Empowering Port Jervis and Beyond

Michael Sussman’s empowerment centers are helping communities band together and step up where social services fall short.

| Summer 2016

  • Civil rights attorney and empowerment center organizer Michael Sussman at a recent community meeting.
    Photo by Jessica Cohen
  • Kevin Mann, an Empowering Port Jervis volunteer, built a popsicle stick bird house that inspired children to build their own.
    Photo by Jessica Cohen

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.

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