By Larisa Karr
For years, non-profit community group Life of Hope received an average of $38,000 from its District 45 council member each year. Because of the support, the East Flatbush center was able to reach more of the Haitian community surrounding it and to even hire full-time staff.
Two years ago, however, when Farah Louis became the District 45 council member, she stopped funding the organization, said Porez Luxama, executive director of Life of Hope.
In 2020, her office told Luxama that his organization did not support and collaborate with them and that her predecessor Jumaane Williams also had not advocated for Life of Hope to receive funding. Louis, prior to being elected, had been a top aide to Williams. Louis initially gave him $8,000 for Fiscal Year 2021, he said, but then she revoked it.
“I decided I had to ask people outside who don’t know the community,” said Luxama, who was able to receive $13,500 from District 34 Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “It is her district and her money, but it is hurtful.”
“The people in our community are struggling and starving with a lack of resources and this is the reason everything’s falling apart again,” Luxama said.
Louis declined requests for comment for this story. Kristia Winter, her communications director, said via email, “I believe CM Louis has responded to this question several times in previous years.”
However, during a Zoom meeting on Mar. 6 that Louis referred to as an “emergency meeting,” the councilmember bristled at those who have questioned her discretionary spending.
“I will not stand to be disrespected,” said Louis during the meeting, which appeared via WhatsApp and was not listed on her public sites. “The more we continue to fight and slander each other in the press, the more difficult it will be for you to receive funding.”
Louis’ approach to funding groups appears to favor groups outside her district more than those in her boundaries, according to The New York City Council Expense Funding Database. Out of an allocated budget of $1,626,500 for Fiscal Year 2021, Louis has provided $209,000 to organizations inside of her district and $1,381,000 to groups outside of her district.
Within that roughly $1.4 million, about $434,088 went to outside organizations that have programs benefiting District 45 residents. Some of those organizations include the Crossfire Steel Orchestra, Community Capacity Development, Christopher Rose Community Empowerment Campaign and the Council on the Environment.
Specifically, Haitian and Caribbean organizations across districts that provide services received $312,000 in funding.
Some support provided, engagement lacking
Community reaction to how Louis approaches her funding budget is mixed. On the one hand, her support is higher than that provided by neighboring District 40 Council Member Mathieu Eugene, who funds primarily Jewish organizations outside his district, and she appears to be on the right path as a supporter. Others said Louis is not actually vested in how the organizations she funds truly help district residents and wish she were more involved.
“She means well with the programs she funds, but the follow-through and the building of relationships with the actual community members is not there,” said Jophrane Ligonde, a district resident. “You can walk into any organization and give a check, but if you’re not really understanding or analyzing what that person is doing with that check, where does it fall?”
Ligonde specifically hopes funding in District 45 will be increased to nonprofit organizations that support children and young adults.
Organizations and programs that serve people in Creole are also especially important to fund, said Eli Dvorkin, Editorial and Policy Director at Center for an Urban Future, a policy organization focusing on ways to eliminate inequality and increase jobs in NYC.
“In East Flatbush, so much of what is potentially funded at the local level includes much of the support that will go to help people get back on their feet and get back into the workforce,” Dvorkin said. “Healthcare organizations providing vaccine distribution are huge, as are organizations providing adult literacy, workforce development, and job training programs helping people develop skills that they need to be able to rebound from the pandemic.”
Some community members have taken on the responsibility themselves of providing needed resources that underfunded local organizations are not able to provide, such as PPE and food boxes.
“I’ve had to team up with community-based organizations and the Brooklyn borough president’s office to distribute PPE and thousands of hot meals because of the complaints I was hearing from the community,” said Anthony Beckford, president of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn and a candidate for Louis’ seat in this year’s upcoming elections. “If this [work] was being done by elected officials in Flatbush and East Flatbush, we wouldn’t have to be doing it.”
Beckford is disappointed that Louis did not give funding to Life of Hope, which provides various services to the Haitian community, including food boxes and PPE distribution, immigration resources, and vocational training. He said pandemic support should be of utmost priority for Louis and other Haitian elected officials because COVID-19 hit the community so hard.
“We’ve lost so many community members throughout our district and families are suffering,” he said.
According to the database, Louis provided $252,500 in funding for 12 Haitian organizations in total, while Williams provided funding for seven Haitian organizations for a total of $267,000. This calculation does not include organizations helping the Caribbean community at large. Prior to becoming the 45th council member, Louis served as deputy chief of staff and budget director for Williams.
Gérard Cadet, vice president of the 1199 Service Employees International Union, said he is grateful that Louis provided $5,000 to his union’s childcare corporation because it has helped the group extend its childcare program for members, many of them Haitian, for another couple of months. He said he believes she is doing a good job and people should take into consideration the fact that she is a new member of the city council.
“It is very important that we look at the time frame that she’s been around and also what she was able to do in comparison to what she inherited,” Cadet said. “When comparing somebody who’s been there forever versus someone who’s newly started, I think she’s on the right path to achieve much better for the community.”
Other Haitian and Caribbean nonprofits Louis has funded include the Haitian-American Community Coalition in neighboring District 41, which received $121,000. Louis also gave $5,000 to Haitian organizations in Eugene’s district like the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project, which did not receive any funding from him.
One organization outside the district that Louis funded is Haiti Cultural Exchange, a nonprofit focusing on Haitian art, festivals, and performances located in neighboring District 35. For Fiscal Year 2021, Louis gave $55,000 to the organization.
“Farah has been a champion of the Haitian community and Haitian causes as much as possible,” said Régine Roumain, executive director of Haiti Cultural Exchange. “She comes to our programming and is a very strong supporter of us and our work.”
Moving forward, some suggest that Louis hold workshops and town halls to get to know her district better.
“I want her to sit down and listen to what the community has to say, even if they’re criticizing the way that she’s doing it, maybe because they don’t feel like the help that she’s providing is what they need,” Ligonde said. “We need to have conversations about how politicians have connected with their constituents and have taught them how to be self-sustaining and productive individuals in this world that we live in.”
Meanwhile, community members like Luxama say they are determined to continue providing services and programs to youth and immigrant services to a district hard-hit by COVID-19.
“We’re not closing our doors because we know how our programs are critical to people in our community,” Luxama said. “When Jumaane was helping our organization, he said that we turned every penny he gave us into a dollar.”
Editor’s Note: The calculation of the funds disbursed does not include dollars given to city agencies like the Department of Education and quasi-government entities such as public universities and local community boards. Such entities are evenly funded amongst council members throughout the city.