Bishop Mitchell G. Taylor has lived in and around Queensbridge Houses for most of his life. In 1991, he was installed as senior pastor of the Center of Hope International (COHI), a nondenominational church adjacent to the Queensbridge Houses. For more than a decade COHI has provided a safe place for hundreds of children in its after-school program and has fed thousands of families each year through its Bread of Life food pantry.
In 2004, convinced that a single church would not be able to mitigate the mammoth issues facing public housing residents, Taylor founded (and is president of) East River Development Alliance (ERDA), now known as Urban Upbound (COHI/Urban Upbound, 12-11 40th Ave. Long Island City, NY 11101, 718-784-0877 ext. 322).
In founding Urban Upbound, Taylor has created a true alliance of local religious leaders, government officials, educators, business owners, and residents, all working together to effect neighborhood improvement and expand economic opportunity for the 30,000 residents living in Queensbridge, Ravenswood, Astoria and Woodside public housing developments. Urban Upbound’s key programs include Workforce Development, College Preparation, Financial Education and Counseling and Community Revitalization. In April, 2010, Urban Upbound opened the Urban Upbound Federal Credit Union (FCU) – the first new credit union in New York City in 10 years, the first in Queens in 30 years, and the first chartered nationally in the Obama administration.
Taylor has been profiled by The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio, and other leading media outlets for his leadership around public housing, and has received prestigious awards, including the New York City Public Library’s Brooke Astor Award, NYC Neighborhood Achievement Leadership Award, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York Martin Luther King Jr. Award. He was also a participant in the United Way Executive Fellows Program, and was chosen to participate in the highly competitive Achieving Excellence in Community Development program led by Neighborworks and Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.
Taylor is the author of Unbroken Promises, published by Whitaker House (2003). He currently serves as a commissioner on the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Barsamian: You have lived in and around Queensbridge Houses for most of your life. Has the neighborhood changed over the years, and if so, how?
Taylor: When my father came to Long Island City in 1961 to pioneer the Center of Hope International, formerly known as LIC Gospel Tabernacle, the neighborhood was quite different. I didn’t come to Long Island City until 1966, when I was three years old. My Dad purchased the old Democratic Club on 12th Street and then the house next door, and that’s where my relationship with Queensbridge and the people that live there began.
I often spent the weekends with my friends from the church who lived in Queensbridge, and it was during those times that I began to learn the culture of living in the “projects” as it was affectionally known. Back then, Queensbridge was a real community of people that cared for one another. The prerequisite for living in public housing back then was you had to be married, and you had to be gainfully employed – a different culture. But when public policy changed and the rules for housing changed with a more relaxed prerequisite the community began to change. It changed because public housing became a place to house the poorest New Yorkers with the greatest barriers. The good thing was there were many more support mechanisms in place to combat the segregated poverty that was created. But as resources continued to disappear and with the progressive disinvestment by the federal government to support these initiatives, the neighborhood began to take on a different orientation, not for the better, but for the worse. Queensbridge began to develop a reputation for being one of the roughest projects in the city. Despite the great talent that was being developed there, Marly Mar, Mob Deep, Nas, to name a few, it was a rough place to live and grow up in. My Dad’s church and other churches in the community were really the only places that were centers of resource for this population, but it was more about spirituality and social justice, than it was about helping people methodically break cycles of poverty. Today, we have different issues – market crash,16.8 percent unemployment and only 11 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree over 25 years of age – so imagine the new challenges that residents of public housing face. When Wall Street gets a cold, poor people in public housing get pneumonia. It’s a much different place today, with the super development on the waterfront, the advent of hotel alley, the emerging tech zone, and gentrification, all with no positive impact on residents of public housing.
NB: You are the senior pastor for the Center of Hope International (COHI). Can you share with our readers some of your duties, obligations and responsibilities at the church?
MT: My father was the bishop and Overseer of COHI. As the bishop, he was a pastor to pastors, and the pastors under him managed the day to day duties of the church. While he was alive, I was the senior pastor of COHI and my duties included preaching, teaching, counseling and the general management and administration of the church and its ministries. After my father’s death in 2004, I was nominated to fill his position as bishop. In 2006 I was consecrated to the office of bishop, and now I am a pastor to pastors with a staff of pastors that manage the day to day ministry operations.
NB: The COHI has a strong after-school program. Please explain how the program evolved into the success that it is?
