A Healing Agenda for NYC: Talib Hudson, The New Hood

‘I think a new hood is possible if people have the space to dream it and the tools to achieve it. So the first step in a healing agenda is to empower people in urban Black and brown communities to think about that, to give people the space. Tomorrow is going to come. What do you want it to be? How do you think we can get there?’

Talib Hudson is the founder and director of The New Hood, a community-based policy center that empowers Black and brown people and communities to lead research, ideas and solutions. His first goal is to develop a community healing agenda for NYC, beginning with asking: “What does a healed community look like?” 

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in this work. 

A: I’m passionate about community-based policy work. Through my upbringing in Harlem in the 1980s and ’90s, I had a front row seat to the consequences of urban policy that had detrimental effects not just on Harlem but on so many Black and brown communities across the United States, through things like planned shrinkage or stop-and-frisk. 

This is our first year of doing regular or sustained work, and the bulk of the work so far is an essay series on a community healing agenda looking at how do we have a policy agenda for NYC that doesn’t just look at housing, transportation, schools, etc., but that looks at healing. Black and brown communities are suffering and surviving through intergenerational trauma, so we need a healing agenda. Any policy impacting our communities has to deal with healing. 

Q: In your webinar you said that government should be asking the community what they need and what they want. What is your vision for how communities could have more power in policy making?  And how is policy making different from advocacy? 

A: In my view, there are not enough people from the community involved at the policy level. People in the hood are circumscribed and not able to access the usual avenues of how policy is created. What we need more of is our participation as part of the policy development process. 

When you think about political influence and power, people may think about voting, advocacy, getting a bill passed in the legislature. My experience is that oftentimes what comes out to be a governmental policy, or a law—well before it was legislation that you advocated for, it was an idea. Some people are coming up with the ideas, and their ideas of what’s needed and the way it will affect people on the ground may not be super connected. 

Take stop-and-frisk. Back in the early 1980s, you had academics–Wilson and Kelling–and they came up with the idea that, if in a neighborhood there is a small amount of disorganization, disruption, crime, disorder, decay that is left unchecked, it will lead to much bigger problems. If you have a car sitting on a street with a broken window and no one comes to fix the broken window, the signal to everyone around is that this is a place of disorder, nobody cares about this place, and you go from broken windows to people stealing, robbing, shooting people. You go from broken windows to homicides. 

This was picked up by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in NYC, which advanced the idea of broken windows policing, which said that you need to really look at the small crimes, if you want to stop the big crimes. So if you want to bring down homicides, you need to make sure you deal with small things like littering and fare evasion, so people know there’s order. Rudy Giuliani comes in, and he’s a big fan of that idea, and he says, “We need to do this broken windows policing.” Then you have CompStat, Bratton, and the police force looking at very minor things and being very aggressive in addressing them. That’s how a guy in Staten Island is accused of selling loose cigarettes, and dealt with very aggressively, so we get the killing of Eric Garner.

Did Wilson and Kelling have in their minds NYPD doing hundreds of thousands of street stops? NYPD killing Eric Garner? No. Did the Manhattan Institute? No, but they’re not from the hood, they don’t live here, and they didn’t understand how it could play out.  

We need advocacy, but we also really need to look at the ideas from which those policies derive—the research, the briefs, the think tanks—and we need to develop and advance our ideas. 

The conservative right has put more stock in ideas than in organizing. The organized intellectual right has made the decision that there is a battle of ideas, and if they can win the battle of ideas, they will control where policies come from. They’ve been engaged in an operation of idea planning and building for decades. Take welfare reform–who said efficiency is the highest standard in public policy? Reagan said, “Government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem,” and any social solution to issues that involved government became, in itself, a bad thing. That’s still an influence. The rise of these conservative think tanks, producing these policy papers, pushing these ideas—it’s big business.

Black and brown communities have ideas too. Everyone at my barbershop has a lot of ideas about policy. But if it’s not written about in certain ways, you don’t have power.  Most people see organizing, they feel organizing. It’s like, “We are going to go down there and fight!” And it’s harder to say we’re going to make a difference with the power of ideas over a decade or two, when communities are in survival mode. There’s a sense that thinking is doing nothing, that ideating is wasting time. If you’re not doing actual applied action, you’re not doing anything. But if you’re not working on ideas, you have less power than you think you have. 

