New York Senate District 17 for Progress, a group of progressive activists and organizers in Borough Park and Midwood, are rebranding their organization as South Central Brooklyn United for Progress (SCBUP). With the new name comes hope for political change and a broader impact in 2020.
SCBUP started in early 2017 with a handful of disillusioned Democrats reeling from Donald Trump’s election and feeling trapped in a traditionally conservative district.
“After the election people were shocked, and a lot of different people were looking for ways to get involved,” said Ellen Bilofsky, one of the founding members and an executive board member of SCBUP. “Maybe we can’t do too much on the national stage right now, but we can certainly do something in our own community.”
The organization has grown to roughly 40 regular members in addition to a 14-person executive board. Their newsletter reaches 700 Brooklynites.
As membership grew, SCBUP formed committees to advocate for the changes that community members felt were most pressing. Those topics range from traffic safety to ICE raids to health care.
These areas of focus arise organically from members. Sarah Herbst, for example, is an SCBUP executive board member who works for a large health system, so she’s seen the issues with health insurance in the United States first hand.
Herbst’s experience inspired her to help organize a committee at SCBUP that advocates for the New York Health Act, a bill that would provide universal, single-payer healthcare for New Yorkers. The bill has been languishing in the New York State Legislature for decades, but SCBUP aims to change that.
“We recently hosted an event at a church in Park Slope where we spread the word about the NY Health Act and hopefully built momentum on how we can build support, get this passed and provide a national model for single-payer [health insurance],” said Herbst. “We can lead the way.”
The SCBUP has also been taking action on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Brooklyn. They teamed up with Sunset Park ICE Watch to spread information to undocumented immigrants and to film raids for lawyers to review.
“The idea was to be able to document… while also taking the time to inform community members of their rights,” said Herbst. “[We were] showing solidarity for community members by showing up and saying ‘This is important to me. I could have been at brunch, but I’m not at brunch. I’m here because you belong here and you matter.’”
Marion Yuen is a SCBUP founding member who focuses on combating ICE.
“A large element of the ICE raids were not the raids themselves, but the psychological intimidation for the whole community,” said Yuen. “Because we were handing out flyers, the community members that were vulnerable knew that someone was watching.”
Councilmembers Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca volunteered their resources to help SCBUP and the other ICE Watch organizers by printing flyers.
“Realistically we are exceptionally cash-strapped, and printing is a huge expense, so it was a huge help for elected officials to do that,” said Gerald Cook, a SCBUP founding member and executive board member. “Going forward, we want to do a little bit of fundraising. It will allow us to spend our time doing rather than begging for resources from elected officials.”
SCBUP held its first fundraiser in October and the organization is hoping to carry out more cash-intensive actions their limited budget might have prevented in the past.
A new name and more money aren’t the only ways that SCBUP is changing though. In 2020 they’re planning on endorsing candidates for the first time. They are going to introduce a new set of topics to organize around for the new year as well. The executive committee also wants to expand outside of Senate District 17, hence the name change.
“Our group is broadening out, and we’re not so focused on this specific district,” said Bilofsky. “We want people to feel that they can join us even if they don’t live in this district.”
SCBUP has formed a coalition of progressives at a time when a bloated field of Democratic presidential candidates has pointed to division in the Democratic Party. Leftist and centrist Democrats are vying for the future of the party on debate stages and online.
Sarah Herbst sees flexibility as an essential component of progress.
“When you’re looking at candidates to support or vote for, it’s more like waiting for a bus than getting married,” said Herbst. “You’re not looking for the one who’s going to align with you on every single level, although that would be great. You’re looking for one that’s going in your direction.”
SCBUP members don’t agree on every issue, but they’d rather focus on what they have in common than what separates them.
“Start with shared values,” said Cook. “When things are in disagreement, we table that and we’re going to work on stuff that we all agree on… I don’t want to have an argument about the three things we disagree on, when there are 97 things we agree on.”
Learn more here.