Michael Sussman’s empowerment centers are helping communities band together and step up where social services fall short.
Scene changes are frequent and dramatic, like changing television channels, at Empowering Port Jervis, a community center in Port Jervis, New York, an old railroad city revamping its identity. But control is not remote. The center functions on the principle, “Everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to learn,” as articulated by civil rights attorney Michael Sussman, who launched the center in 2013, the first of several, with more planned.
Since Sussman graduated at the top of his Harvard Law School class in 1977, he has confronted many ways that civil rights can go wrong. He represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1981 to 2007, a period when he won court cases requiring desegregation of Yonkers schools and then housing, which took until 2007 to implement. Police misconduct and special education have also been target issues for him, involving community organizing and substantial court cases. He recently won $6 million for a family whose son was killed by police in Westchester County, New York.
Sussman funds, but does not run, EPJ and the other empowerment centers in and around Orange County, where he lives, 60 miles from Manhattan. Several cities there are still struggling to their feet after the recession, and, typical of such places, about 25 percent of their residents lack a high school diploma. But Sussman encourages people to follow their inclinations and inspirations in offering their expertise. Consequently, the ever-evolving schedule of each center, often posted in the windows of their storefront spaces, has included a motley array of programs taught by instructors with wide-ranging backgrounds.
At Empowering Port Jervis, a series of hands-on physics classes engaged children in analyzing and taking apart coffee makers and old computers, as taught by an MIT-educated engineer. Another volunteer used home grown skills to teach a lively workshop on low-budget emergency preparedness. His props included useful gadgets sold for a penny on Amazon. An Oxford graduate taught a workshop on how to benefit from LinkedIn. A counselor taught the smoking cessation workshop that helped her quit after smoking for decades. And a young homeless man, from an often homeless family, spent cold nights at EPJ and taught computer skills.
“He was our in house computer guy,” said EPJ co-founder Anne Horsham, who saw him go in and out of jail, then find a job at a pizza shop and a place to live. Tidy resolutions are not guaranteed, but humane support helps.
The center also hosts social service agency programs, such as literacy classes for 4- and 5-year-olds. And businesses can also be helpful. The insurance company that Horsham assisted in identifying people eligible for Medicare and Medicaid donated the computers used to teach computer workshops.
However, Sussman has reservations about computer-based communing. “In the electronic age, many people feel lonely and dispossessed,” he says. “I know men who have no friends.”
His observation is consistent with recent findings about increases in suicide despite the economy’s improvement, according to a federal analysis noted recently in the New York Times. The 24 percent suicide rise since 1999 coincides with the shift to internet communication, and those with high school educations or less are disproportionately represented among the deaths.
In bringing people together, Sussman sees hierarchy and “agendas” as potentially off-putting for the people he intends to reach. “Many of the dispossessed feel hopeless and worthless,” said Sussman. “I felt what I could give them is a space with no predetermined agenda to build their own community agenda and network. The only artificial thing I’ve done is pay for it.There are many activities around, but some people don’t know which speaks to them, and don’t want to be in a group defined that way. This is not for Scarsdale. It’s for people trying to create self-worth, try themselves out and grow.”
Other offerings at EPJ include job fairs, free weekly dinners, open mic night, community gardening — with help from a developmentally disabled group, and shelter for the homeless on cold nights. To offer that service, volunteers take turns staying all night at EPJ to supervise. Sussman hired social worker Evan Baker, who had been homeless for a period during graduate school, to oversee support for the homeless and help with difficult cases. Some of the homeless stay outside in dangerously cold weather to avoid the Orange County shelter 30 miles away.
Recalling his shelter experience, Baker said, “It feels humiliating.You’re told when curfew is, when to turn off the television. People’s ankles swelled sleeping in chairs. A shelter with beds was a palace.”
EPJ has couches, no beds, but guests are welcomed, as long as they are not high, arrive by 9pm, and leave when programs begin in the morning. Volunteers usually bring home-cooked food for them. Some overnight visitors arrive sick or frostbitten and need medical care. One man, Baker recalled, had been discharged from the hospital late at night with a life-threatening case of delirium tremens. With the help of police, Baker made sure the hospital re-admitted him.
People somehow overlooked by social services often appear at the empowering centers where volunteers help connect them with those services. Baker, who lives in Ellenville, where Sussman started another center, also supervises night shifts there. He recalled the night, temperature in single digits, when police dropped off a woman in her eighties who had phoned for help after falling in her home. She mentioned having pain in her ribs.
