Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 38

Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 38

Featured Organization: New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)

New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) is a community-based, non-profit organization that works to ensure that new immigrants can build social, political, and economic power in their communities and beyond. The organization was founded in 1999, when local activists came together in response to racist, anti-immigrant billboards posted by Project USA, in the borough of Queens. Since 2006, NICE has made a permanent home in Jackson Heights, Queens and continues to deepen its connection with low-wage, recently arrived immigrants in the Western Queens region. NICE now has a core of committed members, a growing base of support at the community level, and fully incorporated new structures for member and community leadership. NYFA IAP Program Officer Karen Demavivas and Intern Aya Sato spoke to NICE’s Executive Director Valeria Treves about the organization and some important, arts-related projects they have been working on.

NICE works to ensure that new immigrants can build social, economic, and political power in their own communities and beyond. Why is there a need for these advocacy efforts and what are some of the key programs you have in place to accomplish your goals?

NICE works to empower newly arrived low wage immigrant Latino workers in Western Queens, because when marginalized communities are empowered and gain social, economic and political power, we all win; it means that we are a step closer to a more just and inclusive society.

NICE divides its work into four main areas:

  1. Worker’s Rights: We fight to end and ameliorate the tough, often exploitative working conditions faced by our members and community base, including rampant non-payment of wage, unsafe and hazardous conditions, and verbal and physical abuse.
  2. Financial and Consumer Justice: We work to ensure that new immigrants can assert their rights as consumers and access financial institutions. We also seek to end fraudulent and predatory services targeting the immigrant community.
  3. Dignity, not Enforcement: Our work here stems from our vision of a world where all people – regardless of status- can live and work with dignity and justice; we have stood firmly against federal enforcement programs such as Secure Communities and E-Verify, raids, and the mistreatment or abuse of immigrant communities on the part of local authorities.
  4. Civic Engagement and Access: Our goal here is immigrant access to services, and city and state agencies, as well as building power for our base through non-partisan GOTV (“Get out the vote”) and civic engagement activities. Candidate education is also key, as candidates should represent all the residents of their districts.

Over the years NICE has transitioned into a membership-based organization with committees that help make organizational decisions. Who are your members and how does membership in NICE help them to mobilize for civic engagement?

NICE has carved out a distinct niche in the Western Queens region and is well known as an member-led organization comprised of newly arrived, low-wage, undocumented Latino immigrant workers who are amongst the most vulnerable and underserved in the community. They are primarily day laborers and other low-wage workers in the unregulated sectors of the construction, restaurant, domestic, nail salon, and other service industries.

NICE’s 2008 transition to membership has allowed us to do our work more successfully and in ways that prioritize the voice and experience of affected immigrant workers. In our Organizing Committees, such as the NICE Worker’s Committee, workers meet every other week to organize around issues of unpaid wages and workplace exploitation. They share their experiences and successful strategies to stand up to abusive employers and and become empowered by learning their rights. NICE’s Working Groups meet on a monthly basis and as needed, to strategize and develop particular campaigns of the organization. For example the Immigrant Consumer Justice Working Group has been busy recently developing a member-led participatory research report on Immigration Services and Employment Agencies, and developing outreach and education materials such as our Graphic Novel, some PSAs, and a skit on Immigration Scams. Finally, our transition to membership also allowed for members to guide the direction of the organization. Every two years, the NICE membership chooses four to six of our most active members to form the NICE Member Steering Committee (MSC). This group regularly meets with senior staff and board members to set organizational priorities, discuss membership structure, and make important organizational decisions (including hiring!).

Congratulations on the launch of NICE’s first Novela gráfica “José Busca Legalizarse” (“Jose Seeks Legal Status”). It tells the story of an immigrant worker who becomes the victim of an immigration service scam. Can you explain the relevance of Jose’s story in the new immigrant community and NICE’s choice to tell it in the form of a graphic novel?

Thanks! “José Busca Legalizarse” is written based on the experiences of NICE members and community. The Novela is part of NICE’s Immigrant Consumer Justice Campaign which seeks to end predatory, substandard and fraudulent practices employed by an increasing number of service providers targeting the immigrant community. Immigrant consumers have encountered these practices when accessing legal and non-legal immigration services (immigration service providers, attorneys, notaries, employment agencies, tax preparers, multi-service agencies, remittance agencies, check cashers, shipping agencies, real estate agencies, and more). The story of José or variations on this story are, unfortunately, far too common in immigrant communities, and the consequences can lead not only to monetary loss and dissipated hopes, but actual physical removal from the country.

While problems like José’s are wide spread, often a cold list of do’s and don’ts isn’t enough to guide the consumer. The process of trying to adjust one’s immigration status, the separation from one’s family, and the experience of being an immigrant in a new country can be not only extremely difficult logistically, but also very emotional. This is why we chose the Novela gráfica as a tool for education and outreach. Common throughout Latin America and amongst Latino Communities in the United States, Novelas are popular, engaging, comic-style illustrated booklets. With strong visuals, simple language and a compelling storyline, the Novela meets readers where they are at in terms of their emotional journey. The reception to our Novela has been overwhelming; people are really able to connect to the content and learn their rights. We have already distributed over 2,000 copies through over 40 different sources!

NICE recently collaborated with the Foundry Theater to create a play based on the personal histories of its participants, who are all NICE members. What are the goals of the Theater Project and how does it fit with NICE’s other initiatives?

Leadership development is imperative in NICE’s work and the theater project fits nicely within this priority for us. The theater work gave our members skills in performance and public speaking, the ability to develop and tell their personal stories and to build their leadership. Now they are better prepared to spearhead our campaign work; to speak to the press at rallies and demonstrations; to meet with legislators and policy makers, and conduct outreach and base building amongst other workers.

The finished product has allowed us to build base, connect with allies and develop supporters by providing them with a very close and personal look at the situations that our members face and how we organize to fight for our rights! I encourage everyone to check out the play on our youtube page: We have since also developed a theatrical performance based on our Novela Grafica, which is on our Youtube page as well!

Looking to the Theater Project and the Novela Grafica as examples, what role do the arts play in the mission of NICE?

The arts allow us to reach different constituencies in ways that capture their interest, explain complicated topics in simple ways, and allow them to connect to needs and aspirations of newly arrived, low-wage immigrant workers.

Importantly, the arts often allow us entry into new spaces or access to new constituencies who otherwise may be resistant, uninterested or unaware of our message or the realities faced by our membership. In the case of the Novela Grafica, for example, there has been interest from a wide array of diverse news sources; this allows us access to new audiences so they can learn not only about the Graphic Novel but about the broader issues of the campaign as well.

What are some ways in which people who are looking to help can get involved, and what are the common ways that new immigrants first learn about NICE?

Newly arrived immigrant workers first learn about NICE thanks to effective and ongoing outreach at the day laborer stops in our community, and at businesses along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. This outreach is done by staff Organizers and through word-of-mouth outreach by member leaders and program participants. Aside from low-wage workers who are directly affected by the issues, others can get involved as allies and supporters. The first thing to do is to add yourself to our email list through our website, that way you always know what is happening at NICE. You can also like us on Facebook or Twitter. Most importantly, I would urge the readers of the NYFA Immigrant Artist Project Newsletter to follow and support our Novela Grafica campaign on IndyGogo (do a search for New Immigrant Community Empowerment). Thanks!

Images: Top, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) members at a rally to demand backwages from an employer. May 2012. Courtesy of NICE.
Amy Aronoff
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