and particularly when we center the voices of directly impacted individuals and communities.
I feel complicated about claiming to be a New Yorker, given my role as a newcomer and the broader context of gentrification and the city’s crisis of displacement. I had an international and multicultural upbringing– I was raised abroad in Hong Kong by Chinese and Jewish-American parents with frequent visits to relatives based in California– so it’s always been hard for me to feel authentically like a local. However, NYC has become the closest thing to home for me. I’ve lived in Brooklyn since graduating from college four years ago. I also grew up in a big city, so I find a lot of comfort in the intensity, pace, and the simultaneous anonymity and intimacy of New York City life.