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Nicole Marwell Comes Back to Brooklyn

As a competitive primary season in North Brooklyn nears its dramatic conclusion, author Nicole Marwell returned to Williamsburg on Saturday to talk about her landmark study about how local nonprofits engage in the political process.

It has been two years since Marwell’s book, “Bargaining for Brooklyn” (University of Chicago Press, 2007), was printed, but her case studies of community-based organizations in Williamsburg have proven surprisingly relevant.

At a recent book discussion event at the Bushwick Avenue Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (340 Bushwick Avenue), Marwell explained what attracted her to Brooklyn and what she found in her sociology research from eight organizations she studied in Williamsburg and Bushwick, particularly the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (217 Wyckoff Ave.) and Los Sures (213 S. 4th Street).

“I came to Williamsburg to look at organizations in these neighborhoods, and as I started my research, I became skeptical about community self-help,” said Marwell, who will be starting a new position at Baruch this fall.“Sociologists didn’t really pay attention to politics, but my work kept pushing me into the realm of politics.”

Among Marwell’s more notable insights is a close look at how elected officials have reshaped machine politics through community-based organizations, where voters get an education about how politics works in their communities.These organizations, which serve large and loyal constituencies, are often in competition with other similar groups for scarce resources in the form of government contracts and other public funds.

“Who knows Ridgewood Bushwick?” Marwell said, as several people in the audience raised their hands.“They are a cradle-to-grave service provider and they are the best known organization in the neighborhood.Every time Ridgewood Bushwick opens a senior citizens’ center, there is an event and it performs a very important function.It educates the people where the project comes from.”

During a lively question-and-answer period,which included questions from Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Councilmember Diana Reyna, and Doug Biviano, a City Council candidate in the 33rd District,Marwell addressed whether nonprofits should engage in political activity and the role that service providers such as Make the Road New York and El Puente play in the political landscape.

“An organizer is not a service provider and when you become a service provider it is hard to stay an organizer,” said Marwell.“Policy is not a big piece of what RBSCC does, whereas an advocacy group like Make the Road engages in more policy discussions.”

A question about Council member items, asked by City Council candidate Gerry Esposito’s Communications Director Morgan Pehme, referred to the recent arrest and resignation of former Manhattan Councilmember Miguel Martinez.

“Would taking out member items make a difference?That’s a very plausible solution,” said Marwell.

Lincoln Restler, a New Kings Democrat member who helped organize the event, said that the book talk presented a rare opportunity to engage with an academic expert who spent so much time studying the political relationships of groups in Williamsburg.

“A few of the people who organized the event grew up in the communities and are Brooklyn natives but some of us are new to the area,” said Restler.“Bargaining for Brooklyn provides wonderful insights into the histories of Williamsburg and shares with newcomers the critical contributions made by longtime residents.”

Political organizers, such as Jo Anne Simon’s campaign manager Kelly Donnelly, thought the discussion was useful in providing context for the neighborhoods she is working in.

“As someone who works on political campaigns, I have always been very careful to maintain a distant relationship with 501c3 organizations since there are a very clear lines between how non-profits and electoral campaigns can interact,” said Donnelly.“It was very enlightening to hear her experience and observations from the vantage point of someone from the other side of that equation.”

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