There’s a scene in The Devil Wears Prada that perfectly encapsulates how communities can think they’re having power and they’re not. Meryl Streep looks at the Anne Hathaway character like, “You see that sweater you’re wearing? That color blue? You think you made a choice? Me and my friends got together in Paris three years ago and decided what shades of what palette, and it goes down and down, and gets to you and you bought that blue sweater. You think you made a choice?” 

Communities, we spend so much time going through the racks without asking, “Who chose this color blue?” Before we advocate for a policy, we need to be generating the ideas that become policy. 

Going back to “broken windows” and the influence of the Manhattan Institute. Say “broken windows” is true—that if you don’t address small things, crime and chaos will ensue. So do we need more police or more window fixers? That’s where ideas come in.

Q: How do you plan to develop a community agenda around healing? 

A: I think a new hood is possible if people have the space to dream it and the tools to achieve it. People need space to figure it out and tools and resources to do it. 

It’s really difficult to ask someone, “How do you imagine everything being different?” if they’ve never thought about it before. And that’s what people say if you ask, “What would your community look like in 20 years?” “I never thought about it before.” People just see what’s around them as always how it was. It’s a multistep process to imagine, and part of it is orienting people to what is their community, what do they like about their community. You have to exercise that muscle and warm it up.

You ask people, “What does the world look like without police, prisons? Without child welfare?” People get all sorts of reactions. It even took me a while, over years, to understand what would it really look like, to have a world where you don’t need a prison? Or at least not a prison that reflects what we know and think a prison is. 

It has a significant impact, to try to imagine this thing that doesn’t exist. 

It’s easier to ask people what they do want. For a parent: What does the world look like in which you have the support you need to raise your child in a healthy way? How could you envision that? Or for kids going through the system: What does the world look like in which you have the protection and tools you need to be safe to grow up? 

And if we need an organized group of citizens who help keep people safe, what would that look like? What would they do? Working toward something positive, what do you want? And how do we have safety without harming people in the process? 

What does it look like for a child to grow up to be safe, sound and healthy? First, we can agree on the destination. And I can promise you, in mapping a safe childhood, there’s no ACS for them; there are trees, parks, libraries. 

So the biggest part of a community healing agenda is to even think about community healing as an idea: What does a healed community look like? 

Q: Do you see the process of developing a healing agenda as healing in itself? We know that survivors need control over their healing process, and that trauma eliminates the sense of a future free from the past. And this policy process around healing is about giving control over NYC’s healing agenda to survivors and imagining a better future. 

A: Definitely. Having agency is part and parcel of healing. Part of the package of community policy is having agency. To underscore that point, one of the examples I keep coming back to is the Grant Houses and Columbia University’s expansion. For me, that’s an example of policy being made by certain power brokers that impacts people in my community who don’t have any meaningful voice. I noticed that Tuck-It-Away storage was gone, and I’m not materially harmed by that, but there’s a lack of autonomy in terms of how the decisions get made. And in public housing, there’s still no autonomy there either. 

That keeps everyone always in right-now mode. But when we’re in right-now mode, Columbia was in 20-year mode. Mitchell Lama was in 20-year mode. The people who bought the Savoy and Riverton, they were looking at 20-, 30-, 40-year mode. When white people moved into the hood, they started going to community board meetings about the schools when they didn’t even have any kids yet because they planned to have them. They are thinking in generations. 

By keeping us in survival mode, we don’t have the space to dream. Someone said, “If I believe I have a future, even if I don’t know what it is, I make different decisions today, because I believe tomorrow is coming.” Our community is uncertain that tomorrow’s coming. I want to create space for a mode of thinking: “What do you want your community to look like for your babies and grandbabies?”  I see that as emancipating yourself from mental slavery. 

So the first step in a healing agenda is to empower people in urban Black and brown communities to think about that, to give people the space. Tomorrow is going to come. What do you want it to be? How do you think we can get there? 

– Reporting by Keyna Franklin and Nora McCarthy

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