Ravi Mangla believes collective projects that empower people to take action in their communities are necessary.
He is co-director of ROCitizen, a grassroots, nonprofit organization committed to building a healthy, sustainable and just community. Founded in 2016, ROCitizen supports candidates who share its vision for a more equitable Rochester and work to strengthen awareness for policies and programs that would benefit all members of the city, county, and state.
Mangla answers four questions posed by the Beacon on Rochester’s challenges and ROCitizen’s goals for the year.
From ROCitizen’s point of view, what are some of the big challenges facing the Rochester community?
One of the guiding principles of ROCitizen is that we address the root causes of problems, not their surface symptoms. So many of the challenges facing Rochester are a direct consequence of systemic racism and economic inequality. The systems embedded in our society—from the criminal justice system to the banking system—have been designed to punish or disenfranchise black and brown people. At the same time, we’ve seen a small handful of people amass greater and greater wealth (more wealth than can be spent in a hundred lifetimes) on the backs of women, people of color and immigrants. This has only served to worsen inequality and widen the racial wealth gap, to the point where the average black family would need 228 years to amass the wealth of a white family today. In a high-poverty community like Rochester, I suspect it would even be longer.
What do we need to do to address them?
We need to be willing to address the problems head-on, rather than tinker around the edges of reform. I think there are dozens of constructive things we could do, of varying scale, to improve the lives of struggling families in Rochester. We’re especially supportive of projects that build community wealth and stronger, more connected neighborhoods: community land trusts, worker-owned cooperatives, and community benefits agreements.
Earlier this year there was a participatory budgeting pilot. It would be great to scale this up and allocate actual public funds to the initiative. Participatory budgeting exists in New York City and many other places, and it gives people the ability to determine local priorities and decide how money is spent (rather than have those decisions made for them). It’s an exercise in direct democracy.
We also need to contend with the legacy of racism and how it’s manifested both in our criminal justice system and public schools. Black people are no more likely than white people to use marijuana but are arrested at nearly four times the rate. In Monroe County, we still prosecute for marijuana, which disproportionately impacts people of color.
The UCLA Civil Rights Project found that schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. In New York, the inequities are especially severe, with a roughly $10,000 per-pupil spending gap between the wealthiest school districts and the poorest ones. The vast majority of school funding comes from state and local sources. So, it’s important that we demand equitable funding from the state, as well as explore the possibility of a countywide school district, but only as long as we can ensure fair and equal representation for city parents and community members.
Why do we need organizations like ROCitizen?
Collective projects that empower people to take action in their community are necessary to force the hand of those in power. Transformative change has historically been driven by bottom-up, grassroots movements: women’s suffrage, civil rights, marriage equality. These things didn’t happen by chance, or because they were popular in their time. They happened because regular, everyday people gathered together and demanded change. Our communities need organizers and rabble-rousers just as badly as we need teachers and firefighters (and we certainly need teachers and firefighters).
What are some key items on ROCitizen’s agenda for this year, and what seems most achievable?
ROCitizen participates in both local and statewide coalitions. We’re proud members of the Police Accountability Board Alliance and hope to see City Council vote on the PAB proposal in the coming months. We’re also involved with the Campaign for New York Health, which advocates for the creation of a single-payer health care system through the passage of the New York Health Act.
One of our primary focuses this year has been voting and campaign finance reform. Campaign finance laws are, in many ways, the plate that everything else goes on. In last year’s state elections, 100 wealthy donors contributed more to campaigns than the combined 137,000 small donors. When regular people don’t have a meaningful voice in the political process, we end up with a democracy that represents the few rather than the many. So, we’ve been advocating for small-donor public financing of campaigns and automatic voter registration. Due to intense pressure from grassroots groups, the governor and Legislature agreed to set up a commission to implement a small-donor matching system, which would dramatically reduce the influence of big money in state politics. We plan to continue to advocate for a robust public financing system, automatic voter registration, and the full restoration of voting rights for people on parole.