MT: The COHI after-school program was started in 1999 as a response to the growing need of homework assistance by our kids in the community. It was a great success because of the passion and dedication of Barbara Taylor and her staff, who ran this program for 12 years. Unfortunately, we had to end the program. Fortunately, Jacob Riis took up the slack and all of our kids were accommodated there.
NB: The Bread of Life Food Pantry feeds thousands of individuals. How did the program begin and how is it providing for the community presently?
MT: The Bread of Life Food Pantry was started as a result of my dad’s day job. He was one of the first African Americans to work as a meat and poultry inspector for the U.S. government. His relationship with meat packers and distributers allowed him to get food and meat donations, and, as a result, he was able to be a blessing to many people. After my dad retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we continued the food pantry through in-kind donations, but we only distributed once a month from a small cabinet in the church.
In 1991, I gave a folder and the key to that little cabinet to Loretta Schofield, a member of our church, and she grew the pantry, from distributing once a month out of a cabinet, to a full-service pantry open three days a week, serving thousands of families healthy nutritious food. It used to be a pantry for people who were in dire need, but today many people from our community who have to decide between food and other necessities use this pantry to make ends meet. Despite the growing need for food in our community and the continued disinvestment in food pantries nationally, somehow the pantry continues to provide this invaluable service.
NB: Urban Upbound is your creation. What was the seed of this concept?
MT: Actually, Urban Upbound was a creation of Debra Ellen Glickstein and myself. The idea germinated after the new councilman of the 26th Council District was elected, Eric Gioia. I met Debra Ellen while she was the economic development director for the councilman. After she resigned from the council, we began to brainstorm the possibility of creating a movement that can change public housing neighborhoods from the inside out, instead of the historical way of trying from the outside in. So we created Urban Upband to break cycles of poverty in public housing by giving residents of public housing the tools and resources for economic mobility and self sufficiency. Urban Upbound was not designed to give people a hand out, but rather a hand up.
So how did we do it? We went about organizing all the social networks that exist in and around public housing; resident leaders, clergy, businesses, navigators in the neighborhood, and other nonprofits in the space agreeing to change public housing neighborhoods from the inside out. We did lobby meetings in all 96 buildings in Queensbridge, asking people what do they think they need to change public housing and asking them to come together and do it. The plan worked. We built this organization based on the Jobs Plus model developed by MDRC, a think tank resource development corporation whose mission is to develop poverty breaking initiatives (www.mdrc.org).
Ten years later there are eight Jobs Plus sites in New York City serving residents exclusively in public housing neighborhoods. Of course, Urban Upbound was the first Jobs Plus site in New York City.
NB: How does Urban Upbound provide jobs for the community through the Workforce Development Project?
MT: There’s nothing really novel about workforce development as a stand alone, but what is novel is when you develop a comprehensive, integrated mix of services that give residents of public housing the resources they need to succeed. We developed our workforce plan based on Jobs Plus, a full saturation place-based employment initiative based on employment services, making work pay, and neighbor to neighbor networking.
Pragmatically we offer a full suite of preemployment services as well as a city-sponsored Workforce1 Center co-located with a Financial Empowerment Center. We believe that employment services combined with financial counseling makes a more competitive job seeker. Not to mention that we own our own credit union, another way to connect job seekers to mainstream financial services.
NB: The public housing sector in Astoria and Long Island City is a central part of your ministry. Please explain how you forged such an alliance with your church?
MT: Our church has always been embedded in public housing due to our close proximity to Queensbridge.
NB: You are the author of Unbroken Promises. What was it like writing this book?
MT: I wrote this book during a time in my life when I realized that if you want to see a sure-fire magic trick, ask people to keep their promises. However, I found that God always keeps his promises to us. That inspired me to write about my experiences with God and His undying commitment to keep every promise He makes to us.
NB: You serve as a commissioner on the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). Is that a difficult position to fill?
MT: As a commissioner of the CCRB and chair of outreach it can sometimes be difficult at times, especially when you live in an urban track where you see unmerited stop, question, and frisk being done to young men of color every day. However, my unique experience working closely with the NYPD for 27 years as a Police Clergy liaison, gave me a view of New York City policing that is quite useful to understanding the NYPD culture. This, coupled with my street knowledge, allows me to read cases with an even hand and make the fairest judgment possible. Yes it’s a lot of work, but as you know public housing developments experienced more stop, question, and frisk than any other neighborhoods in the city.