Unlike many students who enroll in coursework associated with Community Learning Partnership programs, Nina Tinikashvili already had quite a bit of experience as a community organizer while a college student at CUNY’s City College in New York.
“I worked with a local Council Member, Helen Rosenthal, on an organizing project to help her office launch participatory budgeting,” she said, referring to a process by which local residents are given power to decide how to allocate a given amount of financial resources. “I’d never heard of community organizing, but I’ve always been interested in policy,” she said. “And this was such an amazing project particularly for me.” Nina, she explained, is a green card holder from Georgia (“The country not the state,” she clarified, laughing) and so can’t vote in elections in the United States.
“It frustrated me, as someone interested in policy, that I couldn’t vote.”
Participatory budgeting, however, introduced Nina to a way to become politically engaged, even though she is unable to vote. “It frustrated me, as someone interested in policy, that I couldn’t vote,” Nina said. “But participatory budgeting is great because you don’t need to be a citizen to vote. You’d don’t need to live in the district if you work or go to school there. You don’t even have to be 18.”
She also appreciated how straightforward participatory budgeting is in regards to the issues it can help to solve. “Politicians often talk about all these complicated laws, but participatory budgeting worked on issues everyone can understand,” she said. “The school or park needs new swings, or the school needs a new tech program. To be able to have a say in local decisions like these and in how real tax dollars are spent is just genius.”
“To be able to have a say in local decisions and in how real tax dollars are spent is just genius.”
After concluding her internship with the Council Member, Nina decided she wanted to learn more. “My internship really solidified my interest in working in public service,” Nina said. So when one of her advisers told her about the Community Learning Partnership courses on offer at City College, she jumped at the opportunity.
In the fall semester, she enrolled in “Intro to Community Organizing,” taught by Kevin Ryan, who was a Program Director for New York Foundation at the time. “I wanted to learn skills to help me organize, and that would help me in a public service career path,” she said. “His course taught us about all different types of organizing.” She was particularly impressed by faith-based organizing. “I had underestimated the power of religious groups, and their ability to make change. It made me a better rounded student.”
“I wanted to learn skills to help me organize and that would help me in a public service career path.”
In the spring semester, she took Participatory Action Research with Hillary Caldwell, a Professor at CUNY City College. “I really enjoyed the fall semester course, and wanted to learn how to do this kind of research,” Nina said. “I was a sociology major, so this fit in really well my interests. It’s basically learning to do people-focused research.”
As part of the course, students take on a group field project. Nina chose to work with Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a tenant rights group in the Southwest Bronx. “The director of CASA had been noticing more immigrants of African descent moving to the area, and wanted us to see how we could help involve them to their housing organizing efforts,” she said, noting the majority of CASA’s current membership is Spanish speaking. Nina and her group set about identifying institutions that new immigrants were already active in, such as churches and sports clubs. “We found that the best way to engage people was to partner with organizations where people are already a part of,” she said.
Nina graduated last spring, and has since taken a job with the New York City Health Department in the intergovernmental department. Though she isn’t working directly as a community organizer, she says she finds ample opportunity to apply what she learned in CLP-affiliated coursework in her new profession. “This job is more policy based,” she notes, “but I speak with constituents every day about their problems and about what kind of help they need. The organizing courses taught me how important it is to understand people’s backstory. If someone asks for help, you don’t know what’s going on behind that. It’s important to assist people in a culturally competent way that’s also effective.”
As for the future? Nina has a couple of ideas. “Ever since working with the Council Member I’d like to one day run for office in New York City,” she said. After her work with different immigrant communities, she says she’d also love to create a community based organization for people of Eastern European descent. “There’s not all that many immigrants from Georgia, Russia, and Armenia,” she said, “But there’s been a big influx in the last decade, and they need help, too.”