An Ellenville center volunteer later found that the woman’s home lacked heat and functional plumbing, and a part of the roof and ceiling had caved in. “She could barely talk or walk and hadn’t eaten for four days,” said Baker. “Social service agencies brought her meals. How could they see her condition and not do anything?”
Baker made sure she was admitted to the hospital, where examination revealed she had had a heart attack. Nevertheless, he said, the hospital soon attempted to discharge her for lack of insurance, despite Medicaid eligibility. Baker negotiated for continued care and, later, suitable housing.
Each empowering center Sussman funds has its own character and focus. “It’s not predetermined,” said Sussman. “It depends on community needs, and that changes. Ellenville is a difficult community. People are alienated. They have conflict with schools and police. Empowering Ellenville improved community relations.”
At that center, educational support, such as tutoring is important. But programs are diverse — counseling, drumming, art, animal rescue.“Once I got a call about a corrections officer showing up in a dress, calling himself a female name,” Sussman recalled. “I said to him, ‘You’re 68. What about this?’ He said, ‘This is the first place I could be myself.’”
Also finding acceptance at the center, a group of gay youth began meeting there.“You don’t need to agree with anyone,” said Sussman. “Just respect. Be around people without judgment, and you’ll grow.
In Liberty, a nearby Sullivan County town, Empowering Liberty has become a place valued for its neutrality. Supervised family visitations convene there as well as union organizing, as the Ideal Snack factory nearby generated concern about wage inequality related to nationality. Housing, energy, and veterans benefits are also addressed there. Movie nights are a regular event.
“Consensus building and cooperation” are ideals for Sussman. He has observed how people marginalized by such factors as low income and minimal education become isolated. “People need contact, but they have ideas about how others are and fear them, says Sussman. “Like with fear of heights, you need to go up high and learn to trust yourself there. The centers speak to that. You don’t know who you’ll run into.”
However, one empowerment center Sussman launched, in Newburgh, he later closed. “There was too much fractiousness and jealousy,” he said. “The center wasn’t meant to be owned by a particular group. Some people didn’t participate because they thought others were more involved, and they criticized people using it. At some point I’ll regroup there.”
Sussman regularly holds pro bono legal clinics at the empowerment centers. “I often ask people I meet what they have to offer at the center,” he said. “Some say, ‘Nothing.’ I say, ‘Think about it, and come back in a week’ Some do, and they integrate.”
In Port Jervis, Sussman is “thrilled” by the proliferation of programs and participation across socioeconomic, political, and religious lines. An energetic group of activist residents, calling themselves Citizens for Our Healthy Community, helped find the right space, the first floor of a small commercial building in a central location. They set it up with furnishings provided by Sussman and local donors.
Anne Horsham, a founder of COHC who works for Easter Seals as an outreach coordinator, spends many hours at the center warmly greeting whoever arrives. Window signs announcing programs and donated clothes on tables outside often drawn in passersby. Horsham savors the unpredictable arrivals and their stories.When she encounters addicts and the mentally ill, she handles them with compassion and, if necessary, assistance from helpful city police, who sometimes guide people to the center.
She was at the desk when Debra Nason stopped by, tormented by her son’s heroin addiction. Horsham assisted Nason in starting an EPJ support group for families of addicts. Nason brought in speakers and trainings in administering Narcan, an antidote for opiate overdoses. Participants received free Narcan kits, and as trainings proliferated in the area, addicts’ lives were saved.
Horsham has also seen the homeless who happen by find ways to help. A homeless veteran, who had been sleeping under a church porch, was encouraged to go to EPJ on frigid nights. He developed a passion for cooking for whoever was there. After he found housing, he continued to come back twice a week to cook for the developmentally disabled group who work with Horsham on the community garden plot that supplies vegetables to a food pantry.
Not all stories end so well. Baker told the tale of one homeless man an EPJ volunteer encountered outside nearby Burger King, wearing slippers instead of shoes on an icy day because his feet were chronically swollen. Because of the long stretch of cold weather, he agreed to go to the homeless shelter in Middletown that evening. But there a man taunted him about his body odor, result of intestinal problems, and they fought. The Port Jervis man was sent to a hospital psychiatric ward. But at 1a.m., hours after he arrived at the shelter, he was released, said Baker, citing a message on the EPJ phone. By late morning an EPJ volunteer found him again outside Burger King in his slippers. But EPJ volunteers would continue to look out for him.
Jessica Cohen is a freelance reporter based in Pennsylvania. She most recently reported on the power of the expectancy effect for Utne Reader (Spring 